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3. Juggling across Faiths

© 2018 Jan M. Ziolkowski, CC BY 4.0

The Ecumenical Juggler

Be he Catholic or Protestant, agnostic or Hebrew, no one at all capable of feeling emotion can help being thrilled by this last scene.

—Henry T. Finck, 1910

A rabbi, a priest, and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “Is this some kind of joke?”

All along, the narrative has worked well within coteries, such as chapter houses of monks, schoolrooms of pupils, campus theater companies of students, faculty clubs of professors, and Sunday schools of young Christians. Although the listing just given of audiences and participants began and ended with religious groups, the story has reached beyond Catholicism, beyond any Christian denomination, and in fact even beyond Christianity altogether. From the beginning, the juggler has been on a sacred mission—but the religion has not been in a holding pattern. In reworking the epitome of Our Lady’s Tumbler by Gaston Paris, Anatole France achieved the vivid economy and clarity that we may associate with the best of brief episodes in scripture, myth, or fairy tale. In turn, Jules Massenet and his librettist threw the narrative thrift of the short story to the winds. Yet by retaining an emphasis on the protagonist’s immaculate devotion, the two managed to satisfy readers and spectators who at that point were split down the middle between devout Catholics and devoted freethinkers. Both the author and the composer also retained from the medieval poem the theme that any activity, no matter how small-bore or garden-variety, can be transmuted into an act of veneration by the alchemy of love.

It makes sense that eventually France’s text would be presented in a list of suggested readings for high schoolers, among selections plucked from the King James Version of both the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, as the only nonscriptural one on spiritual love. Yet comparison with Holy Writ may be specious. Although the nineteenth-century short fiction delineates a memorable instance of religious devotion, it leaves behind the particularities of Sacred Scripture and any single faith. All creeds endeavor to make their believers better human beings. This story, encapsulating some of the best from medieval Christianity, promises exactly such an effect. Despite its thoroughgoing religiosity, it exudes a potential to meet multiconfessional needs. In fact, to take Le jongleur de Notre Dame as unqualifiedly Christian clashes peculiarly with the irony of its larger context, which means narrowly Anatole France’s The Little Box of Mother-of-Pearl, and broadly his collected works. The French author had long been arraigned for mocking morality and contemning Catholicism, and in 1922, a year after he nabbed the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Church held back no longer from reprisal. The Vatican consigned his entire oeuvre, jongleur and all, to the Index of Forbidden Books.

Even the original Our Lady’s Tumbler is not to be interpreted as uniformly and straightforwardly supportive of all the main values that the Catholic Church of its day—of the Middle Ages, that is—would have advocated. After all, its hero is an ignoramus about liturgy. He does not channel his piety toward heaven. He is not one compliant member within a choir that acts in unison. He shows no sign of being under the immediate say of a single superior and the broader control of the whole ecclesiastical reporting structure. Instead, he worships in autonomous and improvised aloneness. He dances out his devotions in a subterranean chamber as a skimpily clad man to a woman, the Virgin Mary. By marching (or tumbling) to his own drummer, he defies the norms of typical organized religion.

Both the tumbler and the jongleur, professionals in artistry but neophytes in adoration, outstrip (in more than one sense) the certified experts in worship—professional prayers. Both the medieval and the modern French versions tell tales of conversion, but the convert achieves redemption in unintended defiance of monasticism rather than because of it. From the beginning, the real renegades of the piece have been the juggler’s fellows in the monastery. Yet for at least two key reasons, the brethren are indispensable to the essence and even the very existence of the story.

In the first place, in the thirteenth-century poem as well as in many of its relatively more recent adaptations, the monks serve as the sole onlookers who are fully mindful of the Virgin’s two miraculous interventions. The acrobat himself is clueless about what transpires. His heedlessness implies an especially medieval change rung upon the age-old conundrum of a tree falling in a forest. In this context, the question becomes “If a ritual is repeated across time and space but is unwitnessed by any human being, does it still have an importance to the divine?,” or “If a miracle happens without being witnessed, does it take place at all?” The lay brother has no awareness of the ministrations that the Mother of God lavishes upon him. If other Cistercians had not been eyewitnesses of what happened, would anyone ever have been the wiser? Who needs to clap eyes upon an apparition of Mary for it to have a meaning and an effect—for the Mariophany to have occurred?

The issue carried weight among the affiliates of monastic orders who kept studious records of miracles. For instance, the writer of the “Chronicle of Melrose” reported that an Adam of Yorkshire, a thirteenth-century monk in the Scottish abbey of Melrose, had once noticed the Virgin arrayed in pure white and was beside (or, etymologically, outside) himself with ecstasy. He was caught unawares by one of his confreres, who observed nothing but his reaction. When the other man asked him subsequently why he had been so blissful, Adam explained that normally Mary revealed herself only to those of the monastery who had been in her service for many years. To mull over another example, Caesarius of Heisterbach told of two lay brothers from a grange that belonged to the Rhineland religious society of Himmerod. One experienced a vision of a resplendent cross upon which Christ crucified could be perceived, but the other observed nothing. After communicating by signs, the unseeing man fell to his knees in prayer. Then he was allowed to share the vision vouchsafed to his colleague.

