Smithfield was a triangular open area of 5 to 6 acres just outside the City of London (Chalfant, 162). Smithfield was chiefly known as the site of Bartholomew Fair, held annually on August 24. Throughout the Middle Ages Bartholomew Fair was the most important cloth fair in Britain. During this period cloth was Britain’s most significant export, mostly being sold to Holland. The fair was named after the nearby church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great, but after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, which became a major symbol of the persecution of the Protestants, the name carried additional religious significance. By the early seventeenth century Bartholomew Fair had increasingly become known as a place for entertainment as well as commercial activity. (Gossett 16). People from all sections of London society converged upon the Fair every year on 24th August to mix together in this festival space.
In addition to the Fair, there was a regular horse, sheep, and cattle market held at Smithfield (Chalfant, 162). The horses clearly visible at Smithfield on the Agas Map are depictions of the horse dealers of this market showing off their wares. An area near this market in Smithfield was known as Ruffians Hall, a place where trials by combat and duels reputedly took place (Chalfant, 163). Smithfield was also occasionally used as the site for royal tournaments and jousts (Chalfant, 163).
Ben Jonson takes Smithfield and Bartholomew Fair as the setting for his play, taking ” a real event, the cloth fair that for centuries had occurred annually on 24 August in the courtyard of the church of St. Bartholomew-the-Great, in London’s Smithfield” turning it “into a symbolic representation of religious, social, and political conflicts of English society in 1614” (Gossett, 1). The Bartholomew Fair portrayed in Jonson’s play focuses on its pleasurable aspects, such as pig-eating and play-watching, as well as the more unsavoury, such as the footpads and con-artists that frequented the Fair.
Jonson tracks his characters’ journeys out of the City and towards the fair during Act 1, and then uses Smithfield as the setting for all of the action after Act 2. Jonson populates his Fair with a variety of characters from all sections of society, creating a microcosm of London in the theatrical space of Smithfield. Jonson makes this connection between the Hope Playhouse and Smithfield explicit in his mock contract with the audience of the Hope in the Induction, telling the audience that although the Hope does not look exactly like Smithfield, it is as at least as dirty and smelly as the Fair.
Stage-Keeper: “When’t comes to the Fair once, you were e’en as good go to Virginia for anything there is of Smithfield” (Induction.10-11)
Scrivener: “It is further covenanted, concluded, and agreed, that however great soever the expectation be, no person here is to expect more than he knows or better ware than a Fair will afford, neither to look back to the sword-and-buckler age of Smithfield, but content himself with the present. Instead of a little Davy to take toll’ o the bawds, the author doth promise a strutting horse-courser […] And then for Kindheart, the tooth drawer, a fine oily pig woman with her tapster to bid you welcome, and a consort of roarers for music” (Induction.116-126)
Scrivener: “As also, such as shall so desperately or ambitiously play the fool by his place aforesaid, to challenge the author of scurrility because the language somewhere savours of Smithfield, the booth, and the pig broth, or of profaneness because a madman cries, ‘God quit you’, or ‘bless you’.” (Induction.151-156)
Scrivener: “And though the Fair be not kept in the same region that some here, perhaps, would have it, yet think that therein the author hath observed a special decorum, the place being as dirty as Smithfield and as stinking every whit” (Induction.159-163)
Joan Trash: “though I be a little crooked o’ my body, I’ll be found as upright in my dealing as any woman in Smithfield” (2.2.24-26)
Quarlous: “She’ll make excellent gear for the coachmakers here in Smithfield to anoint wheels and axletrees with” (2.5.77-78)
Knockem: “Be of good cheer, Urs, thou hast hindered me the currying of a couple of stallions here that abused the good race-bawd o’ Smithfield” (2.5.162-164)
Justice Overdo: “Hark, O you sons and daughters of Smithfield! And hear what malady it doth the mind: it causeth swearing, it causeth swaggering, it causeth snuffling and snarling, and now and then a hurt” (2.6.68-71)
Zeal-of-the-Land Busy: “the place is Smithfield, or the field of smiths, the grove of hobbyhorses and trinkets, the wares are the wares of the devils. And the whole Fair is the shop of Satan!” (3.2.39-42)
Quarlous: “If I had as much title to her as to have breathed once on that strait stomacher of hers, I would now assure myself to carry her yet, ere she went out of Smithfield” (3.2.139-142)
Zeal-of-the-Land Busy: “Thou art the seat of the Beast, O Smithfield, and I will leave thee” (3.6.45-46)
Cokes: “An ever any Bartholomew had that luck in ‘t that I have had, I’ll be martyred for him, and in Smithfield, too” (4.3.71-73)
Captain Whit: “Of a valiant man I tink I am the patientsh man i’ the world, or in all Smithfield” (4.4.214-216)
Punk Alice: “Thou sow of Smithfield, thou!” (4.5.75)
Leatherhead: “All the foul i’ the Fair, I mean all the dirt in Smithfield (that’s one of Master Littlewit’s carriwitches now), will be thrown at our banner today if the matter does not please the people” (5.1.3-6)
Justice Overdo: “Look upon me, O London, and see me, O Smithfield! The example of justice and mirror of magistrates, the true top of formality and scourge of enormity” (5.6.33-36)
The Roaring Girl
Middleton and Dekker make general references to Bartholomew Fair and the commercial activity that took place at Smithfield.
“if he were sure his father’s skin would yield him any money, he would, when he dies, flay it off and sell it to cover drums for children at Barthol’mew Fair!” (3.3.157-160)
“the best in Smithfield” (3.1.12)