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Bartholomew Fair and Smithfield

Smithfield (derived from “smooth field”) was the London livestock market that had been established in the twelfth century. North of the city walls, Smithfield was outside St. Bartholomew’s monastery, where an equally long standing and popular annual cloth fair, Bartholomew Fair, took place. Fair dates were set according to the calendar of saints’ feast days. Fairs gave people release from everyday routines and, sometimes, everyday regulations of behavior. Fairs were subject to the same concerns about petty crime and the spread of disease—especially plague—as other large public places. Smithfield was also a prominent site of exemplary punishment.


Grafton. Litle treatise conteyning many proper tables and rules. London, 1576

Bluck. Bartholomew Fair. London, 1808

Jonson. Works. London, 1640

Anne Askew. First examinacyon. Wesel, 1546

Robert Crowley. The confutation of. xiii. articles, whereunto Nicolas Shaxton ... London, 1548 (Detail)

The solemn mock procession of the Pope Broadside, 1680.

Charles I. Proclamation prohibiting Bartholomew Fair. London, 1625

Pocket diaries, calendars, and almanacs proliferated with print. Richard Grafton's version contained “many proper tables,” according to the title page, as they were “newly set forth and allowed by the Queen’s Majestie’s injunctions.” If one purchased this Brief Treatise, one had at one’s fingertips information about how to calculate the beginning of law terms (Hilary, Michaelmas, etc.), the date of Easter, the distance between towns on highways, the names of parish churches, and, as displayed here, the principal fairs in England. One of these was Bartholomew Fair, which brought many people to London every summer, whether as tradesmen or customers. This three-day annual cloth fair at the feast of St. Bartholomew (August 25th) had begun by the early twelfth century, shortly after the St. Bartholomew’s Priory was established. The fair quickly attracted puppet shows, wrestling matches, bull and bear baiting, and other activities and stalls. In 1615, a year after Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair was performed, the ground at Smithfield was paved over, leading to great concerns that the fair activities would be threatened. But the fair survived until well into the nineteenth century. The last Bartholomew Fair was held in 1855.


Ben Jonson’s comedic temperament was well suited to the festive misrule of Bartholomew Fair. More than thirty named characters in his play of that name represent the whole spectrum of London’s society. Some were naïve, like the fair’s namesake, Bartholomew Cokes; others had an air of superiority; still others were hypocrites. All end up at Ursula’s booth, where pigs are roasted and mischief is hatched. Jonson refers to the Hope Theatre as “dirty and stinking every whit” as a reminder to his audiences that they too are among the fairgoers.


But all was not festive at the fairgrounds. Smithfield was also a site of exemplary punishment. Anne Askew and Nicholas Shaxton were both punished for heretical opinions near the end of King Henry VIII’s reign. Askew moved in aristocratic circles; Shaxton had been the bishop of Salisbury. Both denied the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the mass. Askew withstood harsh interrogations and even torture. She was perhaps only twenty five when she was burnt at the stake in Smithfield. Shaxton recanted his beliefs and then presided at her execution. But compare the title page of Askew’s Examination with Robert Crowley's account. In the former, Askew is depicted at peace and triumphant for having followed the dictates of her bible over those of the corrupt church. Crowley's scene, by contrast, is crowded with witnesses from all social classes, an image meant to shame the former bishop who presided at Askew’s execution for acting against his conscience. The same woodcut was reused to illustrate Askew’s martyrdom in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.


Religious controversies played out here as well. On Queen Elizabeth’s birthday in 1679, and continuing for the next several years, street theater and political campaigning met as an enactment of Whig bravado. An elaborate procession of people costumed as members of Catholic religious orders made its way through the streets of London in mockery of the pope. The effigy was dumped into a bonfire in front of a statue of the queen. One year, the bonfire was set at Smithfield, a place infused with memories of so many Protestant martyrs.


And large unregulated gatherings like Bartholomew Fair gave way to anxiety about contagion. The broadside above would have been posted in public places to spread the news of the royal proclamation: Bartholomew Fair would not be held in 1625, for the “universall safety” of Charles I’s subjects. No one was to travel to London for the fair, and furthermore, no Londoners were to travel to any fairs outside the city that year. Such prohibitions give a glimpse of the wide network of tradesmen for whom Bartholomew Fair was an important destination.

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