The second reason why the other brethren are required participants in the story is that they document and disseminate it. The lay convert of the medieval Our Lady’s Tumbler is a physical entertainer. As far as can be seen he lacks skills in language either spoken or written, either Latin or vernacular. The wonder that centers on him is not merely undetected by him, but also unsung or untold by him. It is incumbent upon the literate in the community to bruit about word of the miracle, as an incentive to their fellow choir monks and lay brothers alike. By way of them the tale eventually filters through to the medieval French poet, whether or not he is a religious in a monastery.

The frequent later use of the narrative to exhort and instruct Christian believers dovetails with the spirit of the French poem from the Middle Ages, which professes to be an exemplum for preaching. By detailing the triumph of heartfelt conversion, the report howls out its inner exemplarity. The story describes a come-to-Jesus episode, except that the operative adjective would better be come-to-Mary, or alternatively Mary-come-to-me. The suitability of the tale’s protagonist as an example clarifies at least partly why already in 1916 in Boston, in the United States, Our Lady’s Tumbler was absorbed into a Unitarian catechism. In it, the purpose of the account is laid out for catechumens as being “to teach the lesson of doing the best one can, even when one’s best seems very poor indeed.”

Exactly six decades later Albino Luciani, then the patriarch of Venice and later the one-month pope, John Paul I, summered in a friary that belonged to the Servite Order. Known also as the Servants of Mary, these mendicants are friars whose religious family also embraces contemplative nuns, active sisters, and lay groups. The convent Luciani frequented was located near the Marian sanctuary of Pietralba, in the northern Italian region of Alto Adige. In the summer of 1976, he rediscovered Anatole France’s story of the juggler, which he had stumbled upon a half century earlier as a boy. He tapped into it as his point of departure for a homily on the Assumption. In December of the same year, he published the text. Beyond his attraction to an order that brought together laity and clergy, his background and personality gave him other reasons to find special resonance in the lay spirituality of the medieval performer. His family background was humble, with a father who was a bricklayer. In 1958, he took as his episcopal motto the Latin word for humility. Should we be caught off guard that such a person would be drawn to a story intimately concerned with the beatitude that blessed the simple or humble?

Royal Murdoch is a first novel published in 1962 by the Canadian Robert Harlow. In one episode, a priest named Father Moline lashes out against a woman who recently converted to Catholicism. To fulfill his pastoral obligations, he has earlier told this Mrs. Darien the tale of the jongleur. The example motivated her to scrub the church staircase every day. He takes her obsession as a leftover of her previous Protestantism, with its reverence of the principle “cleanliness is next to godliness,” and chides her. Unmoved, she resumes her scouring. At one point, bristling anger gets the better of him and he erupts in a tantrum:

“Le Jongleur,” he shouted, “Le Jongleur de Notre Dame brought a real talent to the altar of the Holy Mother. I told you the story only to guide you spiritually. This … this, housework, it is not talent, it is a mockery.”

Beside himself with vexation, the livid padre rushes down the steps. In the heat of the moment, he kicks over the woman’s bucket of soapy water. To have lost control in such a hotheaded outburst only maddens him further.

The scene climaxes in a consummation of this clerical choler as Father Moline reads Mrs. Darien the riot act. By interpreting for herself, she has committed a cardinal sin which she must expiate as he stipulates—but not by rubbing the flight of stairs with a brush and suds. The his-and-her divergences between the priest’s and the laywoman’s explanations are revealing. He elucidates the exemplum in one way, to bolster those within the ecclesiastical hierarchy and to vest them with the exclusive authority to chaperone errant members of the Church away from sin. She takes the story in the opposite direction. To her, it means that the laity outside the upper echelons of the clergy may achieve redemption through orthopraxy. No doubt such discrepancies in reactions to the narrative have been latent since the very first telling. In fact, they have contributed to its success across the ages, because they have enabled it to serve groups with diametrically opposing interests.

More than four decades later, in 2006, Anatole France’s account was alleged to be “an old French folk-tale” that he was supposedly the first to register. More to the point, in this instance the text was taken as the cover story for an Australian book that demonstrates how all worshipers, and less probably all people, make themselves presentable to God through prayer. This version ends with the child Jesus bounding down from Mary’s arms to be coached in juggling, until the candles in the chapel burn out.

Occasional wisps of acknowledgment may be detected that the spiritual ecology of medieval Christianity differed mightily from the modern one. Five years before embracing Catholicism, the author G. K. Chesterton wrote of “Our Lady’s Tumbler, who performed happier antics before a shrine in the days of superstition.” For all that, recognition that the tale emanated from the Christendom of the Middle Ages has not prevented it from being taken often almost ecumenically. Perhaps more accurately, the narrative has been understood transdenominationally within Christianity, and even transreligiously within Judaism. To begin with purely Christian exegesis, the story’s heavy focus on the Virgin Mary has not prevented it from being at times as popular among Protestants as among Catholics.

