1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fair

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FAIR, a commercial institution, defined as a “greater species of market recurring at more distant intervals”: both “fair” and “market” (q.v.) have been distinguished by Lord Coke from “mart,” which he considers as a greater species of fair; and all three may be defined as periodic gatherings of buyers and sellers in an appointed place, subject to special regulation by law or custom. Thus in England from a strictly legal point of view there can be no fair or market without a franchise; and a franchise of fair or market can only be exercised by right of a grant from the crown, or by the authority of parliament or by prescription presupposing a grant. In the earliest times periodical trading in special localities was necessitated by the difficulties of communication and the dangers of travel. Public gatherings, whether religious, military or judicial, which brought together widely scattered populations, were utilized as opportunities for commerce. At the festivals of Delos and at the Olympic games trade, it is said, found important outlets, while in Etruria the annual general assembly at the temple of Voltumna served at the same time as a fair and was regularly attended by Roman traders. Instances of a similar nature might be multiplied; but it was above all with religious festivals which recurred with regularity and convoked large numbers of persons that fairs, as distinguished from markets, are most intimately associated.

The most commonly accepted derivation of the word “fair” is from the Latin feria, a name which the church borrowed from Roman custom and applied to her own festivals. A fair was generally held during the period of a saint's feast and in the precincts of his church or abbey, but in England this desecration of church or churchyard was first forbidden by the Statute of Winton (c. Edward I.). Most of the famous fairs of medieval England and Europe, with their tolls or other revenues, and, within certain limits of time and place, their monopoly of trade, were grants from the sovereign to abbots, bishops and other ecclesiastical dignitaries. Their “holy day” associations are preserved in the German word for fairs, Messen; as also in the kirmiss, “church mass,” of the people of Brittany. So very intimate was the connexion between the fair and the feast of the saint that the former has very commonly been regarded as an off-shoot or development of the latter. But there is every reason to suppose that fairs were already existing national institutions, long before the church turned or was privileged to turn them to her own profit.

The first charter of the great fair of Stourbridge, near Cambridge, was granted by King John for the maintenance of a leper hospital; but the origin of the fair itself is ascribed to Carausius, the rebel emperor of Britain, A.D. 207. At all events, it may be seen from the data given in Herbert Spencer's Descriptive Sociology that the country had then arrived at the stage of development where fairs might have been recognized as a necessity. The Romans also appear to have elaborated a market-law similar to that in force throughout medieval Europe — though it must be observed that the Roman nundinae, which some have regarded as fairs, were weekly markets. It has also been supposed that the ancient fairs of Lyons were a special privilege granted by the Roman conquerors; and Sidonius Apollinaris, A.D. 427, alludes to the fairs of the district afterwards known as the county of Champagne, as if they were then familiarly known institutions. Fairs, in a word, would not only have arisen naturally, wherever the means of communication between individual centres of production and consumption were felt to be inadequate to the demand for an interchange of commodities; but, from their very nature, they might be expected to show some essential resemblances, even in points of legislation, and where no international transmission of custom could have been possible. Thus, the fair courts of pre-Spanish Mexico corresponded very closely to those of the Beaucaire fair. They resembled the English courts of piepowder. The Spaniards, when first they saw the Mexican fairs, were reminded of the like institutions in Salamanca and Granada. The great fair or market at the city of Mexico is said to have been attended by about 40,000 or 50,000 persons, and is thus described by Prescott: —

“Officers patrolled the square, whose business it was to keep the peace, to collect the dues imposed on the various kinds of merchandise, to see that no false measures or fraud of any kind were used, and to bring offenders at once to justice. A court of twelve judges sat in one part of the tianguez clothed with those ample and summary powers which, in despotic countries, are often delegated even to petty tribunals. The extreme severity with which they exercised those powers, in more than one instance, proves that they were not a dead letter.”

But notwithstanding the great antiquity of fairs, their charters are comparatively modern the oldest known being that of St Denys, Paris, which Dagobert, king of the Franks, granted (A.D. 642) to the monks of the place “for the glory of God, and the honour of St Denys at his festival.”

