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Michaelmas and Mop Fairs - Lore and Traditions of an English Festival

Updated on June 27, 2017
Ledbury Mop Fair, date unknown
Ledbury Mop Fair, date unknown | Source

29th September is a day in the traditional English calendar when a lot happens.

The Feast Day of Michaelmas is noted in both Anglican and Catholic calendars, and so is celebrated in Ireland as well as Britain.

It is a time when the harvest is coming to an end, winter is coming, and much needs to be done before the hard months ahead.

Folklore was used to remind people of tasks that needed to be carried out. From paying of rent, to the need to stop picking certain fruits, Michaelmas helped the rural minded folk to manage themselves.

The date was also used to help predict the weather over winter, to help a farmer take an informed gamble on how to go with his crop sowing or livestock management. It was also a day when job seekers would take themselves to the fairs in the hopes of securing a contract for the next year.

In this article, we look at some of the many names, folklore, and superstitions associated with 29th September in England.

St Michael & the Dragon, Norwich Cathedral
St Michael & the Dragon, Norwich Cathedral | Source

Michaelmas

This date is best known of as Michaelmas, named after the Archangel Michael. This is a feast day from the Christian calendar which is believed to have its origins in the Middle Ages, and celebrates the victory of the Archangel Michael defeating Lucifer and casting him down from heaven.

It also happens to be the anniversary of the dedication of the Basilica of St Michael to him, and is celebrated both by the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches.

"Michael is regarded in the Christian world as the chief of angels, or archangel. His history is obscure. In Scripture, he is mentioned five times, and always in a warlike character; namely, thrice by Daniel as fighting for the Jewish church against Persia; once by St Jude as fighting with the devil about the body of Moses; and once by St John as fighting at the head of his angelic troops against the dragon and his host. He is usually represented in coat-armour, with a glory round his head, and a dart in his hand, trampling on the fallen Lucifer." [1]

The deep purple flower known as the Michaelmas Daisy flowers around this time, and is a much loved feature in many cottage gardens.

It is worth noting that Old Michaelmas Day falls on 10th or 11th October. The change of dates occurred in 1742 thanks to the Calendar Reform when the Julian Calendar was swapped for the Gregorian Calendar. Britain was rather slow on the uptake of this new date system which had been first introduced in 1582, and as a result, 11 days disappeared in 1742 to allow the British to synchronise their calendar with the rest of the Western World.

Blackberries, past their best on 30th September
Blackberries, past their best on 30th September | Source
The Devil's work!
The Devil's work! | Source

Devil Spits Day

29th September has another name; Devil Spits Day. This notes the date in the calendar when blackberries can no longer be picked, as they are spoiled by the Devil himself.

According to folklore, 29th September is the day was the day that the Devil fell down earth. Cast out from heaven after his defeat by the Archangel Michael, he fell straight into a thorny bramble bush where he was scratched to bits.

The Devil cursed the blackberries as he scrambled out of the bush, stamping on the brambles and scorching them with his fiery breath. Before he flew off to tend to some wickedness, he spat on the blackberries and made them unfit for consumption.

If you live in Cornwall, the Devil did far worse than spitting on the blackberries; he urinated on them.

Even in Ireland, this superstition is observed, as this proverb describes;

“On Michaelmas Day the devil puts his foot on blackberries” [2]

It is customary not to pick these wild bramble fruits after this date as they will make you bad, both of belly and fortune!

Common sense alone dictates that blackberries are past their best after this date, with blackberry picking season officially over before October begins.

Domestic geese in the wheat stubble
Domestic geese in the wheat stubble | Source
Sippers & Toppers, circa 1900, at Bidford Mop, taken by Sir Benjamin Stone
Sippers & Toppers, circa 1900, at Bidford Mop, taken by Sir Benjamin Stone | Source

Goose Day

Financial prosperity for the next 12 months was believed to occur if a goose was eaten on 29th September.

“Eat a goose on Michaelmas Day,
Want not for money all the year”
. - English Proverb

Geese were fattened on the fallen grain left in the wheat fields following the August harvest, so were seen by some to embody the desire to be frugal and not waste the products of a year's hard work.

It was also traditional to give a goose to your landlords as a gift on 29th September. In the 16th Century, rents were paid quarterly, and it was customary for tenants to present their landlord with a gift at the same time in the hopes that they would stay in their landlord's good books and not be turfed out of their cottages or cleared from the land that earned them their livelihood.

"And when the tenants come to pay their quarter's rent,
They bring some fowl at Midsummer, a dish of fish in Lent,
At Christmas a capon, at Michaelmas goose,
And somewhat else at New-year's tide, for fear their lease fly loose." [3]

Mop Fairs

Throughout England, you might see events known as Mop Fairs. Contracts of employment would once be set up to last one year, traditionally ending on Michaelmas. On 29th September or soon after. Hiring Fairs would take place in the towns and villages, although many parts of Britain held their Fairs on or around Martinmas on 11th November.

Following the Black Death, King Edward III introduced the Statute of Labourers in 1351. The population of Britain had been decimated, and labour was hard to come by. The economy was in danger of spiralling out of control, and so the Statute was put in place in an attempt to stabilise wages and keep the local work force from migrating to areas where the pay would be better. The Statute was harsh and demanded that anyone able to do so must present themselves for employment.