In the 1959 Christmas Stories That Never Grow Old, the version by Anatole France was placed immediately after the Gospel account of the Nativity. An editorial note in this US volume assumed that “The Juggler of Notre Dame” entices “people of all faiths.” Yet since the book is after all a gallimaufry of Noel narratives, the burden of the final word here is moot. Rather than claiming that the tale is presented to be truly transfaith, it might be more accurate to subsume it as transconfessional within Christianity. That categorization would be understandable in view of demographics within the nation in the late 1950s, when the country was on the whole Christian, with the merest soupçon of Judaism, Mormonism, and other religions that would have then seemed exotic to those in the majority.

Just making the story work for both Protestant and Catholic markets required prestidigitation worthy of a juggler. The text of Cooney’s The Little Juggler sets the events at Christmas. What goes on inside the book corresponds only loosely to what is promoted on the exterior. One illustration portrays the boy protagonist as he manipulates objects before a statue of the Virgin and Child. Another depicts the Madonna holding the young entertainer in her lap and fanning him, in a posture reminiscent of the Deposition.

In a strikingly different take on the tale, the dust jacket shows the title character keeping colored balls aloft in a Gothic room devoid of any images. The cover itself has embossed upon it the same youth performing his feat of dexterity without any architectural or ecclesiastical context whatsoever. Through these devices, the medieval Christianity—the Roman Catholicism—intrinsic to the story is treated as extrinsic in its packaging, perhaps since in 1961 most potential purchasers of children’s literature in the United States would not have frequented churches that routinely or prominently displayed representations of Mary.

Despite being plainly Christian, the narrative has enraptured agnostics, Jews, and other non-Christians. To remain in 1961, the tale featured in the same year as the top-billed item in the Trilogy of Interfaith Plays by the Russian-born Jewish-American author Ida Lublenski Ehrlich. In this last connection, one piece of the puzzle is that in most versions the leading female character is the Madonna, who in turn can be fairly described as an observant Jew—and who therefore can be considered without the slightest stretching or bending of the truth a Jewish mother.

What do all these factoids tell us? The story of Our Lady’s Tumbler is inherently religious. Even so, it has been accepted almost as if it does not pertain to a specific creed—as if in spite of its innate Christianity, it constitutes an apt image for any artist who is at once artless and artful. At the close of the Gilded Age, a music critic played upon the sheerly spiritual dimensions of the tale as it unfolded in Massenet’s opera. He punned upon the title of the musical drama and the byname of its leading character in describing the American writer Edgar Saltus as jongleur de notre âme. The French phrase can be put word for word into English as “juggler of our soul.”

All along, the narrative has had the potential to be applied to far-reaching questions about the inherent features of artistry. At times the portentousness of such issues can drown out even the essential presence of Christianity in the actions. This circumstance helps to clarify a sound bite by the singer and poet Leonard Cohen in an interview conducted in 1966. In remarking upon the nature of the poetic mind, the Canadian Jew opined: “You know the story of that juggler who performed his acrobatics and plate balancing in front of the statue of the Virgin? Well, I think it really comes down to that: you really do what sings.” This fleeting comment may be the closest the soulful jongleur has come yet to finding his footing in rock and roll.

Only seldom has the narrative been altered so as to suppress such quintessential constituents as the Mother of God. In this regard, Mark and David Shannons’ The Acrobat & the Angel stands alone in replacing Mary with a statue of an angel that comes to life and flies heavenward with the young performer, thus averting a plague. This version of the story gives the lie to the old saw that fools rush in where angels fear to tread. The two types of beings establish here an immediate modus vivendi. The author and illustrator are biological (and nonmonastic) brothers who collaborated in creating this children’s book in 1999. Getting to the heart of the story, Mark professed to aim for “a popular appeal that transcends strict religious orthodoxy, an appeal intrinsic to the tale since its beginning.” Generally even its most pious features have not haltered its appropriation by Catholics, Protestants, Jews, agnostics, and atheists, to pick out a handful of categories.

The Hasidic Whistle-Blower

I have somewhere read of a wise bishop who in a visit to his diocese found an old woman whose only prayer consisted in the single interjection “Oh!”—“Good mother,” said he to her, “continue to pray in this manner; your prayer is better than ours.” This better prayer is mine also.

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions

A story that draws intriguingly near to Our Lady’s Tumbler has become far-flung in Jewish lore. Most often, the narrative has been recounted as a legend about the founder of Hasidism, a religious movement that originated in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe. This notability, Rabbi Yisra’el ben Eli’ezer, is conventionally designated as the Besht. The last term is the acronym for Ba’al Shem Tov. The Hebrew of the full phrase is usually translated as meaning “Master of the Good Name.”

