Rise and fall of medieval fairs

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For a millennium after the end of the Romans’ Western Empire, the Roman Catholic Church unified much of Europe as ‘Christendom’ with its own busy calendar of festivals and saints’ days. These were worshipped in their network of local parishes, parishioners obliged to attend or be socially vilified.

On special days for a parish, like the anniversary of the church’s inauguration and/or their dedicated saint’s feast day, these would be taken as a holiday. A fete would be organised with tradesmen displaying their wares in the churchyard. In England these were called vigilia or wakes.

Foire du Lendit
(Fair at St Denis, Paris)

One of the earliest annual fairs in Europe began in the seventh-century at Saint-Denis. By the eleventh-century this was joined by a summer royal fair, the Lendit fair. Today Saint-Denis is a suburb of Paris, famous for its royal necropolis at the Gothic Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis. It is the resting place of forty-two French kings, thirty-two queens and sixty-three princes and princesses. It is also close to the location of today’s national sports stadium, the Stade de France.

St Germain Fair, late 17th century

Of course, the Catholic Church like all religions venerates relics of sacred places and holy people important to its faith. The New Testament began this practice by referring to the healing power of objects touched by Christ and his apostles. Monasteries and cathedrals keenly collected any such relic, their value reflected in the creation of ornate reliquaries, some fashioned within life-size statues. The notion grew that pilgrimages to sites with relics might intercede and forgive sins or aid salvation. The priests would offer blessings and, where successful in attracting large numbers of pilgrims, the sites inevitably grew into commercial centres, exhibiting and selling mementoes and other products. These early fairs mixed commercial enterprise with entertainment. Attendees danced and sang, listened to troubadours, watched celebratory and religious processions.

Donnybrook Fair by Erskine Nicol, 1859
(Source: tate.org.uk)

In 1204, King John of England authorised an agricultural fair in Ireland, to the south of Dublin, at Domhnach Broc, The Church of Saint Broc. It became known as the Donnybrook Fair and ran until 1866. In the late 1700s, it became a carnival with a reputation for drinking, fighting and the subsequent arrangement of hasty marriages. As a result the word donnybrook came to mean an argument or fracas.

Leipzig Fair

Fairs were held in Germany’s medieval cities, Leipzig began in 1229, Frankfurt am Main in 1240 (though there are mentions of a fair here in 1074 and in 1150 Elieser ben Nathan of Mainz talks of Jews coming to visit the Frankfurt ‘Fair of non-Jews’) and Cologne from 1360. All three still hold annually international trade fairs.

The first Frankfurt trade fair, for which there is written documentation, is dated to 11 July 1240. This was an autumn trade fair authorised by Emperor Frederick II, who guaranteed its success with a decree that merchants travelling to the fair were under his protection. Frederick, a member of the Norman diaspora, was also memorable as a keen huntsman who carefully studied the birds in his mews. Eventually he wrote and had illustrated a major work, The Art of Hunting with Birds. The original illustrated version is in the Vatican, and in 1300 it was published in French in six volumes.

The Frankfurt fair on the Römerberg
Source: Historisches Museum Frankfurt am Main

Some ninety years later, on 25 April 1330, a Frankfurt spring fair was authorised by Emperor Louis IV (aka The Bavarian). From then on, trade fairs were held in Frankfurt twice a year, in spring and autumn, forming the basic structure for Messe Frankfurt’s modern consumer goods fairs.

After the Norman Conquest the practice of fairs reached England.

The very first was approved to be held at St Gile’s Hill in Winchester. This was granted in the late 11th century by William I to his relative, Wakelin the Bishop of Winchester (1070-1098).

By the twelfth-century England’s towns were expected to acquire a charter from the Crown, and/or Parliament, to hold an annual fair. They lasted for two or three days and consisted of a market, an exhibition and a festival. They gathered a large number of people from across a wide area and so represented a real commercial opportunity. Local nobles and churchmen could draw a considerable profit from hosting these events, and in turn the crown benefited from the payments given for the original charter. Between 1199 and 1483 some 2,800 grants of franchise markets and fairs were issued, half of these granted by kings John and Henry III, some 2,200 of these were issued to markets and fairs by English kings before 1270.

The practice grew, for example in 1284 Robert, Bishop of Bath and Wells was granted the right by Edward I to hold a 10-day fair each year at his manor in Bath.

Between the 12th and 15th centuries, the number of markets and fairs across England burgeoned. Although the terms ‘fair’ and ‘market’ were often used synonymously, key differences distinguished them. Markets were held daily in the more populous towns and cities or weekly in rural districts, and sold fresh produce and necessities, while fairs operated on a periodic cycle, and were almost always associated with a religious festival.

The less frequent fairs operated on a periodic cycle and were usually associated with religious festivals. Fairs sold more exotic goods (like spices and waxes) and non-perishables ceramics, cloths, farm tools, homewares, furniture and rugs. They were usually supported by entertainments like tournaments, dance and music – they became a focus of social life.

Frost fair on the River Thames, 1814
by Burkitt & Hudson
(Source: museumoflondon.org.uk)

London held impromptu Frost Fairs betweeen 1608 and 1814, when the river Thames froze over. A range of activities were hastily arranged – ox roasts, fishing, dancing, skittles, football, ice skating, sledging, puppet shows, coach rides, horse racing, bull baiting, fox hunting, elephant rides. Tradesmen set up food stalls and refreshments, bars were set up, cobblers and shoemakers plied their trade. There were tobacco stands, brothels and printers sold certificates to confirm the individual’s presence at the fair. The last Frost Fair began on 27 December 1813, but the ice began to crack on 5 Feb 1814 and resulted in several drownings, but the attractions pressed on for another two days.

