1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Stratford-upon-Avon: The Rother Market (Cattle Market)

William Shakespeare
(Part 10)


The Rother Market, Stratford's Cattle Market.

This open ground was, as the name indicates, the great cattle market of Stratford, one of the most important features of its industrial history from very early times. In the later Middle Ages most of the wealthier inhabitants were engaged in farming operations, and the growth and prosperity of the place rresulted from its position as a market town in the midst of an agricultural and grazing district. In the 13th century a number of charters were obtained from the early Plantagenet kings, empowering the town to hold a weekly market and no fewer than five annual fairs four of which, yere mainly for cattle. In later times a series of great cattle markets, one for each month in the year, was added to the list. The name of the Stratford cattle market embodies this feature of its history, "rother" being a good Saxon word for horned cattle, a word freely employed in Early English, both alone and in composition. In the 16th century it was still in familiar use, not only in literature but in official documents and especial in statutes of the realm. Thus Cowell, in his law dictionary, under the heading "Rother-beasts," explains that "the name comprehends oxen, cows, steers, heifers, and such like horned beasts," and refers to statutes of Elizabeth and James in support of the usage. And Arthur Golding in 1567 translates Ovid's lines --

"Mille greges illi totidemque armenta per herbas

"A thousand flocks of sheep,
A thousand herds of rother-beasts, he in his fields did keep."

The word seems to have been longer retained and more free used in the Midland counties than elsewhere, and Shakespeare himself employs it with colloquial precision in the restored line of Timon of Athens: "It is the pasture lards the rother's sides." Many a time, no doubt, as a boy, during the spring and summer fairs, he had risen with the sun, and, making his way from Henley Street to the bridge, watched the first arrivals of the "large-eyed kine" slowly driven in from the rich pastures of the "Red Horse Valley." There would be some variety and excitement in the spectacle as the droves of meditative oxen were invaded from time to time by groups of Herefordshire cows lowing anxiously after the skittish calves, as well as by the presence and disconcerting activity of still smaller deer. And the boy would be sure to follow crowding cattle to the Rother Market and observe at leisure humours of the ploughmen and drovers from the Feldon district whose heavy intermittent talk would be in perfect keeping with bovine stolidity of the steers and heifers around them. There a market-cross at the head of the Rother expanse, and this was chief gathering place for the cattle-dealers, as the High Cross the rallying point of the dealers in corn and country produce. In modern Stratford Rother Market retains its place as the busiest centre at the annual fairs, during one of which it is still customary to roast an ox in the open street, often amidst a good deal of popular excitement and convivial uproar.

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