In England it was only after the Norman conquest that fairs became of capital importance. Records exist of 2800 grants of franchise markets and fairs between the years 1199 and 1483. More than half of these were made during the reigns of John and Henry III., when the power of the church was in ascendancy. The first recorded grant, however, appears to be that of William the Conqueror to the bishop of Winchester, for leave to hold an annual “free fair” at St Giles's hill. The monk who had been the king's jester received his charter of Bartholomew fair, Smithfield, in the year 1133. And in 1248 Henry III. granted a like privilege to the abbot of Westminster, in honour of the “translation” of Edward the Confessor. Sometimes fairs were granted to towns as a means for enabling them to recover from the effects of war and other disasters. Thus, Edward III. granted a “free fair” to the town of Burnley in Rutland, just as, in subsequent times, Charles VII. favoured Bordeaux after the English wars, and Louis XIV. gave fair charters to the towns of Dieppe and Toulon. The importance attached to these old fairs rnay be understood from the inducements which, in the 14th century, Charles IV. held out to traders visiting the great fair of Frankfort-on-Main. The charter declared that both during the continuance of the fair, and for eighteen days before and after it, merchants would be exempt from imperial taxation, from arrest for debt, or civil process of any sort, except such as might arise from the transactions of the market itself and within its precincts. Philip of Valois's regulations for the fairs of Troyes in Champagne might not only be accepted as typical of all subsequent fair-legislation of the kingdom, but even of the English and German laws on the subject. The fair had its staff of notaries for the attestation of bargains, its court of justice, its police officers, its sergeants for the execution of the market judges' decrees, and its visitors of whom we may mention the prud'hommes, whose duty it was to examine the quality of goods exposed for sale, and to confiscate those found unfit for consumption. The confiscation required the consent of five or six representatives of the merchant community at the fair. The effect of these great “free fairs” of England and the continent on the development of society was indeed great. They helped to familiarize the western and northern countries with the banking and financial systems of the Lombards and Florentines, who resorted to them under the protection of the sovereign's “firm peace,” and the ghostly terrors of the pope. They usually became the seat of foreign agencies. In the names of her streets Provins preserved the memory of her 12th-century intercourse with the agents and merchants of Germany and the Low Countries, and long before that time the Syrian traders at St Denys had established their powerful association in Paris. Like the church on the religious side, the free fairs on the commercial side evoked and cherished the international spirit. And during long ages, when commercial “protection” was regarded as indispensable to a nation's wealth, and the merchant was compelled to “fight his way through a wilderness of taxes,” they were the sole and, so far as they went, the complete substitute for the free trade of later days.

Their privileges, however, were, from their very nature, destined to grow more oppressive and intolerable the more the towns were multiplied and the means of communication increased. The people of London were compelled to close their shops during the days when the abbot of Westminster's fair was open. But a more curious and complete instance of such an ecclesiastical monopoly was that of the St Giles's fair, at first granted for the customary three days, which were increased by Henry III. to sixteen. The bishop of Winchester was, as we have seen, the lord of this fair. On the eve of St Giles's feast the magistrates of Winchester surrendered the keys of the city gates to the bishop, who then appointed his own mayor, bailiff and coroner, to hold office until the close of the fair. During the same period, Winchester and Southampton also — though it was then a thriving trading town — were forbidden to transact their ordinary commercial business, except within the bishop's fair, or with his special permission. The bishop's officers were posted along the highways, with power to forfeit to his lordship all goods bought and sold within 7 m. of the fair — in whose centre stood “the pavilion,” or bishop's court. It is clear, from the curious record of the Establishment and Expenses of the Household of Percy, 5th earl of Northumberland, that fairs were the chief centres of country traffic even as late as the 16th century. They began to decline rapidly after 1759, when good roads had been constructed and canal communication established between Liverpool and the towns of Yorkshire, Cheshire and Lancashire. In the great towns their extinction was hastened in consequence of their evil effects on public morals. All the London fairs were abolished as public nuisances before 1855 — the last year of the ever famous fair of St Bartholomew; and the fairs of Paris were swept away in the storm of the Revolution.