In England five fairs became rather prominent, creating an annual cycle of international trade fairs. These were Stamford Lincolnshire at Lent, St Ives Huntingdonshire at Easter, Boston Lincolnshire in July, Winchester Hampshire in September and Northampton in November.

Between these some smaller fairs operated at Bury St Edmunds, Kings Lynn, Oxford, Stourbridge and Westminster. St Ives’ Great Fair attracted buyers from Brabant and Flanders in today’s Netherlands, from France, parts of modern Germany and Norway.

The Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516 painstakingly assembled a list by county and by place, indicating when each was granted a charter to run a fair or market.

Stourbridge Fair funded the building
of this Leper Chapel in Cambridge

Stourbridge grew to be the biggest fair in Europe, towards the end of the medieval period.

Piepowder Court at St Bartholomews
Source: The Public Catalogue Foundation

St Bartholomews’ Fair in London became very popular, but was descibed contemporaneously as a ‘Saturnalia of Nodescript Noise and Nonconformity’, where the ‘Lord Mayor changes his sword of state into a sixpenny trumpet, and becomes the lord of misrule and the patron of pickpockets.’

The business and the ‘nonconformity’ became so significant that ‘courts of piepowders’ were specially created to deal with attendees who were often not local residents, these courts were run by the town’s mayor and bailiffs. They settled disputes on contracts, weights and measures, thefts and violence at the fair. Decisions had to be made ‘before the third tide’, thus within a day-and-a-half. Those unable to meet the judgement fine had property seized and sold to pay the sum. One suggested origin of the unusual name is pieds poudrés or dusty feet, because the courts members were not sat in a courtroom, instead they moved around the fair to dispense their speedy justice.

Bristol had its St James’s Fair, an annual fair held over fifteen days from 1238, originally held on 25th July, the feast day of St James. In 1738 it was changed to the first fortnight in September.

On 9 January 1540 the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII meant that St James Priory was surrendered to the crown. The priory buildings were demolished, keeping only the nave of the church. In 1543 the land and the right to hold a fair were sold to a London merchant-tailor. In 1604 there was concern that the national attraction of St James’ Fair would increase the spread of the plague, so a royal proclamation was issued prohibiting Londoners from attending.

Latimer’s (18th century) Annals of Bristol gives some idea of the huge variety of goods on sale, Blankets and woollens from Yorkshire, silks from Macclesfield, linens from Belfast and Lancashire, carpets from Kidderminster, cutlery from Sheffield, hardware from Walsall and Wolverhampton, china and earthenware from Staffordshire and other counties, cotton stockings from Tewkesbury, lace from Buckinghamshire and Devon, trinkets from Birmingham and London, ribbons from Coventry, buck and hog skins for breeches, hats and caps, millinery, haberdashery, female ornaments, sweetmeats and multitudinous toys from various quarters arrived in heavily ­laden wagons and were joined by equally large contributions from the chief industries of the district. To these again were added nearly all the travelling exhibitions and entertainments then in the country – menageries, circuses, theatres, puppet shows, waxworks, flying coaches, rope-dancers, acrobats, conjurors, pig-faced ladies, living skeletons, and mummers of all sorts.

Particularly popular were the side-show entertainments, as for example the Corsican Fairy, the Learned Pig, the Indian Spotted Youth and the Irish Giant, aka The Kinsale Giant. The giant was Patrick Cotter (later O’Connor) who was said to be over 8 feet tall (2.5 metres), and weighed 25 stone (159 kg ).

The Giant’s skeleton being measured

However, by the end of the twelfth-century some of the commercial element of these fairs was changing. In Henry III’s reign (1216-1272) his household accounts indicate that some 75% of his requirements were obtained from the great fairs, but by Edward II (1307-1327), the king was buying much of his requirements through major merchants.

A Staple Town – Lavenham, Suffolk

For instance, the trading in wool and cloth became more trans-European and became controlled exclusively by staple towns and staple ports, that held monopolies for these products; though this was often extended to include corn, grain and wines.

Rodin’s Burghers of Calais,
from less profitable times

England’s trading with continental Europe was initially solely through Bruges and later Calais. This trade was not just reserved to certain towns but also to specified merchants. This trade therefore moved away from fairs and became more of a structured, organised business.

Merchant Guilds

Merchant guilds, often little more than a cartel, became more powerful and formed confederations, as for example the Hanseatic League which in the late 1100s represented just a few northern Germanic towns, but grew to dominate much of the Baltic sea trade between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634)

Sir Edward Coke held numerous high public offices in the 16th/17thc, serving under Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. He is most famous as the attorney general that prosecuted the earls of Essex and Southampton, Sir Walter Raleigh and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators.  He progressively became a champion for the supremacy of Common Law over the monarchy. He produced 11 volumes of his ‘Reports’ setting out the principles of English law.

Within these he sought to define a hierarchy of events as marts, fairs and markets. All three he saw as periodic gatherings of buyers and sellers in an appointed place, subject to special regulation by law or custom, but he saw the ‘market’ as the simplest of these events, with the ‘fair’ as a ‘greater species of market recurring at more distant intervals’, and believed that the ‘mart’ was the largest species of fair.

Hogarth‘s illustration of
Southwark Fair 1733-4

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