Hasidic tradition contains a substantial body of accounts that have been aptly called “sacred anecdotes.” Within not only this narrow context but even a broader Judaic ambit, all the tales of this type fulfill roughly the same function as exempla do in medieval Christian sermons. They illustrate pivotal axioms of religion in a synoptic form, suitable to moralizing in a large group. Usually, such reports are concerned with a famous rabbi.

According to the legend in question, a simpleminded and illiterate young shepherd came to synagogue to pray on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. With him, the youth carried a humble woodwind—a whistle or flute—that he would play while herding. Frustrated that he could not recite the prayers properly, he finally started to sound the instrument. His skill in this activity was all he could proffer to God.

The congregation shrunk away in disgust. In their view, the action of the herder desecrated the High Holy Day. While blowing a pipe during a religious service is not self-evidently sinful, rabbinic law and tradition hold that such behavior entails sacrilege: whistle-blowing has always been a source of ambivalence. Specifically, utilizing a device for making music, or even carrying one outdoors, was regarded as a genus of labor and therefore off limits on the Sabbath. The prohibition against work held all the more strongly on Yom Kippur, which because of its association with atonement is holier than other ordinary days of religious observance. Yet in response, the Besht rebuked the congregants for their reaction and notified them that the purity of the shepherd’s performance had unclogged a blockage and thereby enabled all their petitions to reach God, as had not been the case previously.

The motif of piping alludes to the pious use of the shofar. This wind instrument is usually a ram’s horn without finger holes or valves. It is made to resound in synagogue services in the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, a Hebrew phrase meaning “head of the year.” The association is so strong that in the same Semitic language this high holiday is even called Yom Teruah, for “day of the shofar blast.” Perhaps more important, the horn is sounded on Rosh Hashanah and at the end of the last service on Yom Kippur. The reverberation of the musical device can be interpreted as opening the gates of heaven, so as to enable prayers to ascend all the way to God. In the Hasidic tale, the boy’s piping succeeds where all the formal ceremony and verbiage failed.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, the narrative in question has been disseminated in anthologies of Hasidic lore, and from there the story entered Jewish tradition more widely. Its influence on the literature of the Jews began with authors such as the Yiddish-writing I. L. Peretz from Poland (see Fig. 3.1) and the multilingual Micha Joseph Bin Gorion from Ukraine. The account agrees well with core emphases within Hasidic tradition. One rests upon the practice of storytelling. No other branch of Judaism puts as appreciable an accent on tales. The other lies in the theme of the simpleminded and guiltless person. Hasidism stresses that in the quality of spirituality, an individual of this sort may overmatch a learned scholar or higher-class people. Additionally, the legend of the whistling or piping boy gives utterance to the prominence within the mystical movement of emotional, ecstatic prayer, and preference for wholehearted, nonintellectual devotion over ritual formalities. Such worship, not standing on formalities, may find outlet through reciting the Hebrew alphabet, swaying or rocking back and forth or to and fro during prayer, whistling, singing, or dancing.

Fig. 3.1 I. L. Peretz. Photograph, ca. 1910. Photographer unknown.

We may make more substantial progress by not becoming wrapped up in the particularity of whistling or piping. If we set aside this specific motif, the legend reveals similarities to a larger category of Jewish traditions about a phenomenon that has been styled “the ignorant’s prayer.” In it a boy or man of lowly social status and limited education engages in a heterodox way of piety that achieves greater effect than does the orthodox. The earliest evidence for this reflex of the tale in the transmission of Jewish beliefs exists in the Book of the Pious, which took shape in the Rhineland in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. At this very time the same theme gained traction in Christian literature of Western Europe, in miracles about know-nothing or ill-educated monks, despised by their brethren, who attain recognition from the Virgin through prayers that are short or garbled but sincere. The challenge would be to surmise which tradition influenced the other, or even whether the simultaneity of the two is out-and-out coincidence or cause-and-effect determinism.

The story also resembles a still longer variety of folktale, found not only in European and Jewish tradition but even throughout the world, and now classified as “A Pious Innocent Man Knows Nothing of God.” The standard description schematizes the narrative as follows:

A pious man (farmer) worships God in his own way and never goes to church. A traveling preacher teaches him how to pray properly and continues on his way. When the pious man forgets the prayer he follows the preacher’s ship by walking on the water. By this miracle the preacher recognizes the man’s holiness and understands that pious innocence is pleasing to God.

Certain forms of the account promote as their protagonists not children but older people such as shepherds, opening up the prospect that access to the divine may be achieved through many types of manual labor, with the import that not only educated people and religious professionals may seek and achieve God.

An incident loosely connected with this tradition was recorded in the first compilation of lore about the Besht. The Hebrew book at issue was published in 1814. It ushered into print a hagiographical miscellany that a Hasidic writer brought forth at the close of the eighteenth century. He gathered legends that circulated among the faithful of the faction. This anecdote tells of a man who became distraught because he fell asleep while trekking to the Besht. As a result, he was absent from synagogue for the high holy day of Yom Kippur. To console him, the spiritual leader pointed out that by having prayed in an area of open land and slept there inadvertently, the Hasid “had had to elevate the prayers of the people in the fields. He had been forced to do this by Heaven.”

