Juggling – From Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Matt Hall – CircusTalk

After finishing my second read through of Thom Wall’s Juggling From Antiquity to the Middle Ages—the forgotten history of throwing and catching, the first thing that sprang to mind was Alexander Pope’s famous quotation, “A little learning is a dang’rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”  Speaking for myself, I will say that I have been walking around ignorant for all of my 21 years as a juggler. I fooled myself into thinking that I was a diligent student of the deep game, simply because I owned and had read all of Karl Heinz Zeithen’s works, or because I assiduously attended lectures given by Erik Aberg or David Cain.  A little learning is a dangerous thing indeed…

Before I go any further, I need to get a few things out there.  Mssrs. Zeithen, Aberg, & Cain bear no blame for my ignorance or mistaken beliefs when it comes to juggling facts and juggling history.  Their own singular works add nothing but quality knowledge and perspective to an otherwise overlooked and tiny niche of entertainment history. Second disclaimer. I am a friend and fan of Thom Wall. I have known him ever since he invited me to teach and perform at his St. Louis Juggling Festival in 2007.  He even thanks me in the Acknowledgements section of the book for helping him with one email about a Japanese translation. Okay, there. We’re good. Let’s get back to business.

Quite simply, very few juggling books attempt to be serious works of scholarship. Written by the performers themselves, or perhaps aficionados with little training in research, previous juggling books did not always allow for their readers to drink deeply from the aforementioned spring. Mr. Wall has taken the road less traveled. His first, last, and only task is to educate, rather than entertain—to get the facts right. As a teacher myself, if I knew nothing else about this work, that would be enough. Perhaps even more significant is Wall’s willingness to admit defeat, to admit when even his prodigious research attempts have been stymied. He says, “I have attempted to take a critical look when interpreting all sources referenced in this work, but without the exclusive use of primary sources, it is impossible to call such a work definitive, complete, or wholly scientific.” Such humility is both refreshing, and a call to arms for future juggling historians.

I can always tell when I’m going to enjoy a non-fiction book. Be it Stephen Ambrose’s  D-Day, Michael Lewis’s  Moneyball, or C.J. Chivers  The Gun, every good work of research has as many treasures to be found in the footnotes or appendices as in the actual text of the story. The footnotes in  Juggling from Antiquity  alone are worth the price of admission. Want to know why a horse was tried, convicted, and burned at the stake in 1601? It’s in there. Want to know about the first case of intellectual property theft in the juggling world? It’s in there. Want to know who Richard Nixon’s favorite juggler was? It’s in there. When you read the book, be sure to read the footnotes.

Wall opens the book by tackling the famous picture of jugglers from the tombs at Beni Hasan in Egypt. Dropping the bombshell that the image almost every juggler on the planet knows is not an actual representation of the actual frieze at Beni Hasan certainly caught my attention, and I stayed in alert mode for the remainder of the book, lest I miss further revelations of such magnitude. Moving both chronologically and geographically around the juggling universe, Wall takes the reader on a tour through Egypt, Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, Israel & Babylon, India, Turkey, China, Japan, Russia, The British Isles, Spain, The South Pacific, Mexico, Indigenous and Nomadic Cultures, before finishing with a section on the etymology of the word “juggling.” Speaking of ah-ha moments, I particularly recall learning in the India section, of all places, that the word malabarista  did not originate in Latin America (as I thought it had). Some sections are stronger or more detailed (remember those footnotes?) than other sections, but the pure preponderance of weighty research does not fail to impress. I particularly enjoyed the sections on Ancient Greece, The British Isles (probably the largest and most detailed section), and Japan (no surprise there).

If I had one bone to pick with Wall or with his publisher, it would be a small and nitpicky one about the reproduction of the images, font choices, and general layout of the work. The various country headings at the top of the page are justified left and printed in lighter ink than the text. I sometimes transitioned from one section to another and didn’t realize I was starting essentially a new chapter until I hit the first sentence or reference about the new region.  Similarly, the text under the photos and image reproductions is too light and hard to read. Again, a slightly churlish concern on my part, but the good news is that they are easily fixed in a later edition (as I hope will be printed once this book reaches a wider audience).

I was also gratified to see time and effort spent on perhaps the most popular juggler of all-time: Cinquevalli. No discussion of juggling is complete without him.  Another bombshell dropped on my poor, besotted brain came near the end of the book. In only one page, Wall takes on the popular and probably spurious Juggler of Toltec Origin image. To find out that this supposedly one thousand year old image is actually the work of the Grateful Dead’s designer’s son, created on a computer for a juggling festival t-shirt, put me again into the role of learner, with Wall as the teacher. Again, his aim was true.