The fool in the play of Bartholomew Fair. Perhaps a contraction of the word COXCOMB.
A Pretty Conceit, and worth the finding! I ha’ such luck to spin out these fine things still, and like a Silk-worm, out of my self. Here’s Master Bartholomew Cokes, of Harrow o’ th’ Hill, i’ th’ County of Middlesex, Esquire, takes forth his Licence to marry Mistress Grace Well-born, of the said Place and County: And when do’s he take it forth? to day! the Four and Twentieth of August! Bartholmew-day! Bartholmew upon Bartholmew! there’s the Device! who would have mark’d such a Leap-Frog Chance now? ~Bartholomew Fair, Ben Jonson, Act 1, Scene 1.
The fool part I get. But what is a “Bartholomew Fair?”
It was one of the first Charter fairs – those street celebrations established by Royal Decree. King Henry I granted the land of West Smithfield in London to his former jester and courtier Rahère who, after falling violently ill, had repudiated his sins and made a pilgrimage to Rome, pledging to found a hospital and church for poor men should his health improve. Upon his return to England as a healthy and newly-ordained priest, Rahère established the Priory of the Hospital of St. Bartholomew in 1123, and its resultant fair in 1133.
The original Charter stipulated a three-day event, but by the 17th century it had stretched to a full two weeks; the end of that century saw the time span again altered, shortened to four days. The Fair commenced on August 24th until 1753, when the calendar was changed and the start date moved to September 3.
The fair was was both a trading market and entertainment festival. Cloth, food, livestock, and sundry craft items were available for barter or outright purchase. The accompanying displays ranged from the diverting (prize fights, musicians, acrobats, and puppets) to the exploitative (sideshows, freaks, and wild animals).
Going to Bartholomew Fair sounds as common an occurrence as for those of us in the United States who attend their annual State Fair, or perhaps visit Coney Island in New York. When the appointed time comes, going to the fair is simply what one does – to see and be seen, to witness the extraordinary, to be entertained. Samuel Pepys documented his observations in a diary entry on Saturday the 31st of August, 1667:
… and I to Bartholomew fayre, to walk up and down; and there, among other things, find my Lady Castlemayne at a puppet-play, “Patient Grizill,” and the street full of people expecting her coming out. I confess I did wonder at her courage to come abroad, thinking the people would abuse her; but they, silly people! do not know her work she makes, and therefore suffered her with great respect to take coach, and she away, without any trouble at all, which I wondered at, I confess. I only walked up and down, and, among others, saw Tom Pepys, the turner, who hath a shop, and I think lives in the fair when the fair is not. I only asked how he did as he stood in the street, and so up and down sauntering till late and then home, and there discoursed with my wife of our bad entertainment to-day, and so to bed.
By the middle 19th century, the Bartholomew Fair had become less business expo and more carnival. In 1855 the City of London and Lord Mayor had had enough, and the Bartholomew Fair ended forever, done in by the unruly crowds and rampant crime. It seems the Fair had something for everyone, of every age, and of every walk of life … both legal and illegal.
We could wish, seriously, to caution all young people against a habit of attending fairs. They constitute an assemblage of idle people, where are indiscriminately mixed thieves and pick-pockets, who go from fair to fair; loose women, strolling players, and vagabonds of every description, waiting to plunder the honest part of the people. St. Bartholomew’s fair, from its long continuance, is a school of vice which has initiated more youth into the habits of villainy than even Newgate itself. ~The Newgate Calendar, Comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters Who Have Been Convicted of Outrages on the Laws of England Since the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century With Occasional Annecdotes and Observations, Speeches, Confessions, and Last Exclamations of Sufferers, Volume II, by Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, attorneys at law, 1825.
- Slang term definition taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
- Information on the jack-of-all-trades Rahère taken from Wikipedia.
- Many have written about the Bartholomew Fair. I culled my facts from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ‘Tis New to Thee, Susana Ellis, Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson, and the British Library.