Nottingham’s Goose Fair celebrates its 719th year this year, which makes it one of the longest-running fairs in the UK. 719 years. Or thereabouts, as this is a case where historians can do no more than reach a consensus that a 1284 Charter of King Edward I that mentions city fairs in Nottingham must include the earliest known reference to the Goose Fair. These days, the Goose Fair takes place on The Forest Recreation Ground and competes with Hull Fair for the largest number of fairground rides, but mushy peas, candy floss and thrills are not entirely out off keeping with the fair’s medieval origins. In Edward I’s day, a fair referred to fun and entertainment, largely provided by itinerant entertainers, but more than anything else, a fair marked a coveted, prestigious and rather necessary opportunity for shopping!
Like most medieval fairs, the Goose Fair was held on an important saint’s day (to be precise, the Feast Day of St. Matthew on September 21) and was associated with food. This certainly holds true for Nottingham’s annual extravaganza: the fair derives its name from its most important commodity on sale, poultry, and more specifically geese, who were driven in large flocks from their summer pastures in Lincolnshire and the Fenlands to Nottingham, to be sold, fattened and eaten at Christmas. St Matthew, apostle and tax collector, is a patron saint for financial transactions, and it has been argued that the geese sold at the Goose fair raised the money for the due payment of rents, collected on the Quarter Day of 29 September. It should also be remembered that it was geese, not chicken, who were the main poultry eaten throughout the Middle Ages; the rise of the chicken as a staple comes later (as is currently being investigated by the Chicken Coop).
But, to get back to shopping… Modern shopping patterns are very distinctive and particular to the 21st century, with access 24/7 to an unprecedented range of goods, available from a variety of suppliers, and increasingly purchased without even the need to visit a shop. This is rather a far cry from shopping patterns for medieval and early modern consumers, where access to produce was determined by geography and date. Staple goods such as food and locally produced textiles were normally traded on a daily basis, often including Sundays; bread had to be baked often daily, fresh meat and fish were bought in small quantities and used quickly, whereas seasonal produce, especially vegetables and fruit had to be carefully conserved in order to last through the long winters.
And this is where the great trade fairs come in, because it was only then that luxury items were easily available to consumers outside the great trading centres of London, of Bristol, of Southampton. It was at the great trade fairs that consumers congregated with extensive shopping lists to purchase spices, luxury textiles, pottery, glass ware, metal ware, finished and processed goods no shop stocked all year round. The fair itself may only have lasted a few days (7 days for the original Goose Fair), but its impact often lasted until the next fair as it was then that the latest fashions became seen and available, that exotic goods were displayed, that luxury consumables adopted at court and in cities were disseminated, adapted and distributed to the local consumers. The great trade fairs brought together traders and consumers from across the UK and beyond, and created a buzzing, fizzing spectacle not repeated again until the next year. Local traders brought their produce to the fair where their goods were sold next to the more professional displays of itinerant peddlars and merchants distributing goods they had imported. The origin of the goods offered at fairs was truly international, and this certainly belies the idea that travelling and access to exotic goods is a marker of the modern consumer.
The great trade fairs were serious business, so serious in fact that normal trading within cities was suspended to permit the temporary market of the fair. Travellers and goods would flock to the city from far and wide, their movement aided by the ability to travel on the great River Trent, and the easy access to the North. The travellers, traders and entertainers spent several days in Nottingham when the Goose Fair was on, and they have left an enduring legacy in three of the oldest surviving public houses in England. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem (dating back to 1189AD), Ye Olde Salutation Inn (on the site of an alehouse known as The Archangel Gabriel Salutes the Virgin Mary) and the Bell Inn were amongst the many inns that catered to Nottingham’s visitors, offering accommodation and the opportunity to quaff plentiful quantities of one of Nottingham’s best known food staples: beer. All three inns, especially the Trip to Jerusalem also offered plentiful storage space for goods in Nottingham’s many caves.
So, while it can seem hard at times to remember that Nottingham has a rich and distinguished medieval history, that history often comes to the fore in unexpected ways. The Goose Fair is certainly one of the most fun, when history, tradition and thrills converge in the most enduring way. After all, it took nothing short of an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague and two world wars to suspend the Goose Fair on a couple of occasions…
Gabriele Neher, Lecturer in Renaissance Art