Formerly quite small villages had their fairs. If you look at an old almanac you will see a list of fair-days with the names of the villages which, when the appointed days come round, cannot now boast of the presence of a single stall or merry-go-round. The day of the fair was nearly always on or near the festival of the patron saint to whom the church of that village is dedicated. There is, of course, a reason for this. The word “fair” is derived from the Latin word feria, which means a festival, the parish feast day. On the festival of the patron saint of a village church crowds of neighbours from adjoining villages would flock to the place, the inhabitants of which used to keep open house, and entertain all their relations and friends who came from a distance. They used to make booths and tents with boughs of trees near the church, and celebrated the festival with much thanksgiving and prayer. By degrees they began to forget their prayers and remembered only the feasting; country people flocked from far and near; the pedlars and hawkers came to find a market for their wares. Their stalls began to multiply, and thus the germ of a fair was formed.
[Illustration: Stalls at Banbury Fair]
In such primitive fairs the traders paid no toll or rent for their stalls, but by degrees the right of granting permission to hold a fair was vested in the King, who for various considerations bestowed this favour on nobles, merchant guilds, bishops, or monasteries. Great profits arose from these gatherings. The traders had to pay toll on all the goods which they brought to the fair, in addition to the payment of stallage or rent for the ground on which they displayed their merchandise, and also a charge on all the goods they sold. Moreover, the trades-folk of the town were obliged to close their shops during the days of the fair, and to bring their goods to the fair, so that the toll-owner might gain good profit withal.
We can imagine, or try to imagine, the roads and streets leading to the market-place thronged with traders and chapmen, the sellers of ribbons and cakes, minstrels and morris-dancers, smock-frocked peasants and sombre-clad monks and friars. Then a horn was sounded, and the lord of the manor, or the bishop’s bailiff, or the mayor of the town proclaimed the fair; and then the cries of the traders, the music of the minstrels, the jingling of the bells of the morris-dancers, filled the air and added animation to the spectacle.
There is a curious old gateway, opposite the fair-ground at Smithfield, which has just recently narrowly escaped destruction, and very nearly became part of the vanished glories of England. Happily the donations of the public poured in so well that the building was saved. This Smithfield gateway dates back to the middle of the thirteenth century, the entrance to the Priory of St. Bartholomew, founded by Rahere, the court jester of Henry I, a century earlier.