Fairs and Education

More samplings into the history of St Bartholomew’s Fair.

One of the more unexpected events at the fair  was the scholarly debates, which ceased with the dissoution of the monasteries, as the mulberry garden where they  were held was sold off. One of the country’s earliest antiquarians, John Stow (c1525-1605) recalls:

“the meeting of the schoolmasters on Festival Days at Festival churches, and the disputing of their scholars logically, … the same was long since discontinued; but the arguing of the schoolboys about the principles of grammar hath continued even till our time; for I myself, in m youth, have yearly seen, on the Eve of St Bartholomew the Apostle, the scholars of divers grammar schools repair unto the churchyard of St Bartholomew, the Priory in Smithfield, where upon a bank boarded about under a tree, some one scholar hath stepped up, and there hath opposed and answered till he were by some better scholar  overcome and put down; and then the overcomer taking his place, did like as the first. And in the end, the best opposers and answerers had regards, which I observed not but it made both good schoolmasters, and also good scholars, diligently against such times to prepare themselves for the obtaining of this garland. I remember there repaired to these exercises, amongst others, the masters and scholars of the free schools of St Paul’s in London, of St Peter’s at Westminster, of St Thomas Acon’s hospital, and of St Anthonie’s Hospital; whereof the last named commonly presented the best scholars, and had the prize in those days. This Priory of St Bartholomew being surrendered to Henry the Eighth, those disputations of scholars in that place surceased; and was again., only for a year or twain, revived in the cloister of Christ’s Hospital, were the best scholars, then still of St Anthonie’s school, howsoever the same be now fallen both in number and estimation, were rewarded with bows and arrows of silver, given them by Sir Martin Bower, goldsmith.

Nevertheless, however, the encouragement failed, the scholars of Paul’s, meeting with them of St Anthonie’s, would call them Anthonie’s Pigs, and they again would call the other Pigeons of Paul’s, because many pigeons were bred in St Paul’s church, and St Anthonie was always figured with a pig following him; and mindful of the former usage, did for a long season disorderly provoke one another in the open street with “Salve tu quoque, placet mecum disputare?” – “Placet.” And so proceeding from this to questions in grammar, they usually fell from words to blows with their satchels full of books, many times in great heaps, that they troubled the streets and passengers; so that finally they were restrained with the decay of St Anthonie’s school.

The satchels full of books, with which the boys belaboured  one another, really were the weapons that had put an end to the old practice of incessant oral disputation. Schoolmasters and men of learning, years before, had also taken to the thrashing of each other with many books; and books scattered abroad “many times in great heaps” were the remains also of their new way  of controversy. If a man had learning, society no longer made it in any degree necessary for him to go bodily in search of the general public to a Fair, or in search of the educated public to the great hall of a University. Writing was no longer a solemn business, and writing materials were no longer too costly to be delivered over to the herd of schoolboys for habitual use and destruction. Written, instead of spoken exercises, occupied the ‘pigs’ and ‘pigeons’ who ran riot over the remains of a dead system.”

There is so much in this piece that I find interesting. Scholars debating Latin grammar seems an odd event to be held at a fair, but it makes sense in the context that the fairs were originally religious celebrations of the religious house’s founding saints. These debates were open to the public, so may well have been an element of PR for the various schools to demonstrate the standards of the teachers and scholars.

I  love the idea of scholars from different schools insulting each other in Latin – how more elitist can that be?

But  at the core of this piece is that it shows much about the changes that occurred as a result of the closing of the religious houses, so the closure of them as a monopoly on education. Without the control of the priests, it seems the students ran riot.

It also highlights an important change in teaching, from oral to written – the importance of debate and learning by rote, of having writing only as a reminder, is shown here to have been replaced at this early date by a shift to learning from books, from learning being a social exchange to one of private study.

I also find it strange that the scholars treated their books with such contempt – they were still expensive items – printing made books more available, but they were still beyond the reach of most of the population, so this shows a real contempt for learning which I find very odd. But also thoroughly modern.


9 thoughts on “Fairs and Education

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