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Take a virtual tour of Juggling the Middle Ages!

The tale of The Juggler of Notre Dame, created in the Middle Ages and rediscovered in the modern era, offers a fascinating bridge between the past and present. Each retelling of this story — and the story of this story — offers fresh insights into questions of faith, love, art, giving, and our complicated relationship with the medieval world.

Our Large Print Guide, which features all wall text and labels from the exhibit, is available here.

Medieval Origins: The Story Begins

The Middle Ages ran, many would agree, from the 5th century through the 15th. Though often cast today as a “dark” age, the medieval period was also a time of deep faith and spirituality. Our tale begins in this context. The story of the juggler first appears in manuscripts of the 13th century, in two different forms: an anonymous French poem and a Latin exemplum, a short narrative for preachers to use in sermons. Briefly, the story is as follows:

A successful minstrel relinquishes his worldly possessions and enters a monastery but is unfamiliar with the liturgy. Frustrated by his inability to pray, he stumbles upon a statue of the Virgin Mary and venerates her the only way he knows — through performance. The other monks judge his elaborate gymnastics routine to be profane, but when the performer completes his devotional feat, a miracle occurs: the Virgin comes to life and wipes away his sweat with a cloth. She subsequently grants him entry to Heaven for his devotion.

Stained Glass. Atelier Miller. Stained glass studio started in Paris in 1985 by Jeffrey Miller (Princeton ’78). Collaboration with Paris-based artist/daughter Sarah Navasse (American University MFA ’11) and Jeremy Bourdois, master craftsman (Sorbonne, Master’s in Stained Glass Conservation ’17).

Then and Now: A Medieval Tale, Retold

The juggler’s story would have resonated with medieval audiences. In the 13th century, the Virgin Mary was reaching her peak of popularity as a focus of religious devotion, and the idea that a layman ignorant of Latin and liturgy could achieve salvation would have been compelling to many.

By the 15th century, the story had vanished from written records. After being forgotten for five hundred years or so, it was brought to light again in the late 19th century. Its rediscovery then coincided with a new fascination with the Middle Ages. Many subsequent retellings of the juggler story celebrated its medieval heritage while reinterpreting the narrative through modern visual, literary, and performance idioms.

Jack of All Trades: Who Is the Juggler?

Leon Guipon (American, 1872-1910). “Sprinkling the World with His Merriment” in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (December 1907), p. 223.

Although in English we often call him the “juggler” of Notre Dame, the protagonist of the story has at various times been portrayed as a tumbler, dancer, musician, gymnast, and jester. In the early French and Latin versions of the story, he is described by the related words “jongleur” and “ioculator,” which more accurately capture the character’s original conception. These words connote a performer of broader talents — what we might call today a wandering minstrel, whose repertoire would likely have included song, dance, and comedy, as well as feats of physical skill. Modern representations, however, often more narrowly reflect the contemporary understanding of the term “juggler.”

“The Jongleur of the middle ages was minstrel, juggler, tumbler, jester, dancer, in one. The best the translator can do is to give the word its literal translation, juggler, although the name does not suggest to-day the character of those wandering men-of-all-arts whose programs foreshadowed the modern Vaudeville.”

From the English score for Massenet’s opera Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, 1908

“Our Lady:” The Dame in “Notre Dame”

The “Notre Dame” in Le Jongleur de Notre Dame does not refer to the church in Paris of that name. In French it means literally “Our Lady,” and denotes the Virgin Mary herself – the object of the jongleur’s affection. Then, as today, Mary was frequently the focus of veneration. Devotees honored her image and even ascribed miracles to her – a sudden apparition or a guiding hand in our lives. Although many today are still just as moved by her presence as the juggler was, today the Virgin’s shining visage may appear on a mug or bumper sticker as well as in a church chapel.

“He knew of no way to worship Our Lady except to juggle before her image. And so, when no one was looking, he did his few tricks and turned a somersault…”

Poet Wallace Stevens, from a letter to his fiancée, 1908

Beyond the Juggler: Related Legends and Tales

The Juggler of Notre Dame draws on universal themes, and the tale has many analogues across cultures. While the particulars of the various narratives differ, they all revolve around main characters who use their unique talents to worship God in nontraditional or unexpected ways. These analogous legends and tales — from The Little Drummer Boy to the Hasidic Jewish tale of the Simple Shepherd — tap into the principal elements of the juggler’s story to explore the mysteries of faith, the association between talent and gift-giving, and the power of humility, especially in the common person’s relationship to the elite.

‘Tis the Season: Christmas and the Juggler

Although intended to embody core Christian values, the original juggler story was not specifically a Christmas tale. Yet in many modern retellings, the yuletide season has taken center stage. One version even ties the protagonist’s juggling balls to the tradition of decorating Christmas trees with round ornaments.

Both the theme of giving and the centrality of the Virgin Mary likely contributed to the story’s association with Christmas. The connection between the juggler and Noel may also relate to the nostalgia that has imbued the season since the 19th century. In holiday cards and elsewhere, the festivities of Christmas and New Year have often been epitomized by the supposedly jolly innocence of the Middle Ages.