Saturday 19 May 2012

Bartholomew Fair

Thou whoreson little tidy Bartholomew boar-pig..... [2 Henry IV - Doll Tearsheet to Falstaff]

William Hogarth depiction of Southward Fair (1734)

Bartholomew Fair was a medieval fair held each year in the grounds of the priory of St Bartholomew the Great in the London parish of West Smithfield. A charter for the fair was first granted in 1133 and the last proclamation was in 1855, though by this time the fair was a shadow of its glory days of the past.

The fair had three branches to it. Firstly, it was a Cloth Fair, an important meeting place for the buying and selling of cloth from throughout the country. Secondly, it was a Horse Fair, bringing together horse-dealers and horse-coursers. And lastly, it was a pleasure fair, offering traders and Londoners a tasty selection of food and drink, of sex, of ballads and freak shows, of sex, of performing actors and puppet shows, of sex, of tightrope walkers, and of sex. A pamphlet of 1641 aptly described the attraction for all comers:

Hither resort people of all sorts, high and low, rich and poor, from cities, towns, and countries; of all sects, papists, atheists, Anabaptists and Brownists: and of all conditions, good and bad, virtuous and vicious, knaves and fools, cuckolds and cuckoldmakers, bawds and whores, pimps and panders, roughs and rascals.

The fair had its own justice system known as The Court of Pie-Powders, its name deriving from the French pieds poudreux, the dusty feet of travellers. It had total jurisdiction during the official three days period of the fair, and was so independent that its rulings were not even subject to the king's.

In 1614 the Smithfield area was given a facelift which included paving for the site of the fair at a cost of £1,600 to the city authorities, and on 31 October of the same year, Ben Jonson's theatrical depiction of the fair, and satire on the puritans who would close it down, had its first performance by the Lady Elizabeth's Men in their new theatre, The Hope.  The play, entitled simply Bartholomew Fair, appears to have been immediately popular with London playgoers, and remained popular through the Restoration.

The fair survived for another 240 years, until Victorian morals brought about its final demise, and with it a colourful part of English life.

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