Thursday, November 12, 2009

How to Vanish a Glass of Beer: Hocus Pocus, 1634



























My colleague and friend Professor Adam Roberts, who writes novels and updates his blogs by prestidigitation

http://punkadiddle.blogspot.com/

draws my attention to

http://www.bookride.com/2009/08/hocus-pocus-1.html

an account of “the object of great desire by collectors of conjuring books - it is the first devoted exclusively to magic as a performing art”, Hocus Pocus Junior The anatomy of legerdemain. Or, The art of iugling set forth in his proper colours, fully, plainly, and exactly; so that an ignorant person may thereby learn the full perfection of the same, after a little practise.


I was delighted to hear of this book, new to me, as 1634 is such an appropriate year for such a work to have appeared: the year of Heywood and Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches, a play which certainly put some conjuring tricks with carefully prepared props onto the London stage, and the year of Milton’s Comus (“Thus I hurl / My dazling Spells into the spungy ayr, / Of power to cheat the eye with blear illusion, / And give it false presentments.”)


Hocus Pocus Junior is, by and large, hocus pocus itself: if you bought a copy, you had bought chapters 22 to 34 of Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft. Here are the tricks with cup and balls, coins (“the best piece for conveyance is a Tester, but with practice all will be alike”, this practice-minded redactor tells us, as Scot did before him), pieces of lace, along with instructions on how to construct trick boxes and other props.


Just how word-for-word the two texts can be is shown in two passages describing the same trick of palming a coin


Hocus Pocus Junior:

How to convey money out of one of your hands into the other by Legerdemaine.

FIrst, you must hold open your right hand, and lay therein a Tester, or some big peece of money, then lay thereupon the top of your long left finger, and use some words of Art, and upon the sudden, slip your right hand from your finger, wherewith you held downe the Tester, and bending your hand a very little, you shall retaine the Tester still therein, and suddenly drawing your right hand thorow your left, you shall seem to have left the Tester there, especially when you shut in due time your left hand. Which that it may more plainly appeare to be truly done, you may take a knife, and seeme to knocke against it, so as it shall make a great sound: but instead of knocking the peece in the left hand (where none is) you shall hold the point of the knife fast with the left hand, and knock against the Tester held in the other hand, and it will be thought to hit against the money in your left hand. Then after some words of Art pronounced, open your hand, and when nothing is seen, it will bee wondered at, how the Tester came removed.


Text in Scot:

To Convey Money out of one of your hands into the other by Legierdemain.

FIrst you must hold open your right hand, and lay therein a Testor, or some big piece of Money: then lay thereupon the top of your long left finger, and use words, and upon the sudden slip your right hand from your finger wherewith you held down the Testor, and bending your hand a very little, you shall retain the Testor still therein, and suddenly (I say) drawing your right hand through your left, you shall seem to have left the Testor there, specially when you shut in due time your left hand. Which that it may more plainly appear to be truly done, you may take a Knife, and seem to knock against it, so as it shall make a great sound, but instead of knocking the piece in the left hand (where none is) you shall hold the point of the Knife fast with the left hand, and knock against the Testor held in the other hand, and it will be thought to hit against the Money in the left hand. Then use words, and open your hand, and when nothing is seen, it will be wondred at how the Testor was removed."


The only difference is that Hocus Pocus Junior is instructing a would-be performer, so he is a little more emphatic about the ‘words of art’. At the start of his tract, the later writer outlines the basic requirements for successful performance: presence, speed, and well-timed misdirection:


“The Definition, or description of the Operator,

First, he must be one of an impudent and audatious spirit, so that hee may set a good face upon the matter.

Secondly, he must have a nimble and cleanly conveyance. Thirdly, hee must have strange termes, and emphaticall words, to grace and adorne his actions, and the more to astonish the beholders.

Fourthly, and lastly, such gestures of body as may leade away the spectators eies from a strict and diligent beholding his manner of conveyance.”


