QAB Guest Writer: A Parliament of Monsters, by Grace Elliot
My post today is about fairs and inspired by research for my latest release, The Ringmaster’s Daughter which is set in a Georgian pleasure garden. From the 16th to the 18th century, pleasure gardens were a popular visitor attraction, a place to dance and be entertained by singers, acrobats, magicians and various curiosities such as giants or dwarves. These gardens had the advantage of being permanent – as opposed to travelling fairs that popped up at a location just once a year. But fairs predate pleasure gardens by several centuries and their history goes back centuries to medieval times.
Trade was the catalyst for the very first fairs. The earliest were established by Royal Charter (ie on the authority of the King) as a temporary street market for the trading of goods. In medieval times with was wool and cotton, but as the centuries passed and sea-trade grew, merchants also bought and sold spices, preserved fish, precious fabrics and even wax to be sold. By tradition, the day the fair arrived in town was marked as a holiday and therefore a welcome relief from the drudgery of work.
“The best wool at the best prices – for one day and one day only – at the May Fair.”
Thousands of people attended, flocking in from the surrounding area, and soon fairs took on a carnival atmosphere and eventually business was side-lined. Ever with an eye for an opportunity entertainers were drawn to the crowds: acrobats, caged tigers, contortionists, dwarfs, fire-eaters and performing monkeys to name just a few. Added to that were hawkers selling everything from miraculous medicines to pies, ribbons to tobacco. It must have sounded like bedlam with fiddlers playing, birds squawking, dogs barking and the general bellow of stall holders vying for attention.
One of the oldest fairs, the Bartholomew Fair, started around1133. King Henry I granted a former court entertainer, Rahere, a licence to found a priory which eventually became St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Prior Rahere patronised a fair that started on the eve of St Bartholomew’s day. He attended and did some juggling – to raise funds for his foundation. The event grew into the country’s largest cloth fair and from 1604 it was opened every year by the Lord Mayor of London.
The Bartholomew Fair was described by William Wordsworth as “a Parliament of Monsters.” Whilst visiting the fair he saw: “Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs, the Horse of knowledge, The Learned pig, the Stone-eater, the man who swallows fire, Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl, The Bust that speaks and moves it goggling eyes [and] The Wax-work.”
But it was the very rowdiness of these fairs that after many centuries lead to them being closed down. With the growth of a worthy middle class with easily offended sensibilities, the very public displays of debauchery and disorder were frowned upon. Pickpockets flourished, muggings and violence were rife and city authorities were called upon to restore order and by mid-Victorian times many fairs had been regulated out of existence.
However, I’m pleased to say that not all historic fairs have disbanded. I grew up in Pinner, Middlesex, UK, and have fond memories of visiting Pinner Fair as a child (NB I’m not that old – the fair still takes place in the modern day). In 1336, King Edward III granted permission for a fair to be held on the feast day of the village’s patron saint, St John the Baptist. It was a chance for local people to buy things not obtainable locally, as well as relax and enjoy themselves. At the top of a hill the local parish church had just been rebuilt (in 1321) and so the natural site was on the hill below the church. To this day the ancient charter still exists, allowing a fair to be held each year on the first Wednesday after Whit Sunday and the three main roads closed to traffic (Marsh Road, Bridge Street and the High Street) to accommodate the attractions.
Grace Elliot, who lives near London, England is multi-talented. She is a licensed veterinarian and a highly accomplished historical fiction writer. As she highlights in her “Good Reads” profile, Grace believes that intelligent people need to read romance as an antidote to the modern world. Grace shares her home with five cats, two teenage sons, her husband and a bearded dragon.
The Ringmaster’s Daughter recently released in the United Kingdom. To purchase your copy, click on the book link in the left hand column.