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Magic on the Early English Stage

Magic on the Early English Stage

by Philip Butterworth

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Magic on the Early English Stage investigates the performance of magical tricks, illusions, effects and their staged appearance in the medieval and early English theatre. Performers who created such magic were not known as conjurors, as we might refer to them today, but as jugglers. Records concerning jugglers on the medieval stage have been hitherto misunderstood


Magic on the Early English Stage investigates the performance of magical tricks, illusions, effects and their staged appearance in the medieval and early English theatre. Performers who created such magic were not known as conjurors, as we might refer to them today, but as jugglers. Records concerning jugglers on the medieval stage have been hitherto misunderstood or misapplied. These references to jugglers are re-examined in the light of discussions of 'feats of activity' that also include tumbling, vaulting and 'dancing on the rope'; appearances and disappearances of the 'Now you see it, now you don't' variety; and stage versions of these concepts; magic through sound in terms of ventriloquy and sound through pipes; mechanical images and puppets; and stage tricks. Information that has remained dormant since original publication is discussed in relation to jugglers such as Thomas Brandon, the King's Juggler, and William Vincent, alias 'Hocus Pocus'. • Investigates the nature of the work of medieval jugglers for the first time
• Identifies and discusses individual jugglers and their work
• Draws upon analysis of stage directions, civic records, ecclesiastical accounts, eye-witness descriptions, and early books on magic to form a picture of the representation of magic on the medieval stage

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
'Philip Butterworth is rapidly establishing himself as the pre-eminent authority on special effects of the medieval stage ... His approach is cautious, scholarly, and thorough ... Magic on the Early English Stage is a valuable addition to our knowledge of stage effects and other technical 'tricks' of the period.'
Comparative Drama

"Magic on the Early English Stage provides an unprecedentedly precise and impeccably thorough survey of the historical records within its purview." - Bruce Boehrer, Studies in English Literature

"This valuable compendium should be acquired by university libraries and academies of dramatic art." —DuBruck: The Current State of Research

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Cambridge University Press
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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Magic on the Early English Stage
Cambridge University Press
052182513X - Magic on the Early English Stage - By Philip Butterworth


This work is concerned with sleight of hand, illusion and magic both on and off the medieval and early English stage. Thus, its central preoccupation is with pretence - its nature and purpose in the creation of magic. The kinds of communicated magic under consideration are of different sorts and brought about by different intentions, processes, skill and understanding. There is an inherent concern for the appearance of something as opposed to its existence in reality. These interrelated notions are extended to convince the witness that the appearance of something is indeed the reality. The same fundamental relationship between appearance and reality conditions the core of activity conducted by both conjurors and the staged presentation of illusion in the theatre.

The conjuror does not need a stage upon which to perform his work, any more than does the actor, although many in modern times do perform on the stage and exploit the physical circumstances of staging conditions and conventions. The conjuror only needs the immediate space that surrounds him in order to manipulate its interaction with the space of the witness. Magic created through staged illusions, however, operates in space that extends beyond the conjuror's ambit to that where the increased scale is implicit to the nature and purpose of the illusion. Such discrepancies in scale serve to condition the similarities and differences between the work of the conjuror and the creation of staged illusion in the theatre.

The extent to which perceived pretence and its purpose is communicated by the conjuror is different from that which is brought about by staging conditions. The theatrical event and its purpose, whether in a building or outdoors, acts as a constant reminder to the audience as to the artificiality of the proceedings. Thus, the audience becomes involved in a conscious process of pretence by virtue of the occasion and its declared and communicated purpose. The conjuror does not need to depend on a pre-arranged agreement with his audience as to the nature of the event; he is able to create an agreement about pretence at the point of delivery through an implicit or explicit question: 'Would you like to see some magic?'

When it comes to the relationship between appearances and reality, there are no rigid lines of demarcation between conjuring and theatre. Some evidence exists of medieval characters who are seemingly required to perform magical tricks in plays. However, there is also evidence of scenes in medieval and early English plays concerned with conjuring as content that is realised by organisation of staging conditions involving, for example, trap doors, screens and curtains. This is particularly so in relation to appearances and disappearances.