Related Jewish legends, subsumed under the heading “God Requires the Heart,” carried the underlying implication that the supreme being hearkens to the uprightness of the intent behind expressions of devotion rather than to the slickness of the performance achieved by the devout. In Judaic religious life, the opposition could be articulated as contrasting a pure religious spirit on the one hand and thoroughgoing knowledge of the Talmud on the other. An example would be narratives of a dutiful child who, not knowing how to pray, leaps over a ditch at daybreak to honor God. Stories of this ilk have been compared with Le jongleur de Notre Dame.

What explains the rough likeness between the medieval exemplum and the Hasidic anecdote, as well as between Christian stories and Jewish tradition? Why has the tale told by Jews continued to be recognized as compatible with the aims of preaching by Christians? For a start, the miniature narrative has a straightforward designation in the sermon rhetoric and homiletics of the Middle Ages: exemplum. If this term were standard in the nomenclature for discussing Hasidic lore, the anecdotes we have surveyed just now would be called exemplary. But terminology occupies only one diminutive corner of a very big and muddled picture.

As is so often the case where folk literature is concerned, we may choose between at least two sorts of explanation. According to the doctrine of polygenesis, the same bright idea for a story may dawn on groups or individuals in different cultures unrehearsed, without there being a progression of cause-and-effect relations. In other words, the Jewish tale could have arisen through an independent act of imagination. Alternatively, the theory of diffusionism holds that the homogeneities may result from the interplay of source and influence. But how would the diffusion have taken place in this instance? The variant familiar in Hasidism could have been indebted ultimately, perhaps by oral transmission, to the narrative that we have come across in the two medieval attestations from Western Europe.

In this way of thinking, the Christian story could have percolated through sermons, from which it may have infiltrated oral tradition and reached Eastern Europe. Then again, the Hasidic anecdote could have originated long ago in the eastern Mediterranean. If so, that original tale could have been the source, first for the medieval exemplum and later for the version ubiquitous among Hasidim. The first development would be consonant with the old conjecture that many new narratives leached through Europe in the aftermath of the military expeditions to recover the Holy Lands from the Muslims. In this connection we would do well to recall that the Cistercian order took shape close to the period of the First Crusade, and that the white monks first gained and later forsook many beachheads east of Italy in tandem with the comings and goings of the campaigners.

Although infrequently and never insistently, a hypothesis that the miracle of the tumbler had oriental origins has hovered over its reception since the late nineteenth century. At that point one camp of literary scholars contended that many short medieval narratives, such as the bawdy verse tales called fabliaux, had filtered into Europe from Eastern sources, particularly during the crusading. Anatole France, after restating the basic outline of the story in a book review he wrote, referred to “these popular imaginings” and “the legends which arrived from the Orient.”

Alice Kemp-Welch, author of a 1908 prose translation, isolated the feature of dancing as demonstrating “how deeply the East influenced the West, and even the Church itself.” She traced the motif back to Salomé, the daughter of Herodias who for her unvirtuous virtuosity in this art receives from Herod the boon of anything she wishes. The dancer demands shrilly that the rash promise be fulfilled, and specifically that the head of John the Baptist be delivered to her on a charger. Remember the coincidence—or not?—that Mary Garden sang, and danced, as both Salomé and the jongleur. The theory that Our Lady’s Tumbler and its descendants flowed from Eastern sources was still retailed after World War II, when we find the poem described as “originating in some oriental tale brought home by the crusaders.”

Too little evidence survives to pin down definitively the exact nature of the relationship between the Christian and Jewish narratives, if in fact the two overlap in any way. One certainty is that differences between the religions have never choked off exchanges: narrators from each tradition borrow readily from the other. In 2016, an author acknowledged the old Jewish tale explicitly but retold it as a children’s story about an illiterate young shepherd and set its climactic scene on Christmas eve. The boy receives his reward for the sincere purity of his prayer in being taught to read by the priest.

The Jewish Jongleur

The first full translations into German of the medieval French story and of Anatole France’s version were both by Jews who were born in Germany, Curt Sigmar Gutkind and Hermann Levi, respectively. Even without modifying or suppressing its explicitly Christian features, the tale has paradoxical qualities that help to elucidate why Our Lady’s Tumbler and Le jongleur de Notre Dame could enthrall audiences across the line that demarcates Judaism and Christianity. True, the protagonist is a devotee of the original Jewish mother. Still, by the same token hundreds upon hundreds of other Marian miracles from the Middle Ages could have influenced Jewish readers, but they have not done so. Similarly, David’s dancing before the ark anticipates in a general way the minstrel’s tumbling before the Madonna, but Jewish authors have not dwelled much on this interesting but slight resemblance. Likewise, the archetypal parallels between the whistling boy in Jewish lore and the jongleur in medieval Christian tradition have elicited explicit remark only fleetingly. In the end, Jewish authors may have been drawn to the narrative not because it had any specific ties to Judaism. Instead, they may have encountered it because of its ubiquity in the mass culture around them, which rested in the grip of the majority religion. Christianity engulfed them, and the tale flowed with it.

