Saturday, 6 June 2015

Martial's Juggler

Marital was a Roman author of the first through to second century AD. He wrote  a considerable number of epigrams, covering a wide range of subjects. In this epigram he describes a young juggler juggling a small shield. While I have never seen anyone juggling a shield, I have seen a juggler juggle a tea tray in the way described. Unfortunately, YouTube does not have an example specifically of that so I chose an example of non-ball type juggling by Mat Ricardo, juggling a cane and then a hat. 

From the Loeb edition of 1920.
Martial, volume II
Book 9, epigram 38.

Summa licet velox, Agathine, pericula ludus,
non tamen efficies ut tibi parma cadat.
nolentem sequitur tenuisque reversa per auras
vel pede vel tergo, crine vel ungue sedet;
lubrica Corycio quamvis sint pulpita nimbo
et rapiant celeres vela negata Noti,
secures pueri neglecta perambulat artus,
et nocet artifici ventus et unda nihil.
ut peccare velis, cum feceris omnia, falli
non potes: arte opus est ut tibi parma cadat.

Although, Agathinus, you deftly play a game of highest risk, yet you will not achieve the falling of your shield. Though you avoid it, it follows you, and, returning through the yielding air, settles on foot or back, on hair or finger-tip. However slippery is the stage with a Corycian saffron-shower, and although rushing winds tear at the awning that cannot be spread, the shield though disregarded, pervades the boy's careless limbs, and wind and shower baffle the artist no whit. Although you try to miss, do what you will, you cannot be foiled: art is needed to make your shield fall.

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Old Napkin Trick in Compendium Maleficarum

Below is an extract from the Compendium Maleficarum. The tricks described are now a bit old hat, except when performed truly well. The napkin trick can sometimes be found in children's books of magic. Eschelles confession was very likely under torture. 


Coloniæ citabatur uirgo quædam, quæ mira in conspectu nobilium fecisset, quæ arte magica videbantur fieri: mappam enim quandam dicebatur lacerasse, et subito in omnium oculis re dintegrasse. Vitrum quoddam ad parietem a se iactatum, et confractum, in momento reparasse, et similia: manus Inquisitoris euasit excommunicata.

Narrat supra citatus quidam, quòd in Francia Triscalinus Circulator coram Carolo nono, aliàs laudato Rege, à quodam Nobili ab eo remoto pelliciebat cunctis videntibus torque annellos ad se sigillatim, eosque manu recipiebat aduolantes, vt videbatur, nihilominus mox torquis integer, et illæsus repertus fuit. Hic conuictus multorum, quæ, nec arte, nec artificio humano, nec natura fieri poterant, confessus est, opera Diabolica cuncta perfecisse, quòd ante obstinatua negauerat.

English translation by E. A. Ashton:

“A certain virgin of Cologne was said to have performed in the presence of the nobles wonders which seemed to be due to magic: for she was said to have torn up a napkin, and suddenly to have pieced it together again before the eyes of all; she threw a glass vessel against the wall and broke it, and in a moment mended it again; and other like things she did. She escaped from the hands of the Inquisition with a sentence of excommunication.

From the same source we hear of a conjurer in France named Trois Eschelles, who in the sight of all and in the presence of Charles IX, called the Praiseworthy King, charmed from a certain nobleman standing at a distance from him the rings of his necklace, so that they flew one by one into his hand, as it seemed; and yet the necklace was soon found to be whole an uninjured. This man was convicted of many actions which could not have been due to human art or skill or any natural cause, and confessed that they were the devil’s work, although he had obstinately denied this before.”

Friday, 1 May 2015

Juliette Binoche: Antigone at the Barbican

No two productions of Sophocles' Antigone are the same - even when the same translation has been used. There is something about the play and the issues it explores that make it a constantly ripe fruit to be repeatedly squeezed of yet another different flavour juice by directors and actors. So much so that George Steiner wrote a book called Antigones which included a critical gaze on the great range of productions and interpretations.

This year, Juliutte Binoche starred as Antigone at the Barbican; the director was Ivo van Hove and the translation was by Anne Carson.  

Newspaper reviews of the production were lukewarm and sometimes passive aggressive towards Binoche in their strangely equivocal praising put downs. Most of these articles suffer a bad case of Cleverdickitus where the journalist must appear more superior than any production that he or she reviews. A more informative review can be found at 

The BBC have broadcast the play and for another twenty-five days it can be viewed on BBC iPlayer (UK only) at 

If you are interested, watch the play and form your own judgement. 

