Saturday, 16 May 2015

Sherry and Saint Bartholomew Fair

What with the Feria season under way in Spain, and lots of Sherry being consumed, here’s a look at one in London.  Like the Feria in Jerez (est. 1264), that of London had its origins in the middle-ages, beginning in 1133 as trade with Europe began to take off. The fair was sited in the shadow of the church hospital of Saint Bartholomew in Smithfield, established in 1123, which still operates as a hospital today. King Henry I granted the right to hold a three day fair to the guilds of shirtmakers, tanners and butchers to begin on the eve of Saint Bartholomew’s day, 24th August.

A beautiful 1808 watercolour of St. Bartholomew's Fair by Sir Thomas Rowlandson
The fair reached its apogee in the XVII century, being considered the most important, and attracted artists and writers such as Rowlandson, Haydon, Johnson and Heemskeerk among others. According to Peter Ackroyd, “London’s biographer”, social differences were forgotten at the fair, apprentices and their masters could enjoy the spectacle together and bet on the same tables. One custom was for the Lord Mayor, who inaugurated the fair, to visit Newgate prison where he was entertained by the mayor with a glass of Sack, followed, without doubt by a few more at the fair.

(foto: standrewsrarebooks)
The dramatist and poet laureate Ben Johnson who wrote the comedy Bartholomew Fayre in 1614 was quoted as saying “My God! Free me! Help me! Sustain me! The fair is here!” One of the interesting things to emerge from this wonderful period study is the copious quantities consumed of Sack, as Sherry was known then, though the name was changing as Ben Johnson quotes a conversation thus:

Cokes: Sack you said, but e’en now it should be Sherry?
Puppet Jonas: Why so it is; Sherry, Sherry, Sherry!
Cokes: Sherry, Sherry, Sherry, by my troth it makes me merry!

As the years went by, the middle classes began to desert the fair saying it was full of criminals and the last one took place in 1855.

With many thanks to Jose Luis Jimenez for such great research.

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