There is also no forgetting the paradoxical essence of Our Lady’s Tumbler and all its heterogeneous progeny. The story resides firmly within the hierarchy of a particular creed, but at the same time it upends the orthodoxy and even the specificity of that belief system. Despite being embedded in medieval Christianity, and by extension in modern Catholicism, the tale verbalizes a revelation about faith in God that eclipses the boundaries of any one worship. For this reason, from early in the reception of Anatole France and Jules Massenet, Jewish writers have not felt it out of place to liken Jews to the jongleur. Thus, the Zionist leader and author Vladimir Jabotinsky referred unhesitatingly to the artiste from the Middle Ages in a fiction that drew heavily upon people, places, and events in his own life history (see Fig. 3.2). The novel was written in Russian in 1935 and published in France in 1936, but set in Odessa, Ukraine at the dawn of the twentieth century:

May God keep you, Marusya, just as you are. If I were able to remake you, I would refuse. Perhaps each real person prays in his own way. There was Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame. Perhaps you’re like that: in your own way you diffuse warmth or grace—that’s your way of praying, you don’t know any other way and you don’t have to.”

Fig. 3.2 Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky. Photograph, 1918. Photographer unknown. Jerusalem, National Photo Collection of Israel.

Almost thirty years later, a commentator from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean compared the juggler with Marc Chagall, the Franco-Russian pioneer of early modernism whom many esteemed as an embodiment of the Jewish artist.

In the heyday of “Le jongleur de Notre Dame” in the 1950’s, it was not deemed untoward to press the minstrel into service as an analogy in philosophical writing. The American philosopher Paul Weiss was Jewish by background. In Modes of Being, he discusses the assertion “God can be reached through work.” As a case in point, he describes the juggler as achieving through the agency of his adoration an “existential relation to the divine.” In so doing, the performer’s act resembles “the Hasidic joyous dance before the Lord and the Zen Buddhists’ gestures and simple movements.” Weiss’s point about Buddhism, whether based on a misunderstanding of Zen or not, calls to mind another parallel that has been drawn to the tale of the jongleur. A stylized classical Indian dance-drama known as Kathakali arose definitively during the seventeenth century. The name fuses the concepts of story (Sanskrit kathā) and performance (kalā). This kind of sacred theater is performed by individuals who are at once actors, dancers, and, after a fashion, priests. Until very recently, they were exclusively male. This form of acting requires at least a half dozen years of training that yield only a thin trickle of financial profit. Wondering what incentivized them, one researcher concluded that the practitioner of Kathakali “offers his body to the gods like the Juggler of Notre-Dame in the medieval legend offered his juggling to the Virgin Mary.” Such similes attest smartly to the ecumenicism, or at least the capacity for it, that is immanent in Our Lady’s Tumbler as it has been transmuted and transmitted through Anatole France’s narrative and Jules Massenet’s opera.

Over the centuries, our story has shown elasticity commensurate with the athleticism of both the tumbler and the juggler. For better or worse, he has proved limber enough to be twisted in a multitude of directions. The tale has demonstrated a happy capacity to be applied beyond the strict boundaries of the religion in which the early thirteenth-century poem was grounded. For instance, a half century ago a locker room full of Christian professional football players in the United States found no oddity in having their Jewish coach impart the gist of it to them to motivate them in a ticklish situation. Let us listen in on Allie Sherman, who coached the New York Giants, as he addressed his team before they faced off against the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday, November 24, 1963 (see Fig. 3.3).

Fig. 3.3 Allie Sherman coaching the New York Giants. Photograph by Herb Scharfman, 1963. The LIFE Images Collection. Image courtesy of Getty Images. All rights reserved.

The entire nation had been plunged into deep shock and dirges two days earlier by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Almost all sporting events were canceled or deferred. Standing firm against the storm surge of collective grief, the commissioner of the National Football League was hell-bent on not breaking any commitments in the calendar. Instead, he directed teams to play scheduled games as a tribute to a head of state who had been sports-loving and competitive. This call by Pete Rozelle was not the proudest or cleverest moment in his distinguished career. News coverage and public opinion ran against him. Ever since, his snap judgment has been debated (and mostly excoriated) over and over.

Thanks to the commissioner’s unyielding determination, the Giants’ coach had to pronounce a morale-building speech that would fire up the team members. The men needed to summon up and deliver their best despite the despondency that enveloped the country. A former pro quarterback and defensive back himself, Sherman rallied them with a pep talk that retold the events of “Our Lady and the Juggler.” His religious background was Jewish. He even described himself, resorting to an ethnic slur, as “a tough little Hebe.” Yet his faith and ethnicity did not stop him from pressing into service a story from a different tradition.