Friday, 24 April 2015

Well, There's A Surprise...

This week I watched a thriller called Key Witness (1960). It was a random choice based on discovering that Jeffrey Hunter was the lead. Apart from the original series of Star Trek and the film King of Kings, I hadn't seen him in anything else. And so curiosity called and I watched the film. 

While not a great film, it is nevertheless a thriller worth seeing once. However, while watching the movie I noticed something that I definitely had to check afterwards.  One of the villains was nicknamed Magician. Another villain was nicknamed something that sounded like Muggles. Were my ears deceiving me, I wondered. 

As it turns out, no they weren't; the character is indeed named Muggles.

I had only ever heard of the word in connection with the Harry Potter novels/films. A little research made my jaw drop. 

In the movie Key Witness, Muggles gets very upset about Magician having stolen his 'ciggiepoos' as he calls them, more upset than would be expected regarding ordinary cigarettes - are you seeing where this is going? From about the 1920s onwards, Muggles was a nicknames for pot-smokers. 

I shall leave it to you to make up your own Harry Potter jokes about Wizards and Muggles.

Meanwhile, here is the less than enthralling trailer for the film Key Witness:


Thursday, 16 April 2015

Beckmann on Jugglers

John Beckmann's book, The History of Inventions and Discoveries, has a chapter on jugglers (magicians).  For those who are interested, there is a PDF of an 18th century English translation of that chapter which can be downloaded HERE.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Consider This...

Here is a short animation I made using Videoscribe. On Twitter today the RSPCA (@RSPCA_official) were kind enough to tweet that it is a "great video with an important message." 

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Help Buy The William Blake Cottage

[Photo copyright (c) The Blake Society]

As I write this, there are only eight days left in which to raise enough to money for The Blake Society to buy the cottage once owned by William Blake. To read the full details of this and their plans for the cottage should they succeed, click this link

You can donate as little as £1 (or more if you want) by simply sending a text to the number they provide on the page at the above link. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Malthus, Hazlitt and Now

In the late 18th century, and then through a number of revised versions in the early 19th century, Thomas Malthus presented to the world his book An Essay On The Principle of Population. The book was less than kind towards the poor and criticised the Poor Laws that helped them survive. The book became and remained popular with some, such as politicians (in particular, the Tories), and unpopular with others, such as humanitarians. While some immediately welcomed Malthus’s book as an excuse to take a hard line on the poor, there was also a public degree of criticism against the book. In 1807 William Hazlitt published an objection to Malthus’s book called A Reply to the Essay on Population, by the Rev. T. R. Malthus. On pages 4 and 5 I found something remarkably relevant to Britain today and its present government:   

It is always easier to quote an authority than to carry on a chain of reasoning. Mr. Malthus's reputation may, I fear, prove fatal to the poor of this country. His name hangs suspended over their heads, in terrorem, like some baleful meteor. It is the shield behind which the archers may take their stand, and gall them at their leisure. He has set them up as a defenceless mark, on which both friends and foes may exercise their malice, or their wantonness, as they think proper. He has fairly hunted them down, he has driven them into his toils, he has thrown his net over them, and they remain as a prey to the first invader, either to be sacrificed without mercy at the shrine of cold unfeeling avarice, or to linger out a miserable existence under the hands of ingenious and scientific tormentors. — There is a vulgar saying, "Give a dog a bad name, and hang him." The poor seem to me to be pretty much in this situation at present. The poor, Sir, labour under a natural stigma; they are naturally despised. Their interests are at best but coldly and remotely felt by the other classes of society. Mr. Malthus's book has done all that was wanting to increase this indifference and apathy. But it is neither generous nor just, to come in aid of the narrow prejudices and hardheartedness of mankind, with metaphysical distinctions and the cobwebs of philosophy. The balance inclines too much on that side already, without the addition of false weights. I confess I do feel some degree of disgust and indignation rising within me, when I see a man of Mr. Malthus's character and calling standing forward as the accuser of those "who have none to help them," as the high-priest of "pride and covetousness," forming selfishness into a regular code; with its codicils, institutes and glosses annexed, trying to muffle up the hand of charity in the fetters of the law, to suppress "the compunctious visitings of nature," to make men ashamed of compassion and good-nature as folly and weakness... 

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Toby The Learned Pig

Just a quick titbit for those with an interest in the history of magic. Anyone who had read The Great Illusionists by Edwin Dawes or Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women by Ricky Jay will already know about Toby. 