English Fairs and Markets. — For the general reasons apparent from the preceding sketch, fairs in England, as in France and Germany, have very largely given way to markets for specialities. Even the live-stock market of the metropolis is being superseded by the dead-meat market, a change which has been encouraged by modern legislation on cattle disease, the movements of home stock and the importation of foreign animals. Agricultural markets are also disappearing before the “agencies” and the corn exchanges in the principal towns. Still there are some considerable fairs yet remaining. Of the English fairs for live stock, those of Weyhill in Hampshire (October 10), St Faith's, near Norwich (October 17), as also several held at Devizes, Wiltshire, are among the largest in the kingdom. The first named stands next to none for its display of sheep. Horncastle, Lincolnshire, is the largest horse fair in the kingdom, and is regularly visited by American and continental dealers. The other leading horse fairs in England are Howden in Yorkshire (well known for its hunters), Woodbridge (on Lady Day) for Suffolk horses, Barnet in Hertfordshire, and Lincoln. Exeter December fair has a large display of cattle, horses and most kinds of commodities. Large numbers of Scotch cattle are also brought to the fairs of Carlisle and Ormskirk. Nottingham has a fair for geese. Ipswich has a fair for lambs on the 1st of August, and for butter and cheese on the 1st of September. Gloucester fair is also famous for the last-named commodity. Falkirk fair, or tryst, for cattle and sheep, is one of the largest in Scotland; and Ballinasloe, Galway, holds a like position among Irish fairs. The Ballinasloe cattle are usually fed for a year in Leinster before they are considered fit for the Dublin or Liverpool markets.

French Fairs. — In France fairs and markets are held under the authority of the prefects, new fairs and markets being established by order of the prefects at the instance of the commune interested. Before the Revolution fairs and markets could only be established by seigneurs justiciers, but only two small markets have survived the law of 1790 abolishing private ownership of market rights, namely, the Marché Ste Catherine and the Marché des enfants rouges, both in Paris. Under the present system markets and fairs are held in most of the towns and villages in France; and at all such gatherings entertainments form an important feature. The great fair of Beaucaire instituted in 1168) has steadily declined since the opening of railway communication, and now ranks with the fairs of ordinary provincial towns. Situated at the junction of the Rhône and the Canal du Midi, and less than 40 m. from the sea, it at one time attracted merchants from Spain, from Switzerland and Germany, and from the Levant and Mediterranean ports, and formed one of the greatest temporary centres of commerce on the continent. One trade firm alone, it is said, rarely did less than 1,000,000 francs worth of business during the fortnight that the fair lasted.

German Fairs. — In Germany the police authorities are considered the market authorities, and to them in most cases is assigned the duty of establishing new fairs and markets, subject to magisterial decision. The three great fairs of Germany are those of Frankfort-on-Main, Frankfort-on-Oder and Leipzig, but, like all the large fairs of Europe, they have declined rapidly in importance. Those of Frankfort-on-Main begin on Easter Tuesday and on the nearest Monday to September 8 respectively, and their legal duration is three weeks, though the limit is regularly extended. The fairs of the second-named city are Reminiscere, February or March; St Margaret, July; St Martin, November. Ordinarily they last fifteen days, which is double the legal term. The greatest of the German fairs are those of Leipzig, whose display of books is famous all over the world. Its three fairs are dated January 1, Easter, Michaelmas. The Easter one is the book fair, which is attended by all the principal booksellers of Germany, and by many more from the adjoining countries. Most German publishers have agents at Leipzig. As many as 5000 new publications have been entered in a single Leipzig catalogue. As in the other instances given, the Leipzig fairs last for three weeks, or nearly thrice their allotted duration. Here no days of grace are allowed, and the holder of a bill must demand payment when due, and protest, if necessary, on the same day, otherwise he cannot proceed against either drawer or endorser.

