Book Review Vol. VIII, No. 3

Juggling Has Been Around for a Long Time,

Probably Ever Since Recorded History

Juggling from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, the forgotten history of throwing and catching, by Thom Wall.  From Modern Vaudeville Press, 2019.  ISBN    978-0-578-41084-5

For eighty-eight pages Thom Wall, an American juggler who specializes in learning juggling tricks from the past, takes us on an archeological tour of the ancient world from antiquity to the Middle Ages. We are introduced to artifacts that appear to document the idea that juggling has always been around.  It has been, in fact, a universal pastime of all cultures based on what appears to be an inherently human desire to throw and catch things.

The practice that we call juggling arose in places so disparate that those who attempted to throw and catch objects could not have known  of one another—much less communicated and shared the ideas of how they learned about this amazing craft.  In other words, juggling, so it seems,  is inside us all.  Somehow it has managed to evade me, despite having buddies like Hovey Burgess, who, by the way, is barely mentioned in this study.  He doesn’t go back quite that far.

Despite its ubiquity juggling has not always been held in the highest esteem. In fact it has been banned and made illegal at times .  Juggling, the word, came into being in the early Middle Ages and generally meant “entertaining.”  Over the ages one of the concerns of juggling enthusiasts has been distinguishing it from magic with which it had been inextricably  identified through the  ages until the 19th century when it was finally defined as a skill in throwing and catching acquired by practice.

Wall quotes the contemporary Juggler, Massimiliano Truzzi, on this subject. He reminds us that “legerdemain differs from juggling in that the juggler openly exhibits his skills, making no attempt to camouflage his dexterity of hand while the sleight of hand performer frequently masks his dexterity in order to produce astounding results.”

When we finally arrive at modern times in the few remaining pages, we learn that a group of jugglers, formerly members of the American Brotherhood of Magicians created the International Jugglers Association in 1947 establishing an official separation between the disciplines of juggling and magic. This organization still exists today and continues to flourish.

He concludes by exhorting jugglers of today to ignore definitions and to make of it what they will, just as jugglers from eons past have always done.

All of the above comes in the very last section of this thin tome, the text of which occupies just 100 pages. The rest of the discussion is taken up with illustrations and support of his thesis.

I found the book rather difficult to read due to the design of the pages making the margins very narrow. As a consequence the ends of the lines  on the left hand pages or the verso  fall into the gulley between pages and one must pull the pages apart somewhat to read the ends of the lines on the verso pages and the beginning of the lines on the right or recto pages.

The book concludes with an extensive bibliography of 26 pages.