Medieval Studies Magic in the Medieval Theater
Philip Butterworth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0004


The concept and practice of magic in the Middle Ages was most popularly associated with witchcraft, superstition, sorcery, and the occult. However, one of the concerns of Reginald Scot in his Discouery of witchcraft (Scot 1584, cited under Early Texts: Juggling) was to expose the methods and techniques used to create the fraudulent appearance of witchcraft and sorcery. In doing so, he consolidated a distinction between “inchantors” or “conjurors” (responsible for witchcraft) and “jugglers” (responsible for sleight of hand, legerdemain, etc.). He expressed the distinction as follows: “our iugglers approch much neerer to resemble Pharaos magicians, than either witches or conjurers, & can make a more liuelie shew of working miracles than anie inchantors can doo: for these practise to shew that in action, which witches doo in words and termes” (p. 320). Shakespeare eloquently and pithily summed up the nature and purpose of the juggler’s paradoxical activity: “A juggling trick––to be secretly open” (Troilus and Cressida, act 5, scene 3, line 24). Thus, the word “magic” as used here refers to the phenomena and practices of sleight of hand, legerdemain, prestigiation, and tregetry, and/or their appearance, both on and off the medieval stage. It does not refer to witchcraft, sorcery, superstition, or the occult. Medieval perpetrators of such magic are consistently referred to as “jugglers” and their skills as “juggling.” Here, magic is concerned with the consummate skill of jugglers through processes of conveyance, confederacy, and misdirection. “Conveyance” refers to the transference of objects, or the appearance of it, through sleight of hand. “Confederacy” is concerned with collusion of different sorts, and “misdirection” alludes to diversion of audience senses away from an action performed by the juggler. Jugglers are also referred to as tregetours, prestigiators, joculators, circulators, mountebankes, empericks, and quacksalvers. The last three of these denominations made use of juggling skills in order to sell quack medicines or cures. English jugglers, both on and off the medieval stage, have been hitherto wrongly identified and misunderstood by the nonspecialist. They were not known for throwing up objects from one hand to the other in a continuous rhythmical sequence. This understanding of the term “juggler,” as it applies to the English juggler, did not appear until the 19th century. However, there is evidence of medieval jugglers in other countries who did operate in this way. The act of throwing up objects and catching them before they dropped to the floor was an activity frequently performed by English “tumblers” and “dancers on the rope.” Collectively, the processes of juggling, tumbling, and “dancing on the rope” were known in England as “feats of activity.” There is clear evidence of awareness, expertise, and practice of sleight of hand, legerdemain, and prestigiation in the Middle Ages. Such evidence is sporadic and exists in isolated references. This is not too surprising given the nature of the phenomenon that is “sleight of hand.” The juggler had (and still has) a vested interest in keeping secret the means by which his tricks, illusions, and effects were created. Nevertheless, medieval evidence of the ongoing practice of sleight of hand exists in a variety of sources from play texts to religious and civic records and eyewitness accounts (Butterworth 2005, cited under Histories). Much of the evidence that illuminates the processes, methods, and techniques of medieval sleight of hand does so from later evidence. English juggling activity is recorded at the court of Edward II between 1311 and 1312, the court of Henry V, the Scottish court in 1552–1553, the court of Edward VI in 1552, and an ecclesiastical estate in 1534 (Butterworth 2005). The value of later evidence becomes significant when later practice achieves or attempts to achieve the same or similar effects as medieval ones. Legerdemain principles are fundamentally the same now as they were in the Middle Ages.

General Overviews

The only overview that deals specifically with investigation into the entirety of the area concerning the medieval English stage is Magic on the Early English Stage (Butterworth 2005, cited under Histories). Investigation into earlier staged magic is slight and based on limited evidence. There are other historical overviews concerned with conjuring (the modern term for juggling), manuals outlining sleight-of-hand techniques, cultural histories, and “coffee-table” books with an emphasis on visual content. These works tend to concentrate on magic after the Renaissance. However, there are some later works that provide insight into medieval theater practice. Butterworth 2005 contains a considerable amount of medieval evidence published for the first time since original publication.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.