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Sixteenth-century Conjuring Tricks June 30, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

It was a slow day in the cave, the sabre-tooth tigers were roaring outside and the grass shoots and snails had all been consumed. Ug was playing with the knuckle bones of one of his late wives and with remarkable dexterity (given how poor he had been at hunting recently) he made the bones dance between his fingers, appearing and disappearing as if by magic.

Conjuring presumably began like this somewhere in deep prehistory. It then will have got mixed up with religion: Beach bets the druids and the magi ‘knew a trick or two’. Then slowly it will have emerged as a way to attract and midirect attention in crowds, employed by card sharps, relic sellers and the like. But has anyone attempted to write a history of conjuring (as opposed to magic) going back into the middle ages? We suspect not a good one, though would love to be corrected: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. This is a classic example where the sources simply are not available: a combination of disinterest among writers and the understandable reticence of the conjuring profession to explain what is going on.  

There is some stuff kicking around though and Beachcombing recently came across this quotation from a sixteenth-century text (Del Rio) in a book on medieval, early modern witchcraft (14-15).

The following are things which (for shame) very credulous but otherwise pious princes allow to take place in their presence. Iron objects, silver platters and similar things of great weight are put on top of a table and then, without the assistance of a magnet, a cord, a hair or other means, are pulled from one end of the table to the other, jumping up and down as they go. Someone pulls out a playing-card from the rest of the pack without letting anyone else see it, and then its face is changed three times while the person still has the card in his hand. There are mirrors which see to show things from far away places. In the space of three hours a real shrub is made to grow a span’s length from the table, and trees with leaves and fruit suddenly appear. Lanterns lit with a special flame make all the women present look as though they are naked, and reveal those parts which nature tells us should remain concealed; and while the women are unclothed, they perform a ritual dance as long as a lantern, which is hung up in the middle of the room, continued to burn… Such things should be ascribed to trickery [as opposed to witchcraft]

There are some curiosities here. The shrub that grows in three hours recalls an earlier post from India.  The playing card trick might be a very boring night at Las Vegas. What about though the nudity lamp? How does that work? Presumably the women in question were brought along by the conjurer. It might be a little ‘awkward’ if the queen mons pubis suddenly appeared through her dress: ‘I want him to die and I want him to die slowly…’. What about the jumping objects: presumably an invisible thread of great strength? And the mirrors showing far away places: ‘they do it with mirrors you know’?


30 June 2010: First up Michael L writes: If I read you correctly you are interested in a history of conjuring going back to the Middle Ages and by that you mean the magic accomplished to trickery (and not attributed to the supernatural or religion). Rest assured: you have at least one stage magician who is a reader and I have a few recommendations! Believe it or not, most magicians are very interested in the history of our craft and there are many works on the famous magicians of yesteryear. Most start during the ‘golden age’ of magic, which is pretty much the vaudeville/variety days… but there are a couple books you might enjoy. The Illustrated History of Magic by Milbourne Christopher (various editions over the last 40 or so years) is the classic popular history of magic; it is worth reading although it really picks up with the 18th or 19th century. Magic 1400s-1950s by Mike Caveney and Jim Steinmeyer (published by Taschen) is probably the book you’d really like; they are both considered real historians of magic by magicians. Unfortunately, it is extremely expensive. I have yet to find a copy for less than $200… so I don’t have a copy to lend you. To slake your thirst for knowledge until you are lucky enough to find Magic 1400s-1950s you might try Steinmeyer’s Hiding The Elephant (the story behind Houdini’s disappearing elephant and much, much more) or his collection of essays on magic: Art and Artifice. You may enjoy the history of the bullet catch, Twelve Have Died by Ben Robinson as well, but I believe it is hopelessly out of print and horribly expensive now as well. Frank Coffey’s Art of Magic, which is a book tied to a PBS television special on magic, may also be a good source for the history you want. And then comes the immortal Mike Dash: I usually turn to Ricky Jay here. Aside from being a great close-up magician in his own right, he is a considerable scholar of the history of magic, works with the Conjuring Arts Research Center, and runs the biannual Conference on Magic History (which has also involved Fort biographer Jim Steinmeyer). A look at some of his excellent books (Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women) suggests there’s plenty of literature from the sixteenth century onwards. Before the invention of printing, not so much. An extensive online bibliography of magic history suggests the same.’ Thanks to Michael and Mike for the education!

