Bartholomew Fair


As both an example and as a crucial agent in the historical development of English popular culture , I now present the history of the infamous Bartholomew Fair which was held annually in London for 700 hundred years from the 11th century until 1855.
The mediaeval fairs developed out of the pagan/Christian Holy Day celebrations as a hybrid combination of sacred festival, carnival and trade: the fair is the carnival of the marketplace. From around the 11th century onwards fairs such as Nottingham, Colchester, Norwich, Stourbridge and Kings Lynne became major trading centres for both local and travelling merchants from across continental Europe. .1
On a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Rahere, the jester to Henry I was visited by St Bartholomew in a dream. He returned to London where he became a monk and founded a priory and the hospital of St Bartholomew. In 1120 Rahere secured a grant from Henry II to establish an annual fair for the trading of cloth on a site at Smithfields where there was a horse market and a gallows. The fair began on August 23rd, St Bartholomew's Eve, and would run for the next three days. Bartholomew rapidly became a vast market and carnival, a temporary town of booths and boards extending into the streets beyond Smithfield. Here cloth, livestock, leather and other commodities were traded, players, jugglers, conjurers, ballad singers, acrobats, puppet shows and travelling entertainers hawked for custom, bears danced, freak animals were exhibited and performed tricks, booths sold roast pig and ale, and amongst the crowd moved every class of humanity from the nobility to the lowest peasants and the punks, pimps, bawds, thieves, quacks and mountebanks.
Saint Bartholomew was a disciple of Christ who according to Christian myth was flayed alive and then decapitated, he became the patron saint of the guilds of tailors, tanners, leather-workers and butchers. Over the three days of the fair the Mystery plays would dramatise the fall and redemption of man. And there was also the spectacular and instructive drama of the public executions and martyr fires which were staged during the fair at the priory gates until 1611. In 1311 the Scottish rebel William Wallace was hanged at the fair, before he was dead he was cut down disembowelled and then burnt at the stake. 2 Bartholomew Fair was held on the ashes of martyrs, it lies at the intersection of carnival, pagan sacrifice, Christian martyrdom and international trade.

By the late 16th century the undermining of the power of the guilds by nascent capitalism, the religious controversy of the Reformation and successive waves of legislation against doctrinal drama had effectively destroyed the Mystery cycles. The new theatre of the renaissance was secular.3