by Joe Earp
The goose is perhaps dearer to the hearts of the good folk of Nottingham, – young and old – as the symbol of the much celebrated Goose Fair. The Fair, – at least in name – has been held almost continuously for over 400 years, but its origins are believed to be much older and there has been a fair held around this date since Saxon times.
Local legend tells how there was once a fisherman on the river Trent. After fishing for a while and catching a few carp and other fish, his bate was taken by a monster pike. For some time, man and fish struggled in that conflict enjoyed by anglers. Eventually, the great fish tiered and the man began to reel it towards the shore. At that moment, – as the fish began to emerge from the water, – a wild goose flying overhead swooped down and ceased the fish in its beak. The goose flew high into the air with its prize, but the pike still had the bated hook in its mouth and the man still held tight to his rod. Imagine the scene when the goose flew over the Market Square with pike, rod and man dangling from its beak! The burden was too much for the bird and it released its grip. Down tumble the angler, rod and fish. The astonished crowd in the Square rushed to the man’s aid, only to find him standing unhurt in the middle of the Square, - for he had landed safely on his feet. In celebration of this wonderful event it was decided to hold a fair on the very spot where the man had landed and it was to be known as the Goose Fair.
This tale purports to be the origin of the Goose Fair, but is of course, just a charming folk tale. So, what is the true origin of the Fair? The clue is in its name and the time of year at which it is held; – the Fair is truly a Michaelmas Fair.
Michaelmas or more correctly The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels is celebrated on 29th September, (in Suffolk it is marked on 4th October and in Norfolk 11th October). It marks the first day of the new farming year and is one of the four ‘quarter days’, – 25th March, Lady Day, 24th June, Midsummers Day, 29th September, Michaelmas, and 25th December, Christmas. These dates are close to an equinox or solstice in the solar calendar and made up the divisions of the agricultural year.
Michaelmas also marks the end of the harvest season and many of the fairs held at this time were Hiring Fairs where labours, – finished with the harvest, – would seek employment for the winter.
Often, folklore stories have embedded in them a sort of coded message or truth. I have puzzled over the story of the fisherman, the pike and the goose, in order to understand what it might mean. The 29th September also marks the end of the fishing season and start of the hunting season. Is the story a salutary warning not to fish beyond this date? The wild goose might indicate that the man should turn his attention to the hunt. Again, in ancient tradition and folklore, the wild goose in flight has strong associations with hunting dogs, particularly those of the Wild Hunt.
A version of the Wild Hunt occurs in many cultures but the feature of the story are always the same; a hero or god like figure, – a psychopomp, the conductor of the dead to the ‘Other World’, – leads a pack of spectral hounds across the sky. Their quarry is the souls of those about to die.
In Christian mythology St. Michael is recognised as a psychopomp and has connections to the wild goose.
The word fair comes from the Latin ‘feria,’ meaning a holy day, – defined as; a time when a large number of people would assemble for worship. Fairs were held annually on the ‘Feast Day’ of a saint, – which in turn often marked a special time of year within the calendar.
Very quickly the Church realised that fairs were a great opportunity to make money through commerce and trade and fairs quickly developed into markets, – often lasting for several days. So lucrative to their sponsors were these markets, they could only be held under a grant of a royal charter.
In medieval Europe fairs were held in the precincts of the great monastic houses and individual church yards. However, in England, the venue was left to the discretion of the authority and fairs were often held on village greens and other open spaces.
The earliest reference to a fair in Nottingham, – St. Mathew’s Fair 21st September, – comes from Saxon times. A charter to hold a Martinmas Fair, – 11th November, – was granted by Henry II, to the Priory of Lenton in 1164. This ran for 8 days and was extended to 12 days sometime in the 13th century. The charter forbade the holding of any other fair or market in district during this time and so eclipsed all other fairs in Nottingham. Lenton fair continue to the Dissolution in 1536 but is still mentioned in Harrisons Calendar of Fairs in 1587.
Charters were not exclusive to the Church and individual towns were granted the privilege to hold a fair. In 1284 the burgesses of Nottingham were granted a charter by Edward I, to hold a fair on the eve of the Feast of St. Edmund, – 20th November, – and for twelve days following. We can see how, when Lenton Fair was extended, these fairs might have clashed.
Nottingham’s Goose Fair is first recorded by name in the borough records of 1541. Removed from the restrictions and competition of Lenton Fair, the Goose Fair flourished in Tudor times. Although the date for the Fair was set at 21st September, – and for 8 days following, reduced to 3 in 1800, – an 11 day change to the calendar in 1751, means that it is now held on the first week in October.
Goose Fair became famous as a ‘cheese fair’ but it is the Michaelmas Goose which is remembered and marked in its name. Geese hatched in the spring were ready for the table by Michaelmas and it became customary, – for those able to afford it, – to celebrate with a meal of a well fattened goose. It was also customary for tenants to present their landlords, – in part payment of rent, – with a fine brace of geese.
Geese for the Michaelmas market were driven into Nottingham from Lincolnshire. Preparations for the long walk started with tar being applied to the bird’s feet. It is recorded that anything up to 20,000 geese were driven up through Hockley and along ‘Goose Gate’ into Market Square.
The next time you visit Nottingham’s Goose Fair, remember its long history and if you want to have money to spend whilst there, remember to the old adage and eat your goose on Michaelmas Day!