Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Celebrating Horniness

October 18th is St. Luke’s Day. Legend has it that, on this date sometime during the 12th century, King John passed through the village of Charlton near Greenwich while hunting. He stopped at a mill to rest and was captivated by the absent miller's beautiful wife. When the husband returned unexpectedly and caught the two dallying, he threatened to kill them. King John made a bargain: in exchange for their lives, he granted the man ownership of the land between Charlton and the bend in the Thames at Rotherhithe. With it came the right to hold a fair at Charlton every St. Luke’s Day.
So how did the festival become associated with horns?

St. Luke is represented by the horned ox. (See: Symbols of the Four Evangelists.) Furthermore, from the mid-15th century onward, horns had a sexual connotation, most likely a reference to stags in rut. For a man “to wear the horns” meant to be cuckolded. (The word cuckold derives from the Old French word for the cuckoo, cucu. Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests.)

The bend in the river at Rotherhithe was known as Cuckold's Point. A pole with ram's horns atop it stood there until at least the late 17th century. On St. Luke's Day, revelers sporting antlers and blowing on ram's horns would gather at the Point and riotously make their way to Charlton.

Daniel Defoe described the Horn Fair as a yearly collection of mad people. “[T]he mob…take all kinds of liberties, and the women are eminently impudent…as if it were a time that justified the giving themselves a loose to all manner of indecency without any reproach…”

Harper's New Magazine reported in 1888: "While Horn Fair is not so famous in literature as is Mayfair or the Fair of St. Bartholomew, it is worthy of a place in profane history on account of its noise, drunkenness, ribaldry, and riot. Nothing was sold at Horn Fair but horns and things made of horn, unless it were gingerbread as tough as horn, and the worst strong drink that was ever brewed or distilled, or ever quailed from horn. It was frequented by a most motley crew; rabble from tho East End of London and from the City proper; men and women in smock-frocks and new white caps from the country round about, who came to drink the lusty, lusty horn, and to dance and gape and brawl and fight; with a liberal smattering of belles and gallants from Westminster, who had a passion in those days for riot, no matter how rough and unrefined it might be."

Many believe the festival actually is rooted in Celtic tradition. Whatever its lascivious origins, the event was stopped by the Greenwich Council in 1873. One hundred years later, it was revived as a family event that is now held in June.

Cuckold's Point
The Horn Fair of London: London's First Carnival?
Harper's New Magazine, Vol. 77; 1888; p.990
Travels in England, by Paul Hentzner
A Tour Through the Island of Britain Vol. 1, by Daniel Defoe; 1762; p.129-131
The sign of the cuckold
Charlton's Horn Fair Parade Revived