Monday, 20 July 2009

Unsung Hero, Unsung Villain?

Thomas Hill lived and wrote during the Sixteenth Century. Other than the titbits he mentions about himself in his books, we know very little about him. He is, it could be argued, an unsung hero. He was the first writer to include in a book published in the English language some conjuring tricks that his readers could try for themselves. ‘So what?’ some might say. ‘What’s the big deal with a few parlour tricks?’ Well, Hill was not living in the most politically or religiously tranquil of times. Hill lived to see the Royal Crown pass from Henry VIII to Edward VI to Mary I to Elizabeth I; all of which was a period of turmoil, sometimes bloody, regarding Britain’s official religion. It was during the reign of Elizabeth I that Hill published A Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatise, Entituled, Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions (In his excellent book Old Conjuring Books, Trevor Hall dates the earliest known edition as being published in 1567).

So, during a century where the topic of religion had more than a tinge of danger to it, Hill had the nerve to include in his book what must have been two controversial items amongst the tricks. They were easily recognisable as being two of the miracles of Christ - changing water to wine and walking on water – and practical, workable methods were given for both. Usually, we the modern public associate the name of James I, the successor to Elizabeth I, with the ‘witch craze’ where just about anyone could be accused and executed as a witch; in fact, it was Elizabeth I who brought in the legislation regarding witchcraft. And so by 1584, during the reign of Elizabeth, a Justice of the Peace named Reginald Scot wrote and published a book called The Discoverie of Witchcraft. Scot not only casts doubt on the power of witches but also laments how innocent people, including conjurors performing the likes of the cups and balls, had been tried and condemned for witchcraft. Imagine being tried and condemned as a witch for performing a few card tricks! So what would the public’s reaction be to Hill’s two marvels that, through practical methods, imitate the power of Christ?

Hill’s courage to publish such items might be associated with the downside to the argument regarding his character. Courage usually has a motivation and in Hill’s case it may simply have been money and the quest for fame through notoriety. We can judge this by looking at some of the other items in his book. Along with some tricks he gives experiments on subjects ranging from husbandry to metallurgy to the plain weird – such as supposedly getting an egg to climb up to the top of an upright spear by filling it with morning dew and then waiting for the sunrise. Yep, Hill decided to put a good amount of outlandish claims in the book in order to help it sell. Because then, just as now, such books sell and sell well. The evidence of that can be seen in two ways. Firstly, that Hill’s book continued to be reprinted for a number of centuries; secondly, in how Hill’s book was mercilessly plagiarised by other writers for the next two to three centuries and the bits they stole were the conjuring tricks and the whacky experiments that sounded great but could not possibly work.

So Hill was, sort of, a bit of a hero for being the first person to have the courage to publish conjuring tricks in English at a time when it was not wise to do so – even copies of Reginald Scots’ book were later burned by Royal edict – and Hill was also a bit of a villain in that his intentions were probably grossly selfish and part of some attempt to gain fame or to be noticed by his contemporaries. He was certainly noticed by Reginald Scot, who wrote of one of Hill’s later books as being of ‘follie and vanitie’.

I have edited Hill’s book for publication as a paperback and it is being released in August. The details are below. You can reserve a copy or ask about payment options by sending an email to

A Briefe And Pleasaunt Treatise, Entitutled, Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions by Thomas Hill, the text of 1581, with the original illustrations.

The text given in this book uses the original spelling.

Editor's Preface
The text of A Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatise, Entituled, Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions
Notes by the Editor
Size: 9 inches (height) by 6 inches (width)
Pages: 88
Illustrations: reproduces five illustrations from the edition of 1581 and a portrait of Thomas Hill from the frontispiece of one of his other books.
Price: £10.00
ISBN: 978-1-872175-05-8

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