Woolly Saints – The Festival of St Blaise 1 – Medieval

Holy Days 

Holy Days (latin feria, later corrupted to fair) dedicated to named Saints have been a common event since the inception of the Christian Church. Originally their function was the veneration of the named Saint, perhaps with a special mass or blessing, feast or pageant or pilgrimage to the site of the Saint’s relics, with communities making a special effort, to gather and worship. It is worth noting that there was literally at least one Saint’s Day every day of the year,  during this period, Blaise sharing his day with with St Margaret of England, Patron Saint of the Dying; an early Cistercian Nun, related to St Thomas Beckett (Farmer 1978), and St Werburga of Mercia, Patron Saint of Chester; daughter of a Mercian King, who became a Benedictine Abbess, (Bridgett 1985) (Chester tourist); according to the calendar at The Medieval Combat Society.

The holy days were a celebration of:

  1. Specific events in  Christ’s life – Christmas and Easter,
  2. The change of seasons, gratitude for a good harvest, blessing of the land pre planting crops
  3. Patron saints linked to their occupation, community or Kingdom.

Fasts, Feasts and Festivals

Major Christian holy days were preceded by fasts where no meat could be eaten – Lent and Advent. – and ended with celebratory feasts for all. Peasants would dine at their Lord’s table, and have time off from all but essential work. The various merchant, trade and religious guilds would hold special religious services, sponsor feasts for their members and the local poor, and entertain the community with pageants and mystery or morality plays. Depending on the Feast, Priests might bless animals, land, tools of the trade or buildings to enhance productivity and profitability.

A Medieval Market http://www.richardiii.net/2_3_0_riii_leadership.php#

The content of the Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs to 1516 (Letters 2013), shows that the majority of fairs were held on or over the festival of a saint, the majority being founded in the reigns of Kings John and Henry III. Fairs were taxable and hence in the Kings gift, so needed to be granted, with fines being payable for “unlicensed” events. The Church, being financially shrewd, seems to have exploited the opportunity for income presented by these gatherings. by seeking Royal franchises to establish markets in church grounds.  (Medieval Life and Times). The secular community also saw the business opportunities presented by such gathering and local lords or guilds would also apply for Royal franchises for fairs or by claiming they had been held in perpetuity (Letters 2013). A future post, examining the foundation of fairs and markets in more depth, will explore the local and political tensions this could create. The majority of fairs seem to have been held between April and early December and could last from 1 to 15 days. (Letters 2013) They also provided opportunities to purchase goods, not commonly availalbe locally. Some fairs became specialised, such as the fleece or animal fairs, which will be explored in more depth at a later date.

The Feast of St Blaise

Holidays, Church and Feasts

The Feast of St Blaise, was a public holiday (Koenig 2012) and provided wool workers with a break from their daily lives, spent washing, combing, carding, spinning, weaving or knitting, fulling, tenting, buying and selling wool. They could reflect on and give thanks for the good fortune their Saint granted them in Church and enjoy leisure time with friends or fellow guild members. A feature of the High Mass on St Blaise’s day was the offering of a special taper (Williams 1998), which is likely to be the precursor to the blessing of the throat with two crossed candles (Matz 2000).

A modern depiction of a procession of St Blaise http://dedication1315.org.uk/religious-processions-giants-and-beasts/

There could have been a pageant, play or feast. Guild members might parade an effigy of St Blaise or a Ram, through the streets, (although the only evidence for this is the modern day parade in St Blazey, Cornwall), to and / or from the parish or guild church, where the priest might also bless the tools of the trade. He might also travel to farms or wool warehouses blessing the sheep or fleeces. Priestly blessings of agricultural land and craftsmen’s tools were an important ritual in medieval life (BBC TV, Tudor Monastery Farm). Once the religious part of the event was over, a feast might be held and whilst there are no specific references to its content, lamb or mutton would celebrate the connection to sheep. Feasts were provided by the local Lord in the country and the woolworkers guild(s), in the towns. Guilds were organisations of master craftsmen, serving a wide range of purposes including quality control, social support and preservation of the mysteries of the craft. Guild members were expected to contribute financially throughout the year, with a portion of these funds allocated to feasting (Wikipedia).

St Blaise Fairs

1222 – Synod of Osney, convened by Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Langton, the son of a Lincolnshire Farmer, stated that all woolcombers should not work on St Blaise’s Day – with wool being such a big industry, this implied that most rural people and many townspeople had a holiday. According to Koenig (2012), women caught spinning on this day would have their distaff confiscated and burned. This laid the way open for the development of fairs.

1235 – Fair of Blaise the martyr (3 Feb); granted by King Henry III to the Priory of Boxgrove (CChR, 1226–57, p. 211). Included a mandate to the  Sheriff of Sussex to proclaim the fair and cause it to be held. Letters (2013). According to the Calendar of the Charter Rolls of Henry III, this fair ran over three days:

The prior of Boxgrove has a charter for a fair at Boxgrove, on the vigil, the feast and the morrow of St Blaise the Martyr” (Deputy Keeper of the Records, 1908).