Russian Fairs. — In Russia fairs are held by local authorities. Landed proprietors may also hold fairs on their estates subject to the sanction of the local authorities; but no private tolls may be levied on commodities brought to such fairs. In Siberia and the east of Russia, where more primitive conditions foster such centres of trade, fairs are still of considerable importance. Throughout Russia generally they are very numerous. The most important, that of Nijni Novgorod, held annually in July and August at the confluence of the rivers Volga and Kama, was instituted in the 17th century by the tsar Michael Fedorovitch. In 1881 it was calculated that trade to the value of 246,000,000 roubles was carried on within the limits of the fair. It still continues to be of great commercial importance, and is usually attended by upwards of 100,000 persons from all parts of Asia and eastern Europe. Other fairs of consequence are those of Irbit in Perm, Kharkoff (January and August), Poltava (August and February), Koreunais in Koursk, Ourloupinsknia in the Don Cossack country, Krolevetz in Tchernigoff, and a third fair held at Poltava on the feast of the Ascension.

Indian Fairs. — The largest of these, and perhaps the largest in Asia, is that of Hurdwar, on the upper course of the Ganges. The visitors to this holy fair number from 200,000 to 300,000; but every twelfth year there occurs a special pilgrimage to the sacred river, when the numbers may amount to a million or upwards. Those who go solely for the purposes of trade are Nepalese, Mongolians, Tibetans, central Asiatics and Mahommedan pedlars from the Punjab, Sind and the border states. Persian shawls and carpets, Indian silks, Kashmir shawls, cottons (Indian and English), preserved fruits, spices, drugs, &c., together with immense numbers of cattle, horses, sheep and camels, are brought to this famous fair.

American Fairs. — The word “fair,” as now used in the United States, appears to have completely lost its Old World meaning. It seems to be exclusively applied to industrial exhibitions and to what in England are called fancy bazaars. Thus, during the Civil War, large sums were collected at the “sanitary fairs,” for the benefit of the sick and wounded. To the first-named class belong the state and county fairs, as they are called. Among the first and best-known of these was the “New York World's Fair,” opened in 1853 by a company formed in 1851. (See Exhibition.)

Law of Fairs. — As no market or fair can be held in England without a royal charter, or right of prescription, so any person establishing a fair without such sanction is liable to be sued under a writ of Quo warranto, by any one to whose property the said market may be injurious. Nor can a fair or market be legally held beyond the time specified in the grant; and by 5 Edward III. c. 5 (1331) a merchant selling goods after the legal expiry of the fair forfeited double their value. To be valid, a sale must take place in “market-overt” (open market); “it will not be binding if it carries with it a presumption of fraudulence.” These regulations satisfied, the sale “transfers a complete property in the thing sold to the vendee; so that however injurious or illegal the title of the vendor may be, yet the vendee's is good against all men except the king.” (In Scottish law, the claims of the real owner would still remain valid.) However, by 21 Henry VIII. c. 2 (1529) it was enacted that, “if any felon rob or take away money, goods, or chattels, and be indicted and found guilty, or otherwise attainted upon evidence given by the owner or party robbed, or by any other by their procurement, the owner or party robbed shall be restored to his money, goods or chattels,” but only those goods were restored which were specified in the indictment, now could the owner recover from a bona fide purchaser in market-overt who had sold the goods before conviction. For obvious reasons the rules of market-overt were made particularly stringent in the case of horses. Thus, by 2 Philip & Mary c. 7 (1555) and 31 Eliz. c. 12 (1589) no sale of a horse was legal which had not satisfied the following conditions: — Public exposure of the animal for at least an hour between sunrise and sunset; identification of the vendor by the market officer, or guarantee for his honesty by “one sufficient and credible person”; entry of these particulars, together with a description of the animal, and a statement of the price paid for it, in the market officer's book. Even if his rights should have been violated in spite of all these precautions, the lawful owner could recover, if he claimed within six months, produced witnesses, and tendered the price paid to the vendor. Tolls were not a “necessary incident” of a fair — i.e. they were illegal unless specially granted in the patent, or recognized by custom. As a rule, they were paid only by the vendee, and to the market clerk, whose record of the payment was aa attestation to the genuineness of the purchase. By 2 & 3 Philip & Mary c. 7 every lord of a fair entitled to exact tolls was bound to appoint a clerk to collect and enter them. It was also this functionary's business to test measures and weights. Tolls, again, are sometimes held to include “stallage” and “picage,” which mean respectively the price for permission to erect stalls and to dig holes for posts in the market grounds. But toll proper belongs to the lord of the market, whereas the other two are usually regarded as the property of the lord of the soil. The law also provided that stallage might be levied on any house situated in the vicinity of a market, and kept open for business during the legal term of the said market. Among modern statutes, one of the chief is the Markets and Fairs Clauses Act 1847, the chief purpose of which was to consolidate previous measures. By the act no proprietors of a new market were permitted to let stallages, take tolls, or in any way open their ground for business, until two justices of the peace certified to the completion of the fair or market. After the opening of the place for public use, no person other than a licensed hawker may sell anywhere within the borough, his own house or shop excepted, any articles in respect of which tolls are legally exigible in the market. A breach of this provision entails a penalty of forty shillings. Vendors of unwholesome meat are liable to a penalty of £5 for each offence; and the “inspectors of provisions” have full liberty to seize the goods and institute proceedings against the owners. They may also enter “at all times of the day, with or without assistance,” the slaughter-house which the undertaker of the market may, by the special act, have been empowered to construct. For general sanitary reasons, persons are prohibited from killing animals anywhere except in these slaughter-houses. Again, by the Fairs Act 1873, times of holding fairs are determined by the secretary of state; while the Fairs Act 1871 empowers him to abolish any fair on the representation of the magistrate and with the consent of the owner. The preamble of the act states that many fairs held in England and Wales are both unnecessary and productive of “grievous immorality.”

