The Juggler of Notre Dame emerged from lonely hibernation in the late 19th century — and almost immediately attracted the spotlight. His story became the basis for short stories, operas, children’s books, movies, and art. Modern audiences found relevance in the medieval juggler’s struggle, and his tale was interpreted and reinterpreted many times over.
What gives a story like his staying power? What makes it stick? Although the juggler’s story was born in a particular historical and religious context, the themes and characters tapped into a deeper vein of human experience. Some audiences identified with the protagonist—a simple man giving of himself in the only way he knew how. Some connected with the object of his giving, the compassionate and merciful Madonna. Others derived meaning and comfort from the transcendent power of humility or merely sought escape in the story’s miraculous setting. The seemingly simple tale belied a complexity that allowed for constant reexamination and redefinition.
Silver Screen: The Juggler on Film
The retelling of the Juggler story on film allowed the protagonist to perform his incredible feats for both Mary and movie audiences. In the exhibit, we feature R. O. Blechman’s 1957 animated adaptation along with clips from the Fred Waring show, which included a live-action retelling of the juggler story in its Christmas specials from 1950 through 1953. Other entertainers also adapted the story for the screen. Charlie Chaplin acted out a skit for friends based on the story in 1933, but ultimately decided against filming it. In 1959, versions of the juggler story played on television screens in France, Canada, and the United States.
Child’s Play: A Treasury of Children’s Books
It’s no small wonder that the juggler’s tale has most often been reconfigured as a children’s book. From its inception, the story was intended to be a didactic tool. It was originally included in a book of exempla — teaching lessons for medieval preachers. The story itself celebrates simplicity, humility, and generosity by zeroing on its innocent and in some ways childlike hero. And it takes place in the Middle Ages, once considered a time of cultural innocence — when faith and belief were still possible. Modern-day children’s-book writers and illustrators have reinterpreted the story in a wide variety of contexts, languages, and illustration styles.
“Like the Our Lady’s Tumbler, I want to give you something. I am sending you that which in us is most simple and persistent—childhood.”Countess Anna de Noailles to the actor and director Sacha Guitry, 1931
Violet Moore Higgins
Violet Moore Higgins was the first to turn the Juggler into a children’s story, casting the protagonist as a young invalid in her 1917 children’s book The Little Juggler. Her adaptation’s brief and intense popularity is attested by the multiple versions that appeared that year — the penultimate year of World War I.
Finding Inspiration: Barbara Cooney
Inspiration comes from many sources. In the introduction to her 1961 children’s book The Little Juggler, Barbara Cooney explains that she was inspired not only by the medieval illuminated manuscript, but also by a 1942 adaptation by the Spaniard José María Souviron and a radio broadcast from the 1940s.
Barbara Cooney’s The Little Juggler was one of many versions of the juggler story translated into multiple languages, including French, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Russian, Japanese, and Korean.
For his book The Clown of God, American children’s book author-and-illustrator Tomie dePaola drew from his own experiences with monastic life. While dePaola is known for the more than 200 children’s books he has produced, he is also responsible for many examples of fine art, including a series of frescoes at the Abbey Church of Our Lady of Glastonbury in Hingham, Massachusetts.
Max Bolliger and Štěpán Zavřel
Swiss author Max Bolliger wrote over fifty books for children and young adults, including many with Biblical or Christian themes. His take on the juggler story, Jakob der Gaukler, featured illustrations by Czech-born artist Štěpán Zavřel and was translated into multiple languages.
Štěpán Zavřel was a prolific painter and graphic artist and an influential children’s book illustrator. His illustrations for Max Bolliger’s Jakob der Gaukler incorporate a range of media, from linoblock and woodcut to watercolor.
Medieval Influence: Olofsson, Metternich, and Bonetto
Helena Olofsson’s Swedish adaptation of the juggler story for children mimics a medieval manuscript with illuminations. Both Tatiana von Metternich’s Der Gaukler der Jungfrau Maria and Giovanni Bonetto’s Un Giocoliere in Paradiso also were influenced by medieval manuscripts. Notice the illuminated letters, flourishes, and medieval-style costumes in their work.
A Modern Take: The Shannon Brothers
The adaptation of the juggler tale by Mark and David Shannon excises the Virgin Mary from the story altogether. Instead, an orphaned juggler entertains a statue of an angel, who then carries the boy away with her to heaven. The name of the protagonist, Péquelé, hints that the book follows a French version by the folklorist Henri Pourrat.
Maryline Poole Adams and Her “Littles”
The story of the juggler inspired tiny-book maker Maryline Poole Adams to produce a very small version of the tale. In what is called a “dos-à-dos binding,” she tells the story back-to-back in both French and English. In her “little” version of the juggler tale, Adams combines two storytelling approaches: she narrates the English story in the third person but tells the French story in the first person from the point of view of the child juggler. The book fits within her broader oeuvre — which includes other tiny books, known as “littles,” and other medieval-inspired works featuring woodcut illustrations.