What is the earliest film to depict Juggling? Well if the Juggling Information Service’s frankly exhausting list of ‘films that depict juggling’ is anything to go by, the credit goes to two French documentaries from 1895 and 1896; Assiettes tournantes, which is “Reported to contain juggling” according to the JIS, and Jongleur javanais, which “Shows a juggler from Java”. Despite the rather retro geo-cities appearance of the JIS’s website, the 391 strong list has been updated almost every year and it goes to show the dedication and passion people still have to that skill of what the ancient Chinese called “throwing multiple objects up and down without dropping” (a pretty timeless description if you ask me). The history and depiction of juggling may stretch as far back to Egypt around 1994 BCE, according to what appears to be a wall painting of toss-juggling. From then on, it’s description and depictions pop up all over the world, from Ancient China around 800BC, to Greece 600 years later, and then the Roman Empire and even Ireland in the early ADs. Most interestingly however, is that juggling wasn’t the mere parlour trick we might see it as today- it seems in the past, juggling proficiency often spoke volumes of agility and prowess on the battlefield.
We may laugh at jugglers and various other entertainers reserved nowadays mainly for kid’s birthday parties and lame university societies but believe it or not, Jugglers have much more history on the field of battle than other professions or performing arts (maybe aside from the infamous deadly elite clown corps of the US army).
The Chinese, it seems, really dug their jugglers. So much so, in fact, that they have an entire Wikipedia page on Juggling in Ancient China. Probably most notable of these eastern ball throwers though is Xiong Yiliao, a famous Chu warrior who fought under King Zhuang of Chu. Around 603BC, a battle took place between the states of Chu and Song. While fighting and wars between states is nothing new, what happened during this battle is pretty unbelievable. To quote Qifeng Fu’s book Chinese Acrobatics Through the Ages: “Yiliao appeared in front of the Chu troops and calmly, in the face of enemy aces and spears, juggled nine balls, which so amazed the Song troops that all five hundred of them turned and fled, allowing the Chu army to win a complete victory”.
What I love about that story (however mythical or apocryphal it might be) is the fact that after all these years the feat has hardly even been inflated or exaggerated. Nine balls? Not even swords, or the severed heads of vanquished enemies, or dragons or something? Nope, Yiliao grabbed a couple of bouncy balls, some ping-pong equipment from the local youth group, one of those gyro wrist exercise things and a Ben Wa ball and start tossing them around in front of an army in the hopes of scaring them away. And it worked! That’s not where the Song’s strained relationship with jugglers comes to an end, either.
Another tale is of Lanzi, a juggler who lived during the reign of Duke Yuan of Song around 531-517BC. According to the Chinese annals:
In the State of Song there lived a man named Lanzi, who sought favor from Lord Yuan of Song for his skills. Lord Yuan of Song summoned him, and he performed on stilts that were twice as long as his body and attached to his legs. He walked and ran on them, and he also juggled seven swords, alternately throwing them and always keeping five swords in the air. Lord Yuan was amazed, and at once he granted Lanzi gold and silk. Later, Lanzi again returned to perform for Lord Yuan. Lord Yuan angrily said, “Before, I was astonished by your skill, and I was pleased to confer gold and silk. However I am displeased that you have again returned hoping for my reward.” Lanzi was arrested and they planned to kill him, but after a month he was freed.
Apparently Lanzi really stepped up the juggling game since the days of Yiliao. Now we have giant stilts, multiple sharp swords, all while walking and running! It’s like the Chinese were locked in some kind of ancient arms race in the desire to terrify Song people with their juggling skills. But the Song people, it seems, are big on the “Fool me Once” rule. Juggle seven swords while walking and running on stilts? You Sir win the praise of every court in the land! Do it twice? Well, you’ll be ordered to be put to death. Lord Yuan of Song a very big proponent of original content, it seems.
Our final tale, however, is much closer to home. Well my home anyway. We’re shooting forward over 1,500 years to 1066AD, and half way across the globe to the drizzly south coast of England. The Battle of Hastings is one of the most well-known battles to take place on British soil and important moments in the history of the Isles, as it marked what was essentially the conclusion to William of Normandy’s conquest of England. There was an interesting man who came with this invasion force however, a man who is not nearly as well-known as he should be: Taillefer (sometimes given the first name “Ivo”), a Norman in the ranks of William’s army who was, you guessed it, a juggler! The account of Taillefer’s actions before the battle of Hastings are as amazing as they probably are exaggerated, but they are an embodiment of something you’d be more inclined to see in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, and have clearly influenced the portrayal of knights and warriors in popular culture ever since.
Much like in the story of Yiliao hundreds of years before, the two armies of Harold and William deployed themselves for battle. Before the fighting began though, Taillefer, who some claim was a minstrel and knight of William, got permission from his master to ride out in front of both armies. He then proceeded to juggle his lance and sword in the air, all the while singing an early version of La Chanson de Roland, a heroic French poem. It’s said in Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, the earliest account of the battle we have, that an English knight then came out to fight Taillefer and was promptly killed by our juggling maestro:
“Then forward, lance in rest, against the waiting foe he dashed,
And at the shock an English knight from out the saddle crashed;
Anon he swung his sword and struck a grim and grisly blow,
And on the ground beneath his feet an English knight lay low.”
–Taillefer by Ludwig Uhland.
Not done with his sword-throwing, lance-tossing blood lust, Taillefer is said to have then charged the ranks of the English forces and was engulfed in their lines. That friends, is how you guarantee a place in history. Now, the tales and accounts of Taillefer are shaky, contradictory and certainly exaggerated like most accounts of men and their actions of this time. Interestingly and most notably is that Taillefer doesn’t seem to be mentioned or depicted anywhere, at least in name, in the Bayeux Tapestry, which is strange considering it was made and depicted from a Norman viewpoint. Whatever the true story is with Taillerfer, it doesn’t seem outside the realms of possibility that he was a juggler on the battlefield considering the numerous accounts through history as we’ve seen of the skill being found there (There is also mentions and descriptions of skilled jugglers within the ranks of Roman Legionaries). The moral of all this? Well I guess if, in the downfall of society or a zombie apocalypse, best idea is to make friends with a juggler. Preferably a singing one.
One a final note, I did want to do some historical juggling mythbusting (coming soon to the Discovery Channel!). So many various websites, publications and even that all-trusting Wikipedia have claimed that through the Middle Ages jugglers were persecuted, especially by the church. To quote Wikipedia’s timeline “History of Juggling“:
“Juggling was an acceptable diversion until the decline of the Roman Empire, after which it fell into disgrace. Throughout the Middle Ages most histories were written by religious clerics who frowned upon the type of performers who juggled, called ‘Gleemen’, accusing them of base morals or even practicing witchcraft”
While there is almost no doubt that some ‘Gleemen’ or performers were persecuted at some point in the Middle ages for something, there is little evidence for this being attributed to jugglers en masse, especially on orders of the church. To quote Professor Arthur Lewbel in his article Research in Juggling History “I have never seen any evidence that the medieval church ever specifically persecuted jugglers or juggling“. Even more damning is the depiction of jugglers in various church produced and endorsed manuscripts, including depictions in the tenth and eleventh century of the Ark of the Covenant being carried being accompanied with jugglers and other “more modern” arts along with traditional dancers, singers and trumpets. Furthermore, there is numerous drawings of jugglers in the margins of manuscripts that would suggest that not only did the church not care about juggling, but rather approved of it. It seems to be more revisionist “The Church was evil!” history that crops up a lot. That said, if you have any evidence I would love to see it. I’m not claiming these sources to be intrinsically wrong, just that I’ve found nothing concrete to back them up.