Juggling - its history and greatest performers by Francisco Alvarez

PART 1: Early History

Primitive man
Conjectural scene of primitive man discovering balance. The bolas for hunting are shown in foreground.
Unlike the well-defined and comparatively recent beginnings of technological inventions, the origin of juggling is very ancient. Juggling is closely associated with pantomime, dance, and music. When primitive man engaged in religious rituals, he began to exhibit such abilities as the singing of crude chants, hand-clapping, and the striking of sticks together. Other reasons than religious enthusiasm often prompted these ceremonies. They also served to release surplus animal spirits, and to observe such events as births, hunting, war, and death. The belief that some form of juggling has always existed is obviously sound, as we can see from these early stick twirlers. Not much is known about the centuries that followed. We do know that elaborate processions were common in ancient Mesopotamia. Huge companies of entertainers are known to have taken part in these processions.

Roman figure
Roman juggler, after a clay figure in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin.
The first graphic representations of jugglers appear on wall paintings of the Egyptians and on Greek vases of a very early period. Although much has been said about this, one of the most informative accounts appears in the 1938 February and March issues of Linking Ring magazine. In this magic publication, the article by Dr. Henry R. Evans, "Jugglers and Juggling," gives us specific names and locations: "We see representations of it (jugglery) in wall paintings of the Egyptians, particularly in those of Beni-Hassan tombs on the east bank of the Nile near Speos Artemidos." Dr. Evans further informs us that, "an inscription to Septimus Spika, evidently a popular juggler of ancient Italy, appears in the Royal museum at Mantua," and that, "he is represented keeping seven balls in movement." A statue in the National Museum in Athens, Greece, which was found in the Pyrénées, also attests to the antiquity of juggling. In Greek history we learn that itinerant minstrels, or bards, had traveled through Sparta, possibly to take part in the popular contests in music and diversions displayed there in 675 B.C. To increase the pleasures of Rome, it was fashionable to import entertainers from the Orient. No doubt there were jugglers among them, though they were almost always slaves or not socially accepted. Hermann Sagemüller writes of an officer in a Roman Legion who entertained his troops by performing juggling tricks with balls. The name of the officer is given as Sidonius Apollinaris. [1]


Woman juggler from India
Nineteenth century woman from India, after a print in the Ziethen collection.
China has more than 3,000 years of recorded history and the ancient Chinese were, even during their early history, skillful craftsmen. The manufacture of temple gongs, furniture, and small ivory-tipped articles were highly developed industries. Some of these artifacts go back to Shang (or Yin) dynasty (1766-1112 B.C.). An early musical instrument known as the pipa (similar to our mandolin) originated in China. And one of the oldest props in juggling also had its beginning in that country. Known as le diable in France, in English-speaking countries it is known as the devil on two sticks or diabolo.

This prop consists of a spool resembling two cones fastened so that the narrowest point is in the center. The spool is manipulated by means of a string attached to two sticks which are held in the hands. The devil sticks are closely related to the diabolo, though the historical connection is not clear. The devil sticks make no use of the string; two sticks, one held in each hand, manipulate a third stick by knocking it back and forth and making it spin in various ways.

Much of the culture of China entered Japan by way of Korea in the seventh century. But both countries retained their juggling identity. The spinning of plates on slender rods, and some contortionism combined with this, has been popular with the Chinese for centuries. The Japanese, on the other hand, preferred to toss little sticks and balance, roll, and bounce a medium-sized ball on various parts of the body. Before the vulcanization of rubber, these balls were made by winding a length of yarn. Jugglers of the Orient had one thing in common - their props were often shaped so as to depict birds, fish, and other animals. Thus it was not unusual to see a wooden fish balancing on a juggler's chin. Additional movement and flexibility was achieved by joining different parts of the animals with hinge-like devices, creating the illusion of flapping wings and wiggling tails. As late as 1934 I saw a Japanese juggler using such props.

Moung Toon
Moung Toon, The Marvellous Burmese Juggler. The amazing part of Moung's show was that he never touched with his hands the things which he juggled. He used glass balls and balls made of strips of cane. These he would pick up from the floor with his prehensile toes and balance upon his instep. A jerk, and the ball was upon his knee; another and it was on his shoulder. Then he would place a second ball on his other shoulder in the same way. By a quick movement of his body, the juggler would next cause the balls to rise in the air and fall behind his back; but before they could reach the ground, he had knelt down and received them on the backs of his knee joints.

Illustration and text from The Strand Magazine (1897). After a photo by F. Cooper, Marseilles.

The style described above, in which a ball was bounced and otherwise worked on various part of the body, is very ancient and was widespread. There is evidence in old manuscripts and prints that this style was practiced, either as sport or entertainment, in the darkest parts of India, Burma, and Indonesia. But if the true origin is obscure, the Japanese have improved and popularized the style considerably. Today, the style is generally accepted as Japanese.

Asians greatly value the ability to work with almost every part of the human anatomy, not just the hands. Western jugglers, who prefer to work with their hands, have been slow in understanding this style of juggling. As late as the middle of the nineteenth century, only Orientals and exotics did extensive body manipulations.


Some writers note that the Latin word ventilator meant juggler or thrower of knives. Not all Latin scholars, however, are in agreement. An occupation not clearly defined and often combined with other forms of entertainment obviously presented a word problem for the old Romans. That problem arises even today when someone might say, "The fellow who throws the clubs and balls around," rather than make use of the proper word. We can speculate that the Romans could have said, "Ludo agilis cum fustus et pila" (Rapid play with club and ball).