Manipulation of pretence may be brought about openly in theatre where there is a tacit agreement about its nature and intention by those who create it and those who witness it. The audience knows what the pretence is. Pretence that occurs through the conjuror is not only the content but it is also the means; content and means are fused to determine the pretence. This convergence determines the nature of the agreement or collusion between conjuror and witness: the relationship is one of unequal collusion. A different, yet related, form of collusion occurs when the conjuror is supported by a confederate.

There is considerable evidence of the working of these concerns in medieval stage directions, civic records, ecclesiastical accounts, eye-witness descriptions, books of secrets and early books on magic from which to determine its significance - both to conjuring and the staging of theatre.

Today, the principal term that is used to encompass magical activity is conjuring. However, the action that relates to this word as it is understood in the twenty-first century, whether witnessed on television, on stage or in the open air, is not to be found in medieval or early English plays or documents that refer to itinerant performers. Conjuring, as a term employed to describe the act of performing magical tricks, was not used in its current sense in England until the nineteenth century. The words conjuration, conjure, conjurer and conjury first come into use with related meanings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. So, the term conjuring and its derivatives will not be used in this work unless it is to draw a modern comparison. Since the word conjuring is not to be found in relation to the sort of processes under discussion, what are appropriate terms to describe such activity? The chief designations in use from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries are: tregetry, legerdemaine, prestigiation, juggling or jugglery, feats, feats of activity and sleight of hand. Conveyance and confederacy are two of the named means of bringing about magical acts. The principal, and some tangential, perpetrators of these processes are the tregetour, praestigiator, joculator, circulator, mountebanke, emperick, quacksalver and juggler. Each of these terms will be discussed further in Chapter .

The most consistently used words to describe the production of magic throughout this period are juggler (for the exponent) and juggling (for the activity). The term juggling, however, has been referred to as 'the lexicographer's nightmare', for this meaning and its creator, the juggler, are perhaps the least understood and most misunderstood words used to describe the creation of acts of magic. In the twenty-first century the term juggler is applied to that kind of entertainer who throws up objects from one hand to another in a continuous rhythmical sequence without dropping them to the floor. This meaning of juggler is a nineteenth-century development in England and was only recently defined by the Shorter OED (1993). This modern definition does not occur in the 1901, 1933 (and supplement), 1970 (and supplement) or the second 1989 editions of the OED. Nor does this recent definition appear in the latest online editions of the OED until the Additions Series of 1997. It is curious that the first inclusion of the modern definition appears in the Shorter OED before being recorded in the complete OED. Although there is pictorial evidence that this kind of action was performed in the Middle Ages it was not the principal activity of those identified as jugglers. All the definitions contained in the OED concerning medieval use of the terms juggle, juggler, jugglery and juggling refer to conjuring in its modern sense. However, evidence exists of medieval jugglers in other countries who operated as skilled conjurors and jugglers (in the more recent sense). These jugglers both performed sleight of hand and juggled objects. Evidence concerning the activities of medieval jugglers in England that identifies the nature of juggling overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, refers to conjuring or illusion as it is understood today. Thus, throughout this work, the terms juggling and jugglers will be used in all medieval references to conjurors as understood by the modern term and its use. The term conjuror is not therefore an appropriate one to use in this context.

Roger Bacon (1214?-94) offers a clear description of the juggler's art. Even so, this is a description by a witness of juggling and not one that might have been provided by a juggler:

Nam sunt qui motu veloce membrorum apparentia singunt, aut vocum diversitate, aut instrumentorum subtilitate, aut tenebris, aut consensu multa mortalibus proponunt miranda, quae non habent existentiae veritatem. his mundus plenus est, sicut manifestum est inquirenti. Nam joculatores multa manuum velocitate mentiuntur.
The earliest, and somewhat free, translation of Bacon's comments is offered by 'T. M.' in Frier Bacon his Discovery of the Miracles of Art, Nature, and Magick. Faithfully translated out of Dr Dees own Copy, by T. M. and never before in English [1618]:
We have many men that by the nimblenesse and activity of body, diversification of sounds, exactness of instruments, darkness, or consent, make things seem to be present, which never were really existent in the course of Nature. The world, as any judicious eye may see, groans under such bastard burdens. A Jugler by an handsome sleight of hand, will put a compleat lie upon the very sight.