The coach implied that the professionals under his guidance could take to heart the example of a performer who, like them, expressed himself through his body. If the entertainer from the Middle Ages could offer his athleticism to an intangible authority above, they could do the same. Sherman finessed one glaring contradiction between the juggler’s story and the football players’ situation: whereas the medieval journeyman was an individualist who thumbed his nose at the imperatives of communal activity (let alone play), the modern athletes formed a quasi-military collectivity that was expected to act in lockstep on command. What held together the individual and the group boiled down to spirituality: a team has a soul, he said, just as a person does. The presupposition behind these hortatory words to the squad was venerable. According to this paradigm, the jongleur is a seasoned veteran who makes of his very professionalism a gift to a higher power. Already in 1924, a critic of French literature described the jongleur of Notre Dame who “having nothing to give to the Virgin, offered her an exhibition of his professional skill.” The same perspective is articulated seventy years later by a Polish sociologist, who counseled all teachers of “practical arts” to keep in mind “the old legend of the ‘jongleur de Notre Dame’ who made acrobatics an instrument of worship.”

In Stanley Elkin’s novel The Rabbi of Lud, the title character breaks into a monologue:

Am I a buffoon? Some wise-guy, ungood Jew? Understand my passions then. All my if-this-will-go-here-maybe-that-will-go-there arrangements were in their service. What did I want? What did I need? To keep my job with God. To hold my marriage and family together. Who was ever more Juggler of Our Lady than this old rebbie? As much the God jerk as any chanteuse out there in my rec room tuning her instrument or vocalizing scales.

The Holy Mother is a running gag of sorts in this fiction, since the daughter of the Lud-dite believes that she espies a vision of the Virgin in the cemetery of Lud. On reflection, the assumption that the jongleur is a trouper who sticks dependably to his vocation ends up allowing even a fictitious Jewish religious leader in a dreary location, and an even poorer personal situation, to liken himself to the medieval devotee of Mary.

The Catholic Juggler

The story is, or has been, sufficiently well known that allusions to it by people of many faiths have not seemed arcane or even just against the odds. At the same time, it has possessed enough cultural patina to endue it with an elegance that is required in formal contexts. Especially when those settings are ecclesiastical, references to the tale make good sense. Take for example Jean-Marie Lustiger, Cardinal and Archbishop of Paris (see Fig. 3.4). First he renamed the weekly bulletin of his diocese Paris Notre-Dame, to reflect the famed name of the cathedral that stood sentry at the center of his domain. Later he established “Radio Notre-Dame,” once again to promote his diocese. Because of its expense, the station was derided as his “danseuse.” In French slang, this noun for a female dancer refers to a mistress.

Fig. 3.4 Jean-Marie Lustiger, before Notre-Dame of Paris. Photograph by Claude Truong-Ngoc, Feast of the Assumption of Mary, 1988, CC BY-SA 3.0,

On May 31, 1986, Lustiger attended the ceremony when the ballet dancer Mireille Nègre was consecrated—thus making, after a fashion, the acquaintance of a real-life Our Lady’s tumbler. More than fifteen years later, on June 20, 2002, the prelate appeared at a public hearing, in his capacity as founder and show-runner of a French Catholic television chain. Before his testimony proper, he got his remarks underway with a metaphor and simile:

I have the impression of being here, among mountebanks, the jongleur de Notre-Dame, and I will be able to do, like this jongleur, only what I know to do. I am not then a mountebank.

This exordium is worthy of rhetorical analysis in its own right. The then-archbishop’s gambit shows that he expected his audience to take note of the citation and to recall our story in a blink of the eye, even outside the confines of purely ecclesiastical middle management. While the Archbishop manages to equate himself with the others participating in the political circus, at the same time he distances himself from them. He uses the French word saltimbanque, “street entertainer” or “comedian.” In a sense, then, these performers are jongleurs, by extension mountebanks. Yet the churchman paints a bright line between himself and both groups. By being a devotee of Mary, he separates himself from the rest. The fact warrants at least a passing mention that the later Cardinal’s personal background gave him ample reason to consider himself as standing marginally apart from others. He was born, as Aaron Lustiger, a Jew, and he remained one, at least in his own estimation, to his death. Christ himself had belonged to the same people too: he was the son of a woman who could be considered a prototypical Jewish mother, Mary.

For all the directions in which the medieval performer has been taken, the narrative has equally often been glorified with good cause as a parable of Christian faith, primarily but not exclusively with specific reference to Catholicism. As we have been made aware already, at the University of Notre Dame, more than mere happenstance explains why the tale crops up in campus culture. The entertainer’s story was common knowledge in the community to the point where a student music group and dance band in the late 1920s and early 1930s called itself the Jugglers. More important, an undergraduate humor magazine, constituted under the name Juggler of Notre Dame, was reestablished as a more serious literary periodical with the omission of the three final words. When the publication was re-launched after World War II, the college newspaper referred to “the little-known dedication of the old Juggler.” But the narrative that it feels obliged to recapitulate would not have become altogether unfamiliar, least of all at an institution called Notre Dame. The same aim looks evident as the reader riffles the opening pages of the inaugural issue of the Juggler itself. A concise retelling of the medieval legend, hand-lettered in a medievalesque script, is printed in the front matter. To ensure that the text of the tale does not go unheralded, it is topped by a simple drawing of the Virgin, with marginal doodles of the “minstrel” performing and kneeling.