As Hocus Pocus Junior instructs a performer, we get to hear the rather rakish performance patter of the 17th century stage conjurer: when a ball is found – surprise – to be under a cup: “do you see Gentlemen, they are snug’d like a young man and a Maid in bed together”, or an anecdote in which a simple trick of making coins seem to pass through a table top made acceptable by being framed as a retelling of a Faustus-like gulling of ordinary folk, in this case for a night’s free lodging and sex:


“Now sirs it was my fortune as I was travelling, to be benighted, and so forced to seeke for lodging, and as it happened, I tooke into an house of entertainment, where calling for my Ostesse, I drew my stocke, and said, what must I give you mine Ostesse for my meat, drinke, and lodging this night? My friend, quoth she, you must give me three French Crownes; with that I uncovered my boxe, and set it upon the Table (it must be done with the mouth of the boxe downward) tooke my boxe from off the Counters, and delivered her three from the top, saying, there they are; and casting my eye aside, I spyed a pretty lasse comming down the staires; Sweet-heart, said I to her, what shall I give thee to lye with thee this night?”


Hocus Pocus Junior also has various Latin magic words of command. These come to him from the original ‘Hocus Pocus’, whose performance routine is described in Thomas Ady’s sceptical tract (against too ready belief in witchcraft), A candle in the dark (1655):


“The first is profitably seen in our common Juglers, that go up and down to play their Tricks in Fayrs and Markets, I will speak of one man more excelling in that craft than others, that went about in King James his time, and long since, who called himself, The Kings Majesties most excellent Hocus Pocus, and so was he called, because that at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery, because when the eye and the ear of the beholder are both earnestly busied, the Trick is not so easily discovered.”


When Hocus Pocus Junior ends his account of how to perform these deceptions, he partly seeks to gain the credit of a ‘coney-catching’ pamphlet: his reader will have a notion of how all tricks are performed. But there is also a belated acknowledgement of the other means by which tricks might be performed, tricks that no-one can penetrate, because the confederate of the performer is the devil himself:


“If thou rightly understand this, there is not a trick that any jugler in the world can shew thee, but thou shalt bee able to conceive after what manner it is performed, if he doe it by a slight of hand, and not by an unlawfull and detested meanes. That there are such it is not to be doubted of, that doe work by unlawfull means, and have besides their own naturall endowments the assistance of some familiar.”


I leave with Thomas Ady’s brilliant account of just how far 17th century performers were willing to go in playing with fire, a juggler equipped with a spring-loaded artificial ‘familiar spirit’, who keeps popping up into view, part the naughty puppet in the vein of Rod Hull’s ‘Emu’, part credible diabolic imp:


“First, A Jugler knowing the common tradition, and foolish opinion that a familiar Spirit in some bodily shape must be had for the doing of strange things, beyond the Vulgar capacity, he therefore carrieth about him the skin of a Mouse stopped with feathers, or some like Artificial thing, and in the hinder part thereof sticketh a small springing Wire of about a foot long, or longer, and when he begins to act his part in a Fayr, or a Market before Vulgar people, he bringeth forth his Impe, and maketh it spring from him once or twice upon the Table, and then catcheth it up, saying, would you be gone? I will make you stay and play some Tricks for me before you go, and then he nimbly sticketh one end of the Wire upon his waste, and maketh his Impe spring up three or four times to his shoulder, and nimbly catcheth it, and pulleth it down again every time, saying, Would you be gone? in troth if you be gone I can play no Tricks, or Feats of Activity to day, and then holdeth it fast in one hand, and beateth it with the other, and slily maketh a squeeking noyse with his lips, as if his Impe cried, and then putteth his Impe in his breeches, or in his pocket, saying, I will make you stay, would you be gone? Then begin the silly people to wonder, and whisper, then he sheweth many slights of activity as if he did them by the help of his Familiar, which the silliest sort of beholders do verily beleeve; amongst which he espyeth one or other young Boy or Wench, and layeth a tester or shilling in his hand wetted, and biddeth him hold it fast, but whilst the said Boy, or silly Wench thinketh to enclose the peece of silver fast in the hand, he nimbly taketh it away with his finger, and hasteneth the holder of it to close his hand, saying, Hold fast or it will be gone, and then mumbleth certain words, and crieth by the vertue of Hocus, Pocus, hay passe prestor, be gone; now open your hand, and the silly Boy or Wench, and the beholders stand amazed to see that there is nothing left in the hand.”


As for the glass of beer? It's easy enough, but you will get wet: "Though you spill a part of the Beere, it is no matter, neither is it any disgrace unto it; besides you may put it off very well."


2 comments:

Adam Roberts said...

Nice post, Roy. I see it got linked by that behemoth of blogs, Boing-Boing too.

Pres said...

Indeed (I say) both Tomes of Legierdemain do I wante for my Kindle forthwith!