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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » For the record » » Cups & Balls History: A german newspaper-article about medieval clerics doing the cups & balls (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

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Quite a while ago I've read a VERY interesting article about the history of the cups and balls in a german newspaper called „ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung“ (a very good newspaper btw. :-] ). As a well known expert for the Cups & Balls, I contacted on this topic, did not know it so far, and it also was – at least it seems so – never posted on the Café, I thought there might be interest for a translation of it …

… well … here we go:

[TRANSLATION OF: „Du sollst nicht Becherspielen“
By: Peter Rawert
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung / FAZ
02/19/2010 ]
I the Sign of the toad:
Thou shalt not play with cups and balls!

Were there clerics who conjured and with tricks made apples or potatoes to act like beeing alive?

This is suggested by a Venetian woodcut from the 16th Century.

Systematically in Mainz it is tried to uncover the secret.


The scene - bordered by black and red letters - leaves no doubt: There is a conjurer standing behind a table and stunning his audience. What is shown is the cups and balls. Small balls, an apple, or a potato walk between two or three cups. Back and forth. Apparently they magically penetrate the walls. They appear, disappear or change their position. They always do what the audience does not expect. They only obey the magician and his wand.

In the English-speaking countries it is called the "The Oldest Deception". Indeed, there is reason to believe that it was already known in antiquity. It is considered the main symbol of magic entertainment. And, Indeed – In a unique way it combines almost all the amazing effects of magic: the appearance or disappearance, overcoming of the barriers of solid matter, and sometimes even the almost alchemical process of transformation, for example when the apple or potato turn into small living beeings.

First the toad, then the rabbit.

One may philosophize about the abundant symbolism of the toad in the picture, but one can surely say: In the context of medieval legerdemain the staring amphibian played the role that later - since the dawn of the bourgeois era - was played by the cute little rabbit from a hat. Art historians might be scared by such secular knowledge. But sometimes even simple explanations will do the job.

There are many bizarre pictures of the cups & balls around. Only recently about two thousand examples have appeared in the estate of a British collector. Thirty years of his life he has devoted to research. Then he was suddenly struck by a blow. Currently his treasures are viewed by the art historians at the University of Mainz, identified and prepared for posthumous publication.

Magicians with a tonsure.

This curious project is supported by a establishment devoted to explore the art of illusion, which is named after the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. His painting "The Conjurer" is considered the most famous depiction of the cups and balls in the history of art. By the way, Bosch also did not forgett to include in his picture - very close to reality - a toad.

Science has thrown himself eagerly on these pictures. The interpretations are many like legion. The conjurer with the distinctive monk habit and the tonsure of the cleric is indeed a very special guy. As it seems, he is the oldest known pictoral representation of a magician in a printed book at all. The page comes from a rare edition, dated to 1514, of the "Liber Sextus" and was printed in Venice.

The cleric and Inner drive to play.

The "Liber Sextus" goes back to Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303). It is a collection of canonical decrees of the pontificates from the time of Gregory IX. (1227-1241), and therefore part of the "Corpus of Canon Law." Its title, "De vita et honestate clericorum" (On the life and the conduct of the clergy) contained edicts according to which for clerics it was forbidden to act like minestrels or as so called goliardists.

That was the name for stray medieval clerics who sought to protect their poor survival through all kinds of legerdemain. The vain and idle chatter, the blasphemous speeches and the loss of time for good works, such scholars accepted in order of participating in godless „games“, to the strict canonists did not seem to match the dignity of a priest.

With the help of a search engine.

So it was no wonder, that Boniface VIII decreed without further ado: Who – after a warning - failed to stop participating in such despicable hoax would lose all the privileges of the church. It was not until 1917 that the rule was suspended. Today there are other sacrileges to and in the Upper Church - and not only to them – to be feared. How innocent seem the games of the monk of the Middle Ages, when compared to them!

The – until now - almost unknown sheet of pergament has emerged in these days literally covered in a bookseller's shop on the american East Coast. A modern search engine has tracked it. Now it will travel to Mainz, to be examined in more detail. You could call it the Jolly Science.

Source: F.A.S.


Bitte liebe FAZ: Verklagt mich bitte nicht für diese Übersetzung eures Artikels. Betrachtet sie eher als Werbung für euch I'm englischen Sprachraum !
(Please FAZ, don't sue me for making a translation of your article! Regard it as an Ad towards english speakers for you!)
Jon Bright
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Hi Jerome, Thanks for posting. I never would have seen this without your post.
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Very interesting article. Thanks.
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