Monday, June 23, 2008

Bartholomew Fair

Alexander Pope’s 1728 Dunciad begins:

Books and the man I sing, the first who brings
The Smithfield muses to the ears of kings.

In his notes to these lines in the Dunciad Variorum, 1729, the learned Scriblerus tells us that

“Smithfield is the place where Bartholomew Fair was kept, whose Shews, Machines, and Dramatical Entertainments, formerly agreeable only to the taste of the Rabble, were, by the Hero of this Poem and others of equal Genius, brought to the Theatres of Covent-Garden, Lincolns-Inn-Fields, and the Hay-Market, to be the reigning Pleasures of the Court and Town.”

There’s quite a bit of information about Bartholomew Fair available on the internet – I don’t particularly like to do research for blog entries anywhere else. A 1614 play by Ben Jonson called Bartholomew Fair takes place at the fair and gives us a glimpse of what the fair was like about a century before Pope’s reference to it. By Jonson’s time, the fair was already centuries old. It started (according to Wikipedia) in 1133 and continued until it was suppressed in 1855, at which time the Smithfield Market was built on the site of the fair. The fair took place annually for three or more days beginning on August 24th, the Feast of St. Bartholomew, in an area adjacent to the Priory of St. Bartholomew and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. The hospital, the priory, and the fair are all said to have been founded by Rahere, a courtier of Henry I who is reported to have had a religious conversion after the disastrous shipwreck of the White Ship in November. 1120. (The loss of the White Ship and it’s aftermath provide the historical background for Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth – a book, by the way, that I do not find compelling enough to finish.)

At the dissolution of the monasteries, much of the priory was pulled down and the hospital lost its funding. Henry VIII therefore provided the hospital with its own foundation – and it continues to this day. We know that the hospital was referred to as “Bart’s” in the nineteenth century because the noted Dr. Watson tells us that he was connected with Bart’s before his service in Afghanistan and that after he was invalided back to England, Stamford, a younger associate from his hospital days, took him back to Bart’s to meet a man who was looking for someone to share lodgings. That man was Sherlock Holmes.

Along with the hospital, two churches called St. Bartholomew’s remain from the days of the priory. St. Bartholomew the Less is located within the hospital grounds and is called “the less” to distinguish it from its larger neighbor, the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great (often called Great St. Bart's) which contains the tomb of the founder, Rahere.

Recently an event involving two men less well known than Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but this time real persons, put Great St. Bart’s in the news. That event was the blessing of a civil union of two Anglican priests (both male) that closely resembled a wedding. The news broke two weeks after the ceremony itself – here’s a link to the first mention at Thinking Anglicans and another to The Lead at Episcopal Café. Both of those sites have posted followup stories. There has also been quite a bit of comment elsewhere in the blogosphere and in the press.

In the Dunciad, Pope lamented what he saw as a decline of taste, as popular entertainment, the taste of “the rabble,” spread from Smithfield to London's West End and to Westminster. He called it “the Progress of Dulness.” These days something else is emanating from Smithfield. I am hopeful that the emblematic ceremony at Great St. Bart’s on the Feast of the Visitation will prove to be another step in the right direction for the Anglican churches – and, of course, for the Church of England.

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