Here are the bibliographic details for this reference:

The Comic Latin Grammar, A New and Facetious Introduction to the Latin Tongue, with numerous illustrations, second edition, by Percival Leigh, 1840, Charles Tilt, Fleet Street, London.

On page 17:

And as a footnote on coincidence does this character, who appears on the frontispiece of Leigh's book, look familiar? He reminds me of a character created by magician Norman Hunter.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Philip Astley and the Microcosm of London

Collectors of old magic books will know the name of Philip Astley because of his book Natural Magic, published in 1785. Astley’s career, however, was not as a magician. He was an equestrian and a one of the pioneers of the modern circus. His fame was such that Astley was briefly mentioned in Emma by Jane Austen (chapters 26 and 27), Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens (referring to Astley’s the circus at least ten times) and in The Newcomes by Thackery (a character is mentioned who is supposedly “secretary to Mademoiselle Caracoline, the lovely rider at the circus of Astley”).

A scan of an illustration of Astley’s “circus” can be easily found on the internet but some details are usually lacking when the picture is given. First of all, the illustration is of Astley’s Amphitheatre on Westminster bridge. The artists were Rowlandson and Pugin; art lovers should recognise both those names. The illustration appeared in a wonderful publication called The Microcosm of London (1808-1810, published by Rudolph Ackermann), which is written like an amiable guided tour to all the interesting parts of London be they poor or rich. Below I give the full text on Astley and, although it’s available in plenty of other places, the illustration by Rowlandson and Pugin. The text is believed to be by William Henry Pyne.


The Amphitheatre at Westminster bridge has, within these twelve years, been twice destroyed by fire; and the expense of rebuilding, &c. &c. to Messrs. Astleys, the two proprietors, has been estimated as amounting to nearly thirty thousand pounds. The present theatre is the most airy, and in some respects the most beautiful, of any in this great metropolis. The building is one hundred and forty feet long; the width of that part allotted to the audience, from wall to wall, sixty-five feet; and the stage is one hundred and thirty feet wide, being the largest stage in England, and extremely well adapted to the purpose for which it was built, the introduction of grand spectacles and pantomimes, wherein numerous troops of horses are seen in what has every appearance of real warfare, galloping to and fro, &c. &c. The whole theatre is nearly the form of an egg 5 two thirds of the widest end forms the audience part and equestrian circle, and the smaller third is occupied by the orchestra and the stage. From this judicious arrangement, the whole audience have an uninterrupted prospect of the amusements. It is lighted by a magnificent glass chandelier, suspended from the centre, and containing fifty patent lamps, and sixteen smaller chandeliers, with six wax-lights each. The scenery, machinery, decorations, &c. have been executed by the first artists in this country, under the immediate direction of Mr. Astley, jun. who made the fanciful design.

A very good idea of its general appearance, company, &c. is given in the annexed print. ­For a looker-on to describe some part of the amusements would be difficult, perhaps impossible; and luckily it is not necessary, for in an advertisement published November 1807, Mr. Astley himself has described one of them in a manner so singularly curious, that we think it ought to be transmitted to posterity; and have therefore inserted it in this volume. ­

­  "SIR,
­     "Having been strongly requested to give some explanation of the utility of the country dances by eight horses, to be performed this and tomorrow evening, I request you will be so obliging as to insert the following hints. ­
     "First, I humbly think that a thorough command and pliability on horseback, is obtained by such noble exercises. Secondly, that in executing the various figures in this dance, the rider obtains a knowledge of the bridle hand, also capacity and capability of the horse, more particularly at the precise time of casting off and turning of partners, right and left, &c. &c. Thirdly, I also conceive that the horseman may be greatly improved when in the act of reducing the horse to obedience on scientific principles!!! and not otherwise. Fourth, as a knowledge of the appui in horsemanship is highly desirable, whether on the road, the chase, or field of honour, I expressly composed the various figures in the country dance for this desirable purpose ; and which my young equestrian artists have much profited by, as some of them three months since were never on horseback. It was from this observation, during forty- two years practice, that I gave this equestrian ballet the name of L'Ecole de Mars; and I am strongly thankful that my humble abilities have afforded some little information, as well as amusement, to the town in general. ­
     "I am, with respect,
     "The public's most humble and faithful servant,
          "Pavilion, Newcastle-street, Strand"

