Happy St. Bartholomew’s Day (On Bartholomew Fair and Sundry Other Tidbits)

After our last post, you may think it impossible for us to get any more Anglophile on Travalanche today. Challenge accepted!

For August 24 is St. Bartholomew’s Day, the traditional opening day for one of London’s great annual festivals, Bartholomew Fair, which was held from 1133 to 1855. Readers of this blog and my book No Applause know of my love for traditional European fairs, feasts, and festivals and the part they played in the revival of the ancient theatrical arts in the late Middle Ages. In addition to being a major cloth bazaar, Bartholomew Fair hosted sideshows, wrestlers, musicians and minstrels, wire-walkers, jugglers, tumblers, puppet shows (Punch and Judy), freaks and wild animals. It also occurred to me recently that my local iteration of the American cousin of this phenomenon, the American county fair, with its colored lights, music, rides, tented arenas, games, and so forth was my first introduction to the world of amusement, long before I ever attended a circus or a theatre. (Hence this). I will always be partial to fairs, and yes I do believe I’d much rather stroll around a dusty fairground eating an ear of corn among games of chance and livestock, then standing in a Broadway theatre lobby sipping champagne. True fact.

It may delight you to know (as it did me) that Bartholomew Fair was founded by one Rahere, a jester, minstrel, and courtier to King Henry I, and (surely not irrelevantly) an ordained priest and monk. The holiday is obviously in honor of St. Bartholomew, one of the original 12 apostles of Jesus.

You may have heard the name in another, less merry context. The French also celebrated the holiday. It was on St. Bartholomew’s Eve in 1572 that a massive wave of anti-Huguenot violence broke out. Thousands were killed across France over the next few days. The event pretty much stifled French Protestantism in the cradle and is the reason why that country has remained overwhelmingly Catholic even while Germany, Switzerland, England, the Netherlands and other countries around it were cutting themselves off from the Ecclesiastical leadership of Rome. It’s also one of the forces that drove French Huguenots to American shores over the decades. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was also surely the inspiration for the nickname of Chicago’s famous 1929 gangland slaying known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

If you’re a theatre lover, you’re even more likely to know the 1614 play Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (or at least to have heard of it). Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night the play is inspired by a holiday, while going the extra mile to actually set his satirical comedy AT the fair! It’s a good source for the texture of the event: drunkenness, prostitution, puppet shows! Or as I like to call it, the Holy Trinity!

Speaking of Ben Jonson, August 24 was also the baptismal date of English poet and cleric Robert Herrick (1591-1674). Herrick’s date of birth is unknown but was likely not more than a couple of days prior to the baptism. Herrick was essentially a “Bartholomew Fair Baby” — one imagines his annual celebration involving a trip to the feast. Anyway, Herrick was one of a group of poets called The Sons of Ben, admirers of Ben Jonson who attempted to emulate his philosophy and style in their works.

As it happens, I am a direct descendent of a cousin of Herrick’s. For this reason, I pay more than usually close attention to references to him. One of these occasions occured a few weeks ago when I was watching the hokey old British thriller Night of the Demon (1957) starring Dana Andrews. In the film, use is made of the traditional song “Cherry Ripe”, the lyrics to which came from a poem of Herrick’s. This song, based on a street vendor’s cry, gets a lot of play in pop culture. There are references to it George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrong Box, Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, as well as numerous movies, like Victor Victoria (1982) and a 1999 version of Alice in Wonderland. So this is another way that Herrick emulated Jonson, for the latter’s lyric “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” is sung down to the present day. (One is reminded also of the tune “Greensleeves”, first published in 1580 and traditionally attributed to Henry VIII. It’s got to be one of our oldest pop songs to remain in circulation.)

Another Herrick poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” is quoted by Samuel Beckett in Happy Days. It is also one of the last things Jayne Mansfield performed (she recited it on The Joey Bishop Show 10 days before she died). That poem comes from Herrick’s most popular published collection Hesperides (1648). Considered one of the Cavalier Poets, Herrick enjoyed the patronage of the Stuarts — and didn’t fare so hot during the Cromwell years. (Forgive me, but I’m also descended from a cousin of Cromwell’s btw, as well as the earlier Stuart kings, although my branch veers off prior to the advent of James I. Not boasting, it’s more about why I’m interested in this in the first place and have been since childhood).

In his own time, Herrick was rather lightly regard by opinion-makers, the foppishness of court life being so much at odds with the death-obsessed metaphysical poets then favored. Herrick tends to be celebratory and joyous, penning poems with titles like “To Blossoms” and “To Daffodils”. His real popularity began posthumously, during the Victorian era.

WHICH…brings us back to Bartholomew Fair. For it was in the Year of Our Lord 1855, during Victoria’s reign, that the 700 year old Bartholomew Fair was finally shut down for good — for being being too wild, criminal and licentious. The killjoys won that round, but let us vow to one day win the match, eh? Eh, wot? Eh? (This last spoken in a Falstaff voice).