The Fair Courts. — The piepowder courts, the lowest but most expeditious courts of justice in the kingdom, as Chitty calls them, were very ancient. The Conqueror's law De Emporiis shows their pre-existence in Normandy. Their name was derived from pied poudreux, i.e. “dusty-foot.”[1] The lord of the fair or his representative was the presiding judge, and usually he was assisted by a jury of traders chosen on the spot. Their jurisdiction was limited by the legal time and precincts of the fair, and to disputes about contracts, “slander of wares,” attestations, the preservation of order, &c.

Authorities. — See Herbert Spencer's Descriptive Sociology (1873), especially the columns and paragraphs on “Distribution”; Prescott's History of Mexico, for descriptions of fairs under the Aztecs; Giles Jacob's Law Dictionary (London, 1809); Joseph Chitty's Treatise on the Law of Commerce and Manufactures, vol. ii. chap. 9 (London, 1824); Holinshed's and Grafton's Chronicles, for lists, &c., of English fairs; Meyer's Das grosse Conversations-Lexicon (1852), under “Messen”; article “Foire” in Larousse's Dictionnaire universelle du XIXe siècle (Paris, 1866-1874), and its references to past authorities; and especially, the second volume, commercial series, of the Encyclopédie méthodique (Paris, 1783); M‘Culloch's Dictionary of Commerce (1869-1871); Wharton's History of English Poetry, pp. 185, 186 of edition of 1870 (London, Murray & Son), for a description of the Winchester Fair, &c.; a note by Professor Henry Morley in p. 498, vol. vii. Notes and Queries, second series; the same author's unique History of the Fair of St Bartholomew (London, 1859); Wharton's Law Lexicon (Will's edition, London, 1876); P. Huvelin's Essai historique sur le droit des marchés et des foires (Paris, 1897); Report of the Royal Commission on Market Rights and Tolls, vols. i. (1889), xiv. (1891); Final Report (1891); Walford's Fairs, Past and Present (1883); The Law relating to Markets and Fairs, by Pease and Chitty (London, 1899). (J. Ma.; Ed. C.*)


  1. In Med. Lat. pede-pulverosus meant an itinerant merchant or pedlar. In Scots borough law “marchand travelland” and “dusty fute” are identical.