"That every person, able in body and under the age of 60 years, not having enough to live upon, being required, shall be bound to serve him that doth require him, or else be committed to gaol until he shall find surety to serve, and that the old wages shall be given and no more."

Hiring Fairs appeared in response to this, where the local population would present themselves for employment.

Those seeking work would arrive with the tools of their trade on display. For example, a housemaid would take a broom or a mop with her; which is where the term "Mop Fair" is believed to originate from.

"Among these, carters and waggoners were distinguished by having a piece of whip-cord twisted round their hats; thatchers wore a fragment of woven straw; shepherds held their sheep-crooks in their hands; and thus the situation required was known to the hirers at a glance." [4]

The Mop Fairs continued up until the Second World War, and only started to disappear with a change in the way the workforce was managed.

Today's Mop Fairs no longer feature villagers presenting themselves for employment, but remain a feature in the local calendar. Usually featuring market stalls, local produce, hog or ox roasts, a funfair, and dancing, music, and contests, they are popular events that the community looks forward to. The Alcester Mop is held around the beginning of October, with the Stratford-upon-Avon Mop taking place around the 10th October on or near Old Michaelmas Day. In Birmingham, the Kings Heath Mop takes place near the same date as Stratford's Mop Fair.

Interestingly, there are also "Runaway Fairs" that take place in many of the towns that hold Mop Fairs. A second hiring fair, they usually take place the week after the main Mop Fair. It is believed that they were set up to allow job seekers to look again for employment if they found their original employer too harsh or demanding. The period between a Mop Fair and Runaway Fair also gave employers a chance to trial their new employees; if they were not suitable, those taken on could be released from contract and the employers could seek replacements at the Runaway Fair.

The 1930 Mop Fair at Monmouth was livened up after an elephant escaped.
The 1930 Mop Fair at Monmouth was livened up after an elephant escaped. | Source

Footage of the Stratford-upon-Avon Mop Fair, 1914

Little Malvern in the snow, Worcestershire
Little Malvern in the snow, Worcestershire | Source

Michaelmas Weather Predictions

In times gone by, people didn't have the sophisticated technology that we now have, to help predict the weather. Not that it makes much difference, I am not sure that our forecasters are any more accurate!

The wrong decision about when to plant or harvest a crop could be disastrous, and there was a real risk of ruin and starvation if a farmer got it wrong. There were many superstitions around the weather that would help a decision be made.

"If St Michael brings many acorns, Christmas will cover the fields with snow."

This predicts a snowbound winter if there was a bounty of acorns on the local oak trees at the end of September.

Good weather on St Michaelmas day would be an indication of fine weather at Christmas, although a sunny day in winter would usually be very cold. Other superstitions contradict this, for example with the proverb; "A dark Michaelmas, a light Christmas."

October is usually a month where low lying areas were prone to flooding. To predict the length of these events, the folk would use this proverb to work out how bad it would be; "So many days old the moon is on Michaelmas Day, so many floods after."

Another proverb tells how the weather on Michaelmas Day would affect the spring the following year; "If it does not rain on St Michael’s and Gallus (16th October), a dry spring is indicated for the next year."

Marlborough Mop Fair, present day
Marlborough Mop Fair, present day | Source

Finally, I leave you with this saying; "Michaelmas chickens and parsons' daughters never come to any good."

Be warned, both leave you with bad eggs!

Stratford-upon-Avon Mop Fair, 1969

Sources

[1] Chambers Book of Days, 1864

[2] Karen Booth, Country Feasts and Fables

[3] The Posies of George Gascoigne (1575)

[4] Thomas Hardy, Far from the Maddening Crowd - ISBN 978-0141439655

© 2014 Pollyanna Jones

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    • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Pollyanna Jones 

      4 years ago from United Kingdom

      It's funny how so much of the lore crosses over with Britain and Ireland. Thanks for reading, Colleen, I'm glad it brought memories back for you.

    • Colleen Swan profile image

      Colleen Swan 

      4 years ago from County Durham

      Great article, I really enjoyed reading this because there was lots I didn't know about and threads that I am pleased to confirm in my memories. I am of Irish descent and am aware of the devils spit. The blackberries would be infested with little maggots.

    • Pollyanna Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Pollyanna Jones 

      4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks both! :-) Yes, I strongly feel that our festivals are worth noting and remembering. I love to record them, so others can celebrate or re-discover the way the year was passed in times of old. I would hate to see these traditions die, they are such a part of our culture.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 

      4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for all the great information on Michaelmas and Mop Fairs. We have so many traditions and much folklore in the UK and it would be such a great shame if it was all lost

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 

      4 years ago

      Great article! I love all the tidbits of info and pictures! I read a little about Michaelmas and mentioned it in a CG article last year, but it was just a mention and didn't get this much in depth exploration.

      All of these Saints days used to give common folk scheduled times of revelry, time off of work, and regular holidays frequently through the year. For all the criticism of the Catholic Church, they kept these days that had earlier connotations. The Anglican Church kept a lot of the traditions from Catholicism. I honestly blame Puritanical reform for doing away with all of these holidays. Europe kept them longer than America, and England kept regular bank holidays. But it seems like these days are slipping away as we succumb to this idea of 24/7 round the clock and calendar non-stop work drive...

      Anyay, I love that you are exploring all of these customs and holidays! As always Upvoted and shared to my HP feed :-)!

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