­From all this, a spectator would be almost tempted to think, that, notwithstanding the numerous and learned dissertations of philosophers to exalt their own species, horses rival man in his superior faculties. I have heard a story on this subject, which I believe has not found its way into Joe Miller; but be that as it may, it is a good story, and in a degree illustrates this subject, and I think my reader will not be displeased at the insertion of it. ­
Some years ago, a very learned and sagacious doctor of the university of Oxford, composed and read a long lecture on the difference of man from beast; and when describing the former, asserted that man was superior to all other animals; because there was no other animal, except man, who either reasoned or drew an inference, as the inferior order of beings were wholly governed by instinct. ­

On the conclusion of this philosophical discourse, two of the students, who were not quite satisfied of the fact, walked out to converse upon it, and seeing a house with "WISEMAN, DRAWING MASTER," inscribed upon the sign, went into the shop, and asked the master what he drew? "Men, women, trees, buildings, or anything else," was the reply. "Can you draw an inference?" said one of them. The man took a short time to consider it, and candidly replied, that never having seen or heard of such a thing before, he could not. The students walked out of his house, and before they had proceeded far, saw a brewer's dray with a very fine horse in it. "A fine horse this," said one of them to the driver. "A very fine one indeed," said the fellow. "Seems a powerful beast," said the other. "I believe he is indeed," replied the fellow. "He can draw a great load, I suppose?" said the Oxonian. "More than any horse in this county," answered the drayman. "Do you think he could draw an inference?" said the scholar. "He can draw any thing in reason, I'll be sworn," replied the drayman. ­

The scholars walked back to the lecture room, and found the company still together; when one of them, addressing the doctor with a very grave face, said to him, "Master, we have been enquiring, and find that your definition is naught; for we have found a man, and a wise man too, who cannot draw an inference, and we have met with a horse that can."
­Besides the Amphitheatre, Messrs. Astleys have a very elegant Pavilion, for exhibiting amusements of a similar description, which they have lately erected, and fitted out in a most complete style, in Newcastle-street in the Strand, and named ASTLEY'S PAVILION. ­

At this place the horses have displayed some feats of so wonderful a description, as could not easily be conceived unless they were seen. In this place eight horses have lately performed country dances, &c. in a manner that has astonished all the spectators. To this have been added divers horsemanships, the twelve wonderful voltigers, &c.

The annexed print, which is ­


gives a very good idea of the scene. Mr. Rowlandson's figures are here, as indeed they invariably are, exact delineations of the sort of company who frequent public spectacles of this description ; they are eminently characteristic, and descriptive of the eager attention with which this sort of spectators contemplate the business going forward. Small as the figures are, we can in a degree pronounce upon their rank in life, from the general air and manner with which they are marked. ­

Mr. Pugin is entitled to equal praise, from the taste which he has displayed in the perspective and general effect of the whole, which renders it altogether an extremely pleasing and interesting little print.

­With respect to teaching horses to perform country dances, how far thus accomplishing this animal, renders him either a more happy or a more valuable member of the horse community, is a question which I leave to be discussed by those sapient philosophers, who have so learnedly and so long debated this important business, with respect to man.
The school of Jean Jaques Rousseau, who insist upon it, that man, by his civilization, has been so far from adding to his happiness, that he has increased and multiplied his miseries, will of course insist upon it, that a horse in his natural state must be infinitely happier, than he can be with any improvements introduced by man ; that all these artificial refinements must tend to diminish, instead of increasing his felicity ; and that, as a horse, he had much better be left in a state of nature, than thus tortured into artificial refinement.

­The advocates for Swift's system of the Houyhnhnms, in Gulliver's Travels, admitting a horse to be superior to a man, even in his natural state, will unquestionably be of the same opinion; and we must seek farther for the advantages to be derived by introducing a teacher of dancing, and a master of the ceremonies, to this noble and dignified animal. ­

It is recorded, that at a much earlier period, a right worshipful mayor of Coventry wished to teach his horse good manners. Queen Elizabeth, in one of her progresses to that city, was met, about a mile before she arrived there, by the mayor and alder- men, who desirous of declaring the high honour which they felt she would thus confer on their city, employed the mayor to be their speaker. The mayor was on horseback, and (as the record saith) the queen was also on horseback, behind one of her courtiers. A little rivulet happening to run across the road where they stopped, the mayor's horse made several attempts to drink; which the queen observing, told his worship, that before he began his oration, she wished he would let his horse take his draught. "That, and please your majesty, he shall not," replied the mayor, "that he certainly shall not yet. I would have him to know, that it is proper your majesty's horse should drink first, and then, he shall."