Happy Belated Bartlemas!

Did you know that yesterday was a very important holiday for those of us involved in printing and bookbinding? Yes, indeed. It was St. Bartholomew’s Day! Otherwise known as Bartlemas. 

Bartlemas was an important feast day in the Christian calendar and a celebration day for tradespeople of all kind, but particuarly printers.

Feast days were often used as community reminders for important activities. For example, Bartlemas was regarded as a signal for agricultural workers to sharpen their tools for the harvest. Appropriate, since St. Bart was flayed alive and is often shown holding his knife. Although few artists took this iconography as literally as the obsessive northern Italian sculptor, Marco d'Agrante, who depicted his St. Bart in full fleshless glory in the transept of the Cathedral of Milan.

Gruesome sculpture of St. Bartholomew the Apostle by Marco d'Agrate, 1562 - found in the Duomo of Milan.  [Source: santossanctorum.blogspot.com/]

This also made him the the patron saint of all the "knife-wielding" professions, including butchers, cobblers, leather workers, tanners - and bookbinders. 

The bookbinders connection linked Bartlemas with a medieval holiday for printers. August 24th  marked the shortening of the days and the need to light candles to work by. To aid them in their work during the waning days, the journeyman printers received a special payment for candles that was traditionally spent (in part?) on roast goose. By the late Victorian era this had somehow morphed into a day off to visit the seaside (after a raucous party in the print shop) - but even today it is still called a wayzgoose by nerdy printers everywhere. Although the origin of this term is uncertain and it is possible that it originally had nothing to do with geese. It was more typically the custom to roast a pig on Bartlemas - but perhaps the journeymen's candle fee was too small to afford that luxury.

It was also the day that paper makers cleaned out their vats and printers replaced the paper "windows" of their "chapels". Did you know that up until the 20th century printing shops were sometimes called “chapels”? I didn't know that. Supposedly this was because they evolved from medieval scriptoria where monks painstakingly wrote and illuminated their manuscripts -and because they had tall ceilings and big windows. 

"Printing Shop," from Alexander Anderson Scrapbooks, vol. 1; 19th century; Alexander Anderson (American, 1775-1870); wood engraving; New York Public Library, [Source: http://www.bgc.bard.edu/]

August 24th was also the traditional day of the "Blessing of the Mead" in Cornwall. Coincidence? I think not.

It has been said that on August 24, 1456 the printing of the Gutenberg Bible was completed [1] - thus triggering the first wayzgoose party at a print shop. (Or so people like to imagine).

The connection between St. Bart and printers may also have been strengthened by the fact that in the late 18th century, the Lady Chapel of the Priory Church of St. Bartholomew the Great (AKA Great Saint Bart's) had been temporarily turned into a printshop - it was here that Ben Franklin served his journeyman apprenticeship. [2]

By the way, Bartholomew was supposedly an obscure disciple of Jesus that preached in India and Armenia. His name means "bar-Tholomeus", or "son of Ptolemy" - which suggests an aristocratic lineage. 

Regardless, it seems that Bartlemas has always been a popular day for fairs, including the famous medieval Smithfield fair in London that was immortalized in Jonson's play, Bartholomew Fair - a location peopled with "balladeers, stall holders, prostitutes and cut-purses". 

Bartholomew Fair by Benjamin Robert Haydon. [Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/]

But like virtually all Christian festivals, this one had Roman roots. August 24th was the first day of the Roman Feast Day of Mania - named for the manes or ancestral spirits - as well as Manea who was an Etruscan/early Roman goddess of the dead. It was a feast day for these spirits as well as the goddess Ceres. The first day of the feast was celebrated by the opening the Mundus Cereris, or the "Pit of Ceres", which was an underground vault in the shape of an inverted sky. In 1914 Giacomo Boni discovered a subterranean structure on the Palatine Hill that he believed was the Mundus. 

Mundus cum patet, deorum tristium atque inferum quasi ianua patet. [Source: Wikipedia]

The cover was opened and the first fruits of the harvest were offered to Ceres. But because the Mundus was also an "Ostium Orci" - or Gate of Hades - you had to be very careful on this day since the spirits of the dead were free to roam (the pit was also opened on November 8th - which contributed greatly to the trappings of our modern day Halloween). 

Anyway - Happy Bartlemas!

[1] One of four copies of the Gutenberg Bible kept at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris contains a note by the rubricator and binder, Henricus Cremer, seeming to indicate that the volume was completed on St. Bartholomew's Day.

[2] From Franklin's autobiography: "I immediately got engaged at Palmer's, at that time a noted printer in Bartholomew Close, with whom I continued nearly a year. . . . I was employed at Palmer's on the second edition of Woolaston's Religion of Nature".