A Medieval Knave?
by Lindsay Townsend
I’m talking about jugglers in the Middle Ages. Geraint, the Welsh hero of my latest historical romance, ‘Dark Maiden’, is a juggler, which medieval people regarded as a lowly art. This made Geraint an object of suspicion – a knave. In the Middle Ages, other performers such as musicians and tumblers could serve in royal courts and receive high status. Minstrels in particular were highly thought of, ranked in royal and noble households as equal to huntsmen and falconers. Dancers, too, were well regarded - in 1306, the only woman paid as a musician in the royal household was an acrobatic dancer with the stage name of Matilda Makejoy. She possibly danced by bending backwards and touching her head with her feet, or on her hands, or on knives - in medieval stained glass Salome was shown dancing on knives.
Such dancers could be athletic and graceful or tumble in a jesting manner, playing for laughter. They could also be well paid and respected - Richard II paid John Katherine, a dancer from Venice, over £6 for playing and dancing before him, a sum not far short of £3,000 today.
Jugglers were considered coarse creatures at the time, especially those who made a living wandering from fair to fair or village to village. John of Salisbury, writing in his ‘Polycraticus’, remarked that the performance of a troop of jugglers was ‘so shameful even a cynic would blush’. They were felt to have few morals and to achieve their tricks through magic - always a dangerous idea in the Middle Ages. I make my juggler hero Welsh, with a Celtic heritage and sensibility. In Celtic society, a juggler was known as a clesamnach, a performer of feats. In France, the bateleur would do juggling and magic – so much so that the Tarot card known as the Magician in English is called Bateleur in French.
Geraint is a wanderer, too, which would be another mark against him. During the time of the Black Death and the subsequent shortage of manpower in the countryside, the authorities tried to compel peasants and others to remain tied to the land. By 1388 the government of Richard II was ordering that people moving about the country should stop and be forced to settle down.
My hero would certainly have fought against this. He can be abrasive and he is instantly suspicious of all authority, including that of the Church. He will argue with anyone, freely admits to being a thief and indulges in the common medieval crime of stealing fish from lords’ fishponds. Is he also a knave? Read ‘Dark Maiden’ to find out.
About the Author:
Links to her 'Dark Maiden':Ellora Cave