The identity of many medieval jugglers as conjurors has not been known. Where identification of given jugglers has been made it may have been assumed previously that their skills were concerned with throwing up objects and not conjuring. Clear evidence of juggling activity in England exists from the thirteenth century and all such evidence where it identifies the nature of the activity does so in respect of the modern understanding of conjuring. No English evidence that identifies the nature of juggling from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries illustrates the activity as throwing up objects and catching them.

However, the act of throwing up objects and catching them may well have occurred as a skilled activity by those performers such as tumblers, vaulters and dancers on the rope whose skills and activity were collectively and individually known as feats of activity. Even so, there is no written evidence of this activity in England during the period under investigation. Since juggling is a qualitatively different kind of activity from the physically exacting activities of tumbling, vaulting and dancing on the rope, it is not possible to confirm that these skills were performed by the medieval juggler. It does seem clear, however, that this range of skills was performed by small groups consisting of distinctively skilled performers whose work developed from the core of family companies that included jugglers.

The purpose of this work has not been previously undertaken in monograph (or any other) form and thus the evidence upon which the examination is based permits the presentation of some material that has not been published since its original publication. Also, a considerable amount of hitherto unpublished material has now been published through the Records of Early English Drama (REED) project based at the University of Toronto. The present work makes extensive use of some of this information together with that collated in the Malone Society Collections series. Although it might be considered that some of the medieval and early English records presented here are repetitious in their collective volume, particularly in respect of jugglers, it is important to appreciate both the quantity and quality of such records in order to point to their hitherto unfocused significance.

Many accounts of the period under investigation refer to the related operation of two concepts and their associated practices as used by the medieval and early English juggler: conveyance and confederacy. Conveyance refers to sleight of hand and confederacy is concerned with collusion of different sorts. Individually, or in association, these two processes account for much of the recorded activity of medieval jugglers.

The modern phrase, 'Now you see it, now you don't' embodies the central concern of the juggler in respect of that which appears and that which disappears. Most of the juggler's repertoire is concerned with these two states and their relationship. The same point may be made in respect of the conduct of theatre. Whether the delivery of appearances and disappearances is real or illusory depends on the existence of theatrical conventions by which the perpetrators communicate or deliberately deny communication of their intentions.

Another popular and yet fallacious phrase concerning sleight of hand is summed up by the modern saying, 'The quickness of the hand deceives the eye'. However, jugglers' hands cannot move fast enough to deceive the eye. In order to be successful, sleight of hand must be slow, deliberate and undetectable, unless the intention is to create a ploy to mislead the spectator by attracting his attention. This may amount to misdirection of the eye although such misdirection is not the only sensory apparatus by which the juggler works. Auditory misdirection is required by stage directions in some medieval and early English plays, and this is also the basis of communicated ventriloquial sound of which there is further evidence.

Development of ventriloquial sound may be inferred from many medieval accounts concerning puppetry. Such accounts exist from the thirteenth century in a variety of staging and presentational modes. Additional evidence in this area has been made available through the REED project.

The inanimate figure as represented by the puppet or mechanical image is linked to the substitution, or partial substitution, of bodies and/or their limbs. In general, such replacements are intended to portray or, alternatively, convince an audience of the authenticity of the body or limb(s) to their ostensible owner. Some ingenuity in their use is apparent in a number of accounts.

Perhaps the greatest inventiveness in respect of both juggling and staging considerations may be seen in the range of stage tricks that are articulated and, in some instances, explained. Evidence concerning tricks that involve knives, daggers, wounds, blood, hanging, snakes and water effects may be found in stage directions as well as eye-witness accounts.

Many of the perpetrators of these tricks and effects are unknown, but a surprising number of medieval and early English jugglers and other presentational personnel are recorded, as may be seen from what follows.

© Cambridge University Press

Meet the Author

Philip Butterworth is Reader in Medieval Theatre at the School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds. He is the author of Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre, and has published widely in journals on the subject of Medieval Theatre, including essays in 'Medieval English Theatre'. He is currently working, with Joslin McKinney, on The Cambridge Introduction to Scenography, to be published in 2006.

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