There is strong evidence that the precise word was missing. Jaculator meant a thrower (of anything); joculator, a jester; and pilarii, a ballplayer. It was from joculator that the French made up joglar, which later became jongleur. The basic sound of joculator then spilled over into many languages, so that today it is almost necessary to dig into the exotic languages to find a difference. The Spanish malabarista is rather odd, though a similar expression: malabarische spiel (juggling game) is sometimes found in German literature, possibly an attempt to translate from the Spanish juegos malabares. The Germans, however, prefer the French word jongleur, while the Italians hold on to their giocoliere. And if you want to say juggler in Japanese, try syot-tai-hpai. As to the question of meaning, the French jongleur was more than a jester; he was a professional entertainer. In time, the juggler proper became a specialist in his field and inherited the name. The one other definition of juggler found in dictionaries is of course not applicable to our purpose, since it refers to slight of hand and deception.


Medieval jugglers
Medieval jugglers, after a well-known old print.
Some historians believe that the French jongleur began to appear as early as the sixth century, and that he was a successor to the trickster and mountebank of the later Roman Domination. Others believe that the jongleur did not emerge until the eleventh century, and that he was a combination of the mime and gleeman who had existed in England. At a time when diversions were few, these wandering minstrels usually prospered, finding an eager public at every stop. But despite some gains, their lives were besprinkled with bad times. Inadequate shelter, hunger and cold were prevalent.

At the end of the eleventh century, the movement of the "troubadours" began in Provence (now southeast France). These troubadours were poets of the wealthy class who were interested in literary pursuits. In time, these aristocrats felt the need of assistants; and jongleurs, with their many talents, found immediate acceptance as helpers to the troubadours.

After their affiliation with the troubadours, the jongleurs traveled from court to court rendering selections from their repertoire and polishing their routines at "schools" or "brotherhoods" of minstrelsy. One such brotherhood was the Confrerie de St. Julian, first recognized in Paris in 1331. These organizations of jongleurs, however, had existed much earlier. A confrerie established in Fecamp in the tenth century is believed to have been the first.


In England, at the time of William the Conqueror, the title "The King of the Jugglers" appeared and continued to appear for over four centuries. Many privileges went along with the title, which was conferred by statute. We must remember that the word juggler in the England of the time was as broad in meaning as "jongleur" in France. The title, consequently, could have applied to musician, poet, or any enterprising showman who had gained the favors of the court.

Throughout the Middle Ages the working juggler remained emphatically the servitor of the marketplace, the travelling fair, or the dusty road where he would perform for a few coins or in exchange for food or clothing. In an early account of what juggling was in those days:

The trained bear was led away and the jugglers entered. A man and a boy. They carefully unfolded their bags and began performing. The man, running around in small circles, rapidly juggled with three knives. The boy, whip in hand, would at times, in jest, castigate the man whenever he fumbled. The effect was dexterous, comical, and most entertaining. After the older minstrel had walked on his hands and juggled with balls, the pair collected some coins, folded their bags, and calmly walked away to disappear into the mob. The singers now entered with their music scrolls in hand. [2]


Marion Drew
Marion Drew
At the time of Newton's breakthrough in scientific research, the English had yet to discover tea and were just beginning to relish the "strange brew" imported from China. Itinerant entertainers were common and jugglers traveled from city to city carrying their equipment in small bags tied to their belts. Very few names of jugglers from that period exist. German historian and collector Max Koch, however, does mention some names from that period, including women jugglers. Unfortunately, these early artists have marched into oblivion, mainly because there aren't enough specifics to firmly establish their identity or even their existence. (See chronology at end of this history.) Prints of that era, however, give us an insight into the kind of work then popular. Cannonballs, devil sticks, and ball tossing were widely used. And when the hurdy-gurdy was later introduced, it became important in providing musical accompaniment .

The ancients viewed jugglers with suspicion and not without reason. The art was often practiced by vagabonds, rogues, and outlaws. To compound the problem, jugglers had no way of leaving their accomplishments for posterity. Whereas other men could leave documents, paintings, and musical manuscripts, jugglers could do nothing of the sort. In our modern world of motion pictures and videotapes, this problem, naturally, does not exist. To illustrate the ignominious light in which jugglers were viewed, I quote:

Qual mestiers es plus aontos, d'eser joglar o laire? [3]
Which is a more shameful calling, to be a jongleur or a thief?

As villages grew into towns, new forms of entertainment were organized. The popular Miracle Play, over several centuries, developed into the theater that we know today. The theater, and entertainment in general, is so fascinating that we are tempted to make an in-depth study of its history. But such a task is beyond the scope of this book. We can only focus on areas known to have affected the destiny of juggling.


Used by permission. Hermann Sagemüller: Michael Kara, König der Jongleure - Jongleur der Könige. Selbstverlag Baldingen; 1973, p.7

Collected Stories from London, 1907.

Robert Briffault: The Troubadours. Indiana University Press; 1965.

[Index] [Previous] [Next]
Juggling - its history and greatest performers / Juggling Information Service / jis@juggling.org
Text and illustrations © 1984 Francisco Alvarez
HTML © 1997 Juggling Information Service. All Rights Reserved.