1447 – John Lowe, Bishop of Rochester held a fair on St Blaise’s Day (3 Feb); recorded 20 Jul , held by John Lowe, bp of Rochester (CChR, 1427–1516, p. 87).(Letters 2013). Lysons (1796) notes that this fair was held within the manor (p307 fn1). There is also a holy well, with healing waters from a chalybeate spring,  dedicated to St Blaise in Bromley, which Lysons suggests had an oratory attached pre reformation. Pixyledpublications (2013) states that local lore suggests that the parish church was once dedicated to St Blaise, but the earliest documentation suggesting a link between Bromley and St Blaise is that of the grant of the fair by Henry VI in 1447.

Clothing of Bocksten Man http://www.museumhalland.se/bockstensmannen/kladerna/

What Was Sold At A St Blaise Fair?

Whilst its not possible to establish exactly what was sold at these fairs, it is possible to made an educated guess, based on what is known of farming practices and day to day life. Firstly, the season suggests that sheep or fleece were unlikely to be sold, unless the fair specialised in selling castrated male yearling lambs that were good for producing wool and meat. Ewes would be waiting to lamb in late February and shearing was in June (Staples 1999). Secondly we must assume the roads were well maintained to facilitate travel, so perhaps there was a pilgrim trail, to bring the customers along? Canterbury held relics of St Blaise, but the distance between it and both Bromley (56 miles) and Boxgrove (98 miles) would suggest that neither of these fairs would cash in on this domestic pilgrimage, as there was no way they could reach  Canterbury for the Feast. However Morrison (2002) notes that Easter pilgrimages to Rome often started in January or February, so could these people, perhaps walking to Dover for passage to France be the prospective customers?  If so, perhaps these St Blaise Fairs, specialised in selling woollen clothing for pilgrims? A full outfit was discovered in Sweden, worn by the “Bocksten Man”, a 14th C murder victim, discovered in a peat bog (The Local SE 2006). During winter, agricultural work was limited (Staples) and so more time was available for indoor work, possibly spinning, weaving, and tailoring previously fulled cloth.

Bonfires

Bonfires seem to be a feature of St Blaise’s Day events, Williams (1998) states that they were lit on the hills at night. When first considered, it could be thought that the pronounciation of Blaise sounds like the English word Blaze, meaning fire. However it appears these bonfires took place across Europe, possibly because this was the time of year that stubble was burned. This custom might have originated in Pagan times and is still celebrated in the town of Fuiggi, Italy; the practice having saved the town from being sacked by a Papal army, who assumed that the flames meant the town had already been attacked by their allies (Fiuggi Turismo Convention and Visitors Bureau 2014)

 

References and Bibliography

Anon (no date) Medieval Life and Times – Medieval Fairs [online] Available http://www.medieval-life-and-times.info/medieval-life/medieval-fairs.htm Accessed 13/11/15

Bridgett, Ronald W (1985) The Life of St Werburgh: Princess of Mercia, The Parish and Church Wardens of the Parish of St Werburgh, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent [online] Available: http://www.ourladyandstwerburgh.co.uk/the-legend-of-st-werburgh.html accessed 4.11.2015

Burns P (1998) revision Butler’s Live of the Saints, Full Edition, February. Burns and Oats (Tunbridge Wells) pp33-4

Chester Tourist dot com (no date) The Shrine of St Werburgh [online] Available: http://www.chestertourist.com/Werburgh.htm Accessed 4.11.2015

Farmer, David Hugh. (1978). The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press. In St Margaret of England [online] available: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=4475 accessed 4.11.2015

Fiuggi Turismo Convention and Visitors Bureau (2014) Popular Festivals -St Blaise/ Stuzza [online] Available: http://www.visitfiuggi.eu/en/popular-festivals/ Accessed 13.11.15

Koenig, C (2012) Recalling the Cult of Bishop Blaze, Oxford Times [online] available: http://www.oxfordtimes.co.uk/leisure/history_heritage/history/9506230.Recalling_the_cult_of_Bishop_Blaze/ accessed 11/11/2015

Letters, S. (2013) Online Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516 <http://www.history.ac.uk/cmh/gaz/gazweb2.html&gt;:

Lysons Rev D (1796) The Environs of London, Counties of Herts, Essex and Kent Cadle & Davies (London) [online] Available https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=LPxBAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false Accessed 13.11.15

Matz T (2000) Catholic Online – St Blaise [online] Available: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=28 Accessed 6.11.15

Morrison SS (2002) Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England Routledge (London) [online] Available https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=yPqFAgAAQBAJ&dq=Medieval+travel+february+England Accessed 13.11.15

Pixyledpublications (2013) Holy and Healing Wells – A Well for February, St Blaise’s Well, Bromley, Kent [online] Available https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/a-well-for-february-st-blaises-well-bromley-kent/ Accessed 13.11.15

Staples A (1999) The Medieval Farming Year v1.0 [online] Available: http://www.witheridge-historical-archive.com/medieval-year.htm Accessed 13.11.15

The Local SE (2006) Swedish Bog Man, Murdered 700 years ago [online] Available http://www.thelocal.se/20060124/2920 Accessed 13.11.15

The Medieval Combat Society (undated) Historical Information, Medieval Calendar [online] available http://www.themcs.org/calendar.htm accessed 4.11.2015

Wikipedia (2015) Guild [online] Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guild accessed 6/11/15

Williams B (1998) St Blaise’s Well, Bromley, Kent [online] Available:  http://people.bath.ac.uk/liskmj/living-spring/sourcearchive/ns6/ns6bw1.htm Accessed 11.11.15

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Woolly Saints – The Festival of St Blaise 1 – Medieval

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