31 August 2012: Penne writes, Here’s a reference to conjuring in1537, courtesy Chamber’s Book of Days:  It’s attributed to ‘Lindsay’ a contemporary Scots writer, hopefully accessible online. Invisible writes ‘I’m partial to stories of fake moving/bleeding/weeping images exposed as pious conjuring tricks. One of the best-known of these was the Holy Rood of Boxley Abbey. Here is the tale of the origin of the Rood as told by William Lambarde, in Perambulation of Kent, 1570: The ungratious Roode of Grace It chaunced (as the tale is) that upon a time, a cunning Carpenter of our countrie was taken prisoner in the warres betweene us and Fraunce, who (wanting otherwise to satisfie for his raunsome, and having good leisure to devise for his deliveruance) thought it best to attempt some curious enterprise, within the compasse of his owne Art and skill, to make himself some money withal: And therefore, getting together fit matter for his purpose, he compated of wood, wyer, paste and paper, a Roode of such exquisite arte and excellencie, that it not onely matched in comelynesse and due proportion of the partes the best of the common sort: but in straunge motion, variety of gesture, and nimbleness of ioints, passed al other that before had been seene: the same being able to bow down and life up it selfe, to shake and stirre the hands and feete, to nod the head, to rolle the eies, to wag the chaps, to bende the browes, and finally to represent to the eie, both the proper motion of each member of the body, and also a lively, expresse, and significant shew of a well contented or displeased minde: byting the lippe, and gathering a frowning, forward, and disdainful face, when it would pretend offence: and shewing a most milde, amiable, and smyling cheere and countenaunce when it woulde seeme to be well pleased. So that now it needed not Prometheus fire to make it a lively man, but onely the helpe of the covetous Priestes of Bell, or the aide of some craftie College of Monkes, to deifie and make it passé for a verie God. This done, he made shifte for his libertie, came over into the Realme, of purpose to utter his merchandize, and laide the Image upon the backe of a Iade that he drave before him.  Now, when hee was come so farre as to Rochester on his way, hee waxed drie by reason of travaile, and called at an alehouse for ddrinke to refreshe him, suffering his horse neverthelesse to go forwarde alone along the Citie. This Iade was no sooner out of sight, but hee missed the straight westerne way that his Maister intended to have gone, and turning Southe, made a great pace toward Boxley, and being driven (as it were) by some divine furie, never ceased iogging till he came at the Abbay church doore, where he so beat and bounced with his heeles, that divers of the Monkes heard the noise, came to the place to knowe the cause, and (marveling at the straungenesse of the thing) called the Abbat and his Covent to behode it. These good men seeing the horse so earnest and discerning what he had on his backe, for doubt of deadly impietie opened the doore: which they had no sooner done, but the horse rushed in, and ran in great haste to a piller (which was the verie place where this Image was afterward advaunced) and there stopped himself, and stoode still. Now while the Monkes were busie to take off the lode, in commeth the Carpetner (that by great inquisition had followed) and he challenged his owne: the Monkes, loth to loose to beneficiall a stray, at the first made some denial, but afterward, being assured by all signes that he was the verie Proprieetarie, they graunt him to take it with him. The Carpenter then taketh the horse by the head, and first assayeth to leade him out of the Church, but he would not stirre for him: Then beateth hee and striketh him, but the Iade was so restie and fast nailed, that he woulde not once remove his foote from the piller: at the last he taketh off the Image, thinking to have carried it out by it selfe, and then to have led the horse after: but that also cleaved so fast to the place, that nothwithstanding all that ever he (and the Monks alos, which at the length were contented for pities sake to helpe him) coulde doe, it would not be moved one inche from it: So that in the ende, partly from wearinesse in wrestling, and partly by persuasion of the Monkes, which were in love iwht the Picture, and made him believe that it was by God himself destinate to their house, the Carpenter was contented for a peece of money to go his way, and leave the Roode behinde him. Thus you see the generation of this the great God of Boxley, comparable (I warrant you) to the creation of that beastly Idoll Priapus, of which the Poet saith, Olim truncus eram ficulnus, inutile lignum, Cum faber incertus Scamnum Faceretne Priapum, Maluit Esse Deum: Deus inde ego furum, &c.A Figtree blocke sometime I was, A log unmeete for use: Till Carver doubting with himself, Wert Best make Priapus, Or else a benche? Resolvd at last To make a God of mee: Thencefoorth a God I am, of birdes And theeves most drad, you see. But what? I shall not neede to reporte, howe lewdly these Monkes, to their own enriching and the spoile of Gods