Marginalia -- The Journal of the Medieval Reading Group at Cambridge


Philip Butterworth
Magic on the Early English Stage
295 pages. Cambridge University Press, 2005. 48.00 ($85.00)
ISBN: 052182513X (Hardback)

Among the many critical studies of medieval and early modern theatrical practices there has been a reluctance to confront the importance of magic tricks, conjuring, juggling and special effects in the development of drama in England. In this new book, Philip Butterworth tackles these intriguing skills in great detail, and assesses their importance to the dramatic culture of this period.

Consistently reliant on primary material, scarcely half a page goes by without extensive quotation from (often obscure) sources. Juggling and its associated arts seems to have been a subject not just enjoyed but also written about, although the material for Butterworth's study is often derived from records of payment and account books, rather than the more analytic writings on the plays of the period. As well as plays, he draws from eye-witness accounts, treatises on magic and conjuring, court rolls and account books of patrons of these magical arts. Butterworth makes good use of hitherto inaccessible material published recently through the Record of Early English Drama(REED) based at the University of Toronto, and material from the Malone Society Collections series. The range of evidence used in this study is impressive, and is used by Butterworth with ease and aplomb. The temporal range is also ambitious, covering medieval and early modern England without following a chronological structure. According to Butterworth the study is "rooted in the medieval theatre of England," [xix] but its most convincing evidence relates to early modern theatrical practices. The synthesis of source material linking the medieval to the early modern is evidenced by his use of an early seventeenth-century translation of Roger Bacon's views on conjurers and jugglers: "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" [4].

"The conjuror", as Butterworth reminds us, "does not need a stage upon which to perform his work work [he] only needs the immediate space that surrounds him in order to manipulate its interaction with the space of the witness." [1] And while this intimate style of performance produced occasional mysterious cults of celebrity, such as that enjoyed by Bomelio Feats, and William Vincent (alias Hocus Pocus) in the sixteenth century, for the most part it also meant that jugglers and travelling magicians fell under the radar of cultural analysts, both in their own and in later times. Butterworth's study goes a long way towards redressing this oversight, and gives careful attention to the different facets that make up the complicated topic of medieval and early modern staged magic.

Among the many marvels Butterworth encounters are the Bengalese monkey that correctly identifies the name of Jesus Christ written in any language [58-9], surely an apocryphal tale; and the very real partnership of Richard Banks and his horse, Morocco, who acquited his master from the charge of witchcraft by successfully identifying a crucifix and kneeling before it. Morocco was not just trained to distinguish divinity - he could also pick out "the veryest foole in the companye,"[64] and distinguish virtuous women from whores. He could "count coins, identify a specific card picked out by a member of the audience, pretend to be dead by lying on his back with his legs in the air, curtsy, dance, fight, piss and operate whilst blindfolded;" [66] and in an astounding trick, climb the steeple of St Paul's Cathedral. Tricks of appearance and disappearance are also discussed by Butterworth. He details guidebooks for conjurers, and uses eye-witness accounts as well as theatrical sketches to trace the development of a trick.

More interesting is Butterworth's account of sound effects used in theatrical and other tricks during this period. Among the catalogue of fantastic sound effects created by medieval stage hands are included: the sound of the earth's cries as it is tilled by Adam, the sound of an earthquake produced by "rolling stone balls on a wooden framework" [100] and firing cannons, the voice of a mysterious disembodied 'brazen Head', and birdsong caused by "passing sound through pipes in water" [104]. Butterworth investigates the function and meaning of these sound effects, emphasizing the sophistication of theatrical players and audiences: "The communicated location of sound to an audience may be supportive of an intention to create illusion or it may exist as a signal from which to create meaning " [112].

Adding to these increasingly mechanized special effects Butterworth investigates the uses of mechanical images, automata and puppets in feats of magic, though these are primarily a feature of later theatre performances. Other stage tricks examined by Butterworth include faking bleeding wounds, and mimicking stabbings with the use of retractable blades. False body parts, including limbs, noses and tongues, were also made in a growing repertoire of tricks that bloodthirsty playwrights of the early modern period made increasing use of.

Despite the range of the material and the careful analyses, Butterworth's book raises some nagging questions. The study does not address the question of how these conjuring feats fitted into the more familiar forms of theatre, especially of the medieval period. Butterworth makes limited use of medieval miracle plays or Corpus Christi pageants, and there is little sense of how these feats fit alongside the mammoths of Elizabethan theatre - there is no discussion, for example, of the likelihood that Shakespeare might have attended performances of the Coventry pageant plays in his childhood. Instead Butterworth paints a picture of an independent timeline of juggling and conjuring, paralleling but not necessarily influencing the better known aspects of early modern theatre, with all the benefits and drawbacks that such a dissociation brings.

Though there is an acknowledgment of the religious complications brought about by feats of magic, the reader of medieval culture may find the secularism implied by the book surprising. In The Discouery of witchcraft (1584) Reginald Scot (later to be condemned by James I as an apologist of witchcraft) adjures jugglers to "confesse" to the audience that "these are no supernaturall actions, but deuises of men, and nimble conueniances" [53], but Butterworth does not identify a consistent concern with the apparently miraculous nature of feats of conveyance across the period. The book suggests that most audiences throughout the medieval and early modern period were easily able to discern between miracle and misdirection, but this premise sometimes creates an unnatural rift between the religious and the secular lives of early modern spectators.

Butterworth's is a serious, scholarly work, thorough and written with an iron grasp of the material. This makes it an invaluable source for the understanding of the minutiae of medieval and early modern theatrical culture, but its tone is sometimes inscrutable. Although occasional glimpses of humour emerge, this is obviously a book for people who take magic very seriously and its tone is sometimes at odds with its subject matter.

It is a measure of Butterworth's dedication to historical accuracy that he does not allow himself to be unduly distracted or beguiled by the feats of magic performed by his subjects - though the reader may sometimes wish that he would. Butterworth's tone is sometimes hard to fathom, hovering between sober seriousness and dry humour. However, the greatest achievement of this excellently researched book is the voice it gives to long silent and obscure characters from the history of magic. Butterworth's unobtrusive presence foregrounds the primary source material, and under his deft touch, the figures of medieval and early modern jugglers are allowed to emerge from the past to amuse and entertain again in the limelight - where they clearly belong.

I. Abreu Scherer, U. of Cambridge




(c) Copyright 2015 The authors and the Medieval Reading Group at the University of Cambridge
No material may be reproduced without written authority
Marginalia -- MRG Website::Contact Us::About Us::Credits and Thanks::Search::Archives