Magic and Humour in the Late Middle Ages

the conjuror

‘The Conjuror’, Hieronymus Bosch, 1502.

While researching my UCL master’s dissertation on ‘Magic, Illusions and Deceptions of the Sight’, I came across an illuminating and relatively under examined topic: magic as an expression of humour and entertainment. Pranks and sleight of hand illusion and the anecdotes that occasionally accompany magical experiments all suggest that humour could be a practical end for magical practitioners.

Practical jokes, both the obviously magical and the more ordinary, appear with surprising frequency in collections of magical experiments. Some of the most startling and entertaining examples can be found in the Liber vaccae or Book of the Cow, a twelfth-century Latin translation of a ninth-century Arabic text. The first book of this text, from which it derives its name, deals with the creation of rational and irrational creatures and other experiments to control nature, but the second reveals a more light-hearted character. Here the idea of provoking the audience’s wonder is evoked by the repetition of phrases such as ‘homines stupefient’ (men will be astonished). Many of the experiments are intended to play tricks on the senses in rather ridiculous ways, such as making men appear in the shape of elephants and horses by taking a plant called alkekengi, crushing it and mixing it with a little dolphin fat. From this mixture the practitioner makes grains the size of chickpeas that should be burnt over a fire ignited with the dung of a cow which has given milk. The magic texts warn the practitioner not to allow any of the ensuing smoke to escape the room.

Alongside these experiments are lamps that cannot be extinguished, others that cause incessant flatulence and an experiment to make seeds that cause intense itching in their victims. In this last experiment, the practitioner is told to place various plant materials in the victim’s bed. From this mixture stems grow up that will leave them unable to sleep, plagued by itchiness. Experiments like these have modern equivalents in conjuring props, the ‘whoopie’ cushion, itching powders and other products intended to cause astonishment, discomfort or confusion.

Trickery and tomfoolery is also evident in MS Oxford, Ashmole 1435, a fifteenth-century compendium of over 180 recipes on cooking, medicine, metalwork, animal husbandry and, of course, magic and practical tricks. Some of the experiments seem intended to promote the expertise and charisma of the practitioner through his performance of wonders, such as turning a red rose white by suffumigating it with sulphur, or making an ointment that allows the practitioner to touch fire unharmed. However, others seem to be geared toward humorous spectacle. An experiment to make two eggs fight recommends emptying them, filling the empty shells with mercury, and leaving them to heat in the sun. An experiment to make a loaf of bread run across the house uses a similar method. Not only do these experiments showcase the practitioner’s knowledge but they also would produce surprising, entertaining and fairly ludicrous sights.

These humorous tricks could inhabit a range of contexts. The above tricks are all confined to a house, making them distinctly domestic parlour tricks. The Ashmole manuscript makes use of ordinary domestic products such as flowers, eggs and loaves of bread to create wonders. Even when it delves into less explicable experiments, such as making serpents appear in a room, the effect is always limited to a house. However, public conjuring tricks were also clearly a popular pass-time, as we can see in Bosch’s painting of the conjuror.

Tricks, illusions and jokes were also performed at court. Possibly my favourite example comes from the Munich Necromantic Handbook (MS Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek, Clm 8499). This manuscript, unlike the previous texts, is flagrantly and unabashedly necromantic. Among a number of dubious and unsettling experiments for control over others or material gain is a wonderfully light-hearted experiment to produce the appearance of a castle which acts as the prologue to an amusing anecdote. This anecdote reveals several things: first and foremost the delight taken in magical tricks; second, the privileged position offered to the practitioner, and finally and far more subtly, the emperor’s implied willingness to be made a fool of.

After describing the technical practicalities of this experiment, the magic practitioner tells the reader about the last time he performed this trick. He sets the scene as one might set up a joke, saying that he decided to try out this illusion while riding with the emperor and his entourage through a dark forest. In fact, the practitioner did not merely conjure up the castle to astound the emperor, he created an entire adventure around it. First the practitioner summoned demons to create the illusion of an invading army and only when the emperor was in panicked retreat did he create the image of the castle. Once the emperor was safely inside, and presumably taking stock of the impending siege, the castle suddenly disappeared leaving the perplexed emperor in a marsh. The practitioner seems to have faced no consequences for his dramatic illusions, feeling safe to quip ‘This episode has been quite an adventure’ and cook everyone dinner!

The humorous potential of magic can also be found in the technological marvels at the Parc de Hesdin, an equivalent to the modern fun house. Originally constructed in the thirteenth century and active well into the fifteenth, the palace within this park was furnished with distorting mirrors and mechanical devices dedicated to playing practical jokes on visitors, such as spraying them with water, soot or flour. Victims were often led into a false sense of security, much as the emperor above. One of the rooms in the palace presented itself as a refuge from the fake rain but once in this room the victims would be covered in feathers.

wedding party

Wedding Party at the Park of Hesdin, 16th-century copy of a lost original possibly by Jan van Eyck.

Hesdin is yet another example of the relationship between the inexplicable and humour. The palace machines and devices were considered wonders much as the illusions of the Munich Handbook would have been. Unlike the Munich Handbook, however, the victims of Hesdin were obviously willing participants. The existence of Hesdin reveals not only curiosity toward the unknown and the not yet understood, but also the willingness of people in the Middle Ages to not take themselves too seriously – even to be the butt of the joke.

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