people, abused this wooden God after they had thus otten him, because a good sort be yet on live that sawe the fraude openly detected at Paules Crosse and others may reade it disclosed in books [Lambarde continues with the story of the statue of St. Rumbold at Boxley, which I am too lazy to transcribe. It is paraphrased below in a quote from The Pilgrims’ Way, John Adair, p. 59.] Tradition related that this sacred object [Boxley Abbey’s Holy Rood of Grace] had arrived one day at the monastery on the back of a stray packhorse. “The figure of Christ on the cross concealed a clockwork mechanism and a mesh of wires which enabled the face to assume different expressions, the eyes to roll and weep, the mouth to move, the hands to life in blessing and the head to bow in sorrow. It was an extraordinary visual aid for men and women who longed to see the living Christ. Like other statues, for example a Kentish figure burnt at Smithfield in 1538 which bowed to receive the prayers of pilgrims, the Boxley Rood belonged to a growing category of such unauthorized popular images. But bishops, despite some disgust, in general looked the other way, and even on occasion defended them against theiconoclastic criticisms of the Lollards. Archbishop Warham could inform Cardinal Wolsey on the eve of the Reformation that Boxley was “so holy a place where so many miracles are showed.”  St Rumbold, the son of a Northumbrian king, died when he was three days old but not before reciting the Paternoster and Apostles’ Creed, a feat which led to him being declared a saint. The small statue of St. Rumbold at Boxley could be moved by a child or else prove so heavy that a strong man tugged in vain. In particular girls or women who had lost their chastity could not budge it, and thereby disqualified themselves from kneeling before the Holy Rood of Grace. Those doubtful of their state would make their confession for a fee and then give a generous offering to the attendant priest who—according to later Protestant writers—merely slipped a wooden retaining pin out of a hidden supporting pillar. Thus it moved more laughter than devotion, declared the early 17th century divine Thomas Fuller and many chaste virgins and wives went away with blushing faces.” There was also the Holy Rood of Bromhelme/Bromholm, which was said to be found at the Dissolution to be a rotten wooden puppet full of wires and sticks, but I am having difficulty finding anything more about the deception–although there are loads of videos online of the folk ballad about the True Cross relic contained in the rood. If you have access: this on JSTOR  may shed more light. [There is a book by William A. Christian called Moving Crucifixes in Modern Spain, but it is about spirituality and miracles, not fraudulent animated roods. The Amazon blurb reads: Why are religious visions believed only in certain times and places? In this book William Christian investigates the settings and responses to a series of group visions reported by Spaniards in rural Galicia, Valencia, Cantabria and Navarre in the early part of this century - the most notable one involving the crucifix at Limpia. I think some elements of conjuring must be going on here also, although the ever-popular "mass hysteria" might also cover it.] There is also the statue of St. James the Great at the Monasterio de las Huelgas Reales in Burgos, where kings of Castile were crowned.  This is also where knighthoods were conferred, not by a person, but by St. James himself, whose  statue with an articulated arm holding a sword can still be seen here. It is a moot point how much this was merely a symbolic gesture using the statue as opposed to a belief that the statue was actually moving by itself. I wonder how much information histories of puppetry might yield about these kinds of illusions? And perhaps the most famous pious conjuring trick of all, the “Blood Miracle”–the liquification of the blood of St. Januarius. Epstein, Michael; Luigi Garlaschelli (1992). “Better Blood Through Chemistry: A Laboratory Replication of a Miracle”. Journal of Scientific Exploration 6: 233–246. http://www.scientificexploration.org/journal/jse_06_3_epstein.pdf I’m sure someone has also discussed miracles in the Old Testament, Egyptian priests turning rods into snakes, levitating Greek statues, steam-operated sanctuary accessories, etc. etc. None of which helps with your history of early conjuring question! I suppose it is impious to suggest that the Mass itself from which we supposedly derive the conjuring formula “Hocus Pocus” is a feat with the trappings of legerdemain?  I believe that turning water into wine also was for many years a standard of the magician’s repertoire. I was startled to find on many Christian web sites statements that some modern illusionists (like David Blaine) are not performing illusions, but real magic assisted by demons!’ Wade meanwhile, sends some ancient links in: Graeco-Roman magic survey:  Magic, witchcraft and ghosts in the Roman World. Demonology during the late pharaonic and Greco-Roman periods in Egypt  Short link on Roman witches:    Jewish magic in the roman bathhouse. Thanks to Wade, Invisible and Penne!!!!