On a humbler plane, it requires no lengthy rumination to realize why the football team of Notre Dame Junior and Senior High School in Utica, New York should have been nicknamed the Jugglers in the late 1950s, and why their mascot and emblem should be a cartoonish representation of our hero. In the official explanation for why a stylized performer of this sort should adorn the jerseys of their varsity athletes, the authorities focus on the moral of the story, which they sum up as “If you do the best you can, God will be pleased” (see Fig. 3.5).

Fig. 3.5 Mascot of the Notre Dame Junior and Senior High School, Utica, NY. Image courtesy of Anna Mae Collins, 2014. All rights reserved

Fig. 3.6 Front cover of Le jongleur 64 (October 1973), quarterly publication of the Institution Notre-Dame de Grâce, Cambrai, France.

Notre Dame Regional Secondary School in Vancouver, British Columbia, founded in 1953, has the same character as its symbol. Across the Atlantic in France, Le jongleur de Notre-Dame served for sixty years as the designation for a quarterly publication of a Catholic school in Cambrai. For a dozen years the name was shortened to Le jongleur (see Fig. 3.6). Such truncations of the original French or English could telegraph one of two things. On the one hand, they could signify that the term had grown so jejune as to necessitate only partial citation to be fully recognized. On the other, they could indicate the very opposite. As the story receded from general awareness, we could infer that the title had become so alien and bewildering as to justify giving up and trimming the phrase down to a simple noun.

The juggler would have appealed to undergraduates at Notre Dame, as at many other educational institutions. American elite private colleges were mostly single-sex establishments until coeducation was adopted in the late 1960s. A considerable portion of them were pseudomonasteries (or sham castles) built in the collegiate Gothic style. After four years in them, their inhabitants who graduated successfully would enter the world of active life in their chosen careers. In the meantime, they were on loan from their families to professors and other university officials who acted in loco parentis—not altogether unlike the role that the Virgin Mary fulfilled by taking ownership of petitioners who besought her tender mercy. Whether wittingly and willingly or not, the young scholars existed like temporary oblates to monasteries. For this spell they lived in enforced contemplation, or at least occasional study. Church attendance was often must-do. Parietal rules regulated who could stop by to socialize with students when and where. A present-day collegian transported back to the middle of the twentieth century might well judge many customs to be quasi-monastic. The quadrangles could seem truly cloistered.

Outside Catholicism, a society of storytellers in America known as the Jongleurs de Notre Dame has been described. In one routine its membership follows a minister of the Gospel until he vociferates “party, party, party!” This outcry serves as his way of realizing in a holy party the wedding feast that is promised in scripture. Such artesian channels and chants have kept the tale alive in ways that would not have been altogether foreign to the thirteenth-century authors who gave it its inception.

Fig. 3.7 G. K. Chesterton. Photograph, before 1946. Photographer unknown,

At the same time, the religious application of the jongleur has also received backing from personages who have exerted force in shaping culture. A case in point in England would be G. K. Chesterton, who is credited with having prepped the ground for American conservatism in the late twentieth century (see Fig. 3.7). His penchant for the Middle Ages is well known, although sometimes oversimplified. His medievalism has been pertinently described as “Mass and maypole.” It pays attention in equal measure to the seriousness of the orthodox liturgy (hence the first of the two m’s in the phrase) and the scalawaggery of more folkloric rituals and values (which accounts for the second element in the M & M). Both elements contribute to the sway that Catholicism exercised upon him and others of his generation in England.

Most relevant is the Englishman’s outlook on Francis. Chesterton’s memories of the religious figure reached back to his nursery days, when his parents captivated him with stories of the miracles. Already in 1892, he crafted a poem on the Italian saint. Later, he placed a statue of the same personage in his parlor. Finally, thirty years afterward, he devoted to the founder of the Franciscans the first book he wrote after his conversion from Anglo-Catholicism—that is, High Church Anglicanism—to Roman Catholicism in 1922. Since the poor man of Assisi had called his followers jongleurs of God, the twentieth-century litterateur offers, in a chapter entitled “Le Jongleur de Dieu,” background on the trobadors and joglars of southern France, who correspond to the troubadours and jongleurs of the North. The twentieth-century author’s devotion to the Assisan was so deep and abiding that it has been well said “Our Lady’s Tumbler had performed for God’s Juggler.”

Chesterton’s explanation makes evident how au fait he was with the tale of Our Lady’s Tumbler. He appreciