A Medieval fair was a huge open air gathering held each year, mostly on a holiday or on a religious anniversary. It was the greatest event in the economic life of a medieval town. During this time merchants from all over Europe gathered in the town to buy or sell products. Different stalls were established with all kinds of things for sale, from spices to rugs. Stalls were also established for selling snacks and small pies which people ate when they got hungry. Items for sale were expensive and out of reach ordinary people and were mostly bought by Nobles, Knights and, their ladies.
The word “fair” is derived from the Latin word “Feria” meaning “festival”. The history of the fair goes back to the Roman Empire when fairs were mostly held on holy days and people were provided a break from their normal activities. During the era of French Merovingian in the 7th century a regular event was being held at Saint Denis. In the later years such events started to take place mostly on special Christian occasions when different merchants used to gather in the Churchyards with their merchandise. Such event, then started to take place annually, mostly on the feast day of the patron saint. In England people called these early fairs a “wake” or a “vigilia”.
Medieval fairs were mostly held for economic reasons as it was a main way of trading goods. People from different parts of Europe gathered to sell their things. Before the Black Death these Fairs were the building blocks of the growing European economy. These Fairs were also a good source of enjoyment for people, both adults and children. There was a lot of entertainment at these fairs such as Jugglers, magicians and dancing bears which were very popular in medieval times. There were also mystery plays and travelling entertainers called strolling players who told stories from the Bible.
Medieval fairs took place all across Europe. Under the French Merovingian Kings, a regular fair took place at Saint-Denis. In England fairs started to take place in the early Norman period. In the 12th century, many English towns started to organize annual fairs with the permission of the crown. These fairs were mostly 2 to 3 days long and served the local population. The major fairs of the 13th century were Stamford fair in Lent, St Ives fare at Easter, Boston fair in July, Winchester fair in September and Northampton fair in November. These were the charted fairs and organized with the permission of Royal monarch.
At medieval fairs local and international merchants gathered with their merchandise for sale. They bought and purchased different items. These fairs were related to the church, hence they were given immunity from violence so that everyone could participate without any fear. It was the most awaited event for all the classes, hence everybody participated in it. Musicians, dancers, jugglers and magicians also attended these medieval fair events as entertainers to attract people. There were a lot of games, music, dancing, and drinking. Medieval fairs were also a cultural activity as people from different backgrounds used to gather.
At a medieval fair almost all kinds of goods were sold. Goods included handicrafts, perfumes, lovely wood carvings, furs and delicious fruits of different kinds which were brought from different countries. There things were considered foreign luxuries and were mostly bought by rich people. There were also spices, cheese, flour, wine and meat. These things were mostly bought by peasants and artisans. Sale and Barter trades of cattle, horses, sheep and birds was also done by the people. Money changing facilities was provided by the money changers who changed foreign coins with the local ones at a cost.
Medieval fairs were attended by all sorts of people. Local and international merchants were present with their merchandise. There were men, women and children. For peasants, these medieval fairs were a break from their monotonous routine, whereas nobles were interested in these fairs because they wanted to see and buy things brought from the far flung areas. The medieval fair was a good opportunity for peasants and nobles to get to know each other. Children mostly came with their parents for enjoyment and recreation. Different kinds of entertainers, like medieval jugglers and magicians, were also invited by some stall holders to attract customers and increase their sales.
The Opening of a medieval fair was announced through banners and bells. Stalls of different products were established by the merchants. Stalls of snacks and different kinds of refreshment were also there to help visitors quell their hunger. Stall owners also invited medieval jugglers, magicians & musicians to make their stalls unique and attractive. Different types of contests were also organized in order to make the event more successful. Mystery plays were also one of the main events of the medieval fair.
Medieval fairs mostly took place on holy days. People were allowed to take time off from their work as these fairs were the only source of enjoyment in their lives. Apart from economic activity medieval fairs had a lot of arrangements for entertainment in order to attract people. There was music, dancing and drinking. Children participated in different types of contests and won prizes. There were jugglers and magicians showing their skills and entertaining people. Mystery plays were performed, on different Bible stories, that were informative and entertaining at the same time.
Medieval fairs started as part of the religious gathering, but later converted to main economic activity. These fairs were a good way of commerce as due to continuous wars during medieval times travelling and communication could be difficult. Medieval Fairs enabled people to take a day off from their normal routine and enjoy time with their children. Through these events people were also able to learn stories about the different parts of the world and could also buy things that were not locally available.