It’s 1680, and we’re in Nuremberg.
Second only to Munich in size, the city sits proudly on the Pegnitz, claiming its place in Bavaria, with a distinctively Baroque style.
The town council have been meeting for quite some time in the Imperial Castle, and are just now emerging with their agreement on the matter at hand.
“Aufmerksamkeit bitte,” called the ausrufer, “we have a decision!”
And, he proceeded to tell the freezing townsfolk that from that day forward, Nuremberg would have a ‘ball-master’ who would teach the people how to juggle.
Now, if I were a struggling inhabitant of old Nuremberg, who’d just eaten his shoes to survive the harsh winter, I might need the town crier to repeat that just once more, slower this time, so I could make sure I heard correctly.
But juggling, strangely enough, might actually be a more useful skill than one might instantly grasp, if one could with frostbitten fingers.
As far back as you can go, juggling had a purpose, a reason, a symbology.
Take the Egyptian cemetery of Beni Hasan, for example, where four-thousand-year-old paintings reveal jugglers in the act of throwing balls or sun-shaped items up and, one assumes, catching them. The fact that they’re entombed with the deceased lends a particular meaning to the act, one of potential rebirth, or the inevitable cycle of life and death, or possibly just a life well-juggled.
Ancient Chinese dynastic records provide examples too, but with a very different meaning.
In 603 BCE, a battle raged between the Chu and the Song, with neither side giving up ground or seeming to weaken. What was needed was a brilliant offensive plan, or a decisive drive for victory, or a mistaken movement by one of the generals to enable the other side to counter, or some really cool juggling.
In stepped the warrior Xiong Yilia, black hair blowing in the wind, holding his balls in his hand. He threw nine up into the air and proceeded to juggle superbly. The Song army was so astonished that they turned and fled, and the Chu claimed a glorious, if bizarre, victory.
Distraction tactics aside, if that’s possible, classical Greece provides another juggling insight.
Socrates, the great philosopher, who never managed to write down a single word of his wisdom, was at a particular dinner party at which a juggler managed to juggle twelve hoops without dropping a single one. Whether Socrates was impressed or not is lost to history, but his devoted student, Plato, may have been there by his side, watching and learning from the great man, and he may have exclaimed that very night that “Excellence is not a gift but a skill that takes practice!”, because he actually wrote things down.
The Roman’s juggled too, and entertained as a means of survival.
There is a description of Agathinus, who juggled with his shield from head to foot to knee to ass, and of the juggling game called trigon, played with glass millefiori balls, and of the contemporary and magnificent Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, who juggled with lit torches that never went out. And, because of their amazing talent, jugglers were revered and not typically among the half-million people the gentle Romans sacrificed in the name of a good laugh to the bloodlust of the Colosseum.
Juggling also seems to be quite relaxing, at least for some.
The medieval Boke of Saint Albans describes a host of jugglers by their collective noun, a ‘neverthriving of jugglers’. That neverthriving juggled for important people, like William the Conqueror, whose minstrel Taillefer did a fabulous juggling act that ended with the termination of an English soldier at the Battle of Hastings. In Irish, Scots, and Manx medieval mythology, the demigod Cu Chulainn juggled with nine apples, a shield, and a sword at the same time while meditating between heroic acts, and a manuscript from the same time tells of King David’s juggler, who did it with three balls in one hand and three knives in the other, as David reclined on a bed of soft eunuchs.
From sun worship and peacemaking, from survival to meditation, we’ve been juggling for a long time.
The culmination was the modern circus, brought to the world in 1768 by the English couple Philip Astley and Patty Jones. It included a host of jugglers, who filled pauses between main attractions, and inadvertently made jugglers accessories rather than main acts, and inextricably linked them to circuses.
From then on, juggling went to variety shows and music halls, to Vaudeville, and to Vegas. Jugglers used cigar boxes, wooden clubs, bowling pins, and rubber balls, once rubber was invented.
Jugglers perfected their art over centuries of hard work and have since created a spectacle of performance that even our historical friends would admire.
All, that is, except maybe Charles Hoey.
Hoey was the first juggler to juggle four clubs as part of his act, around the first quarter of the twentieth century. His juggling was exceptional and he wowed the crowds, young and old. There was only one challenge with his act. Towards the end of his performance, while Hoey was juggling on stage, a curtain had to be drawn in front of him behind which he would disappear from sight. As the crowd clapped loudly, he’d promptly drop his clubs on the floor.
While Hoey could juggle four clubs brilliantly, he couldn’t actually stop juggling without dropping them. So he either had to keep juggling or find a way to unjuggle when no-one was looking.
Keep juggling or disappear. I think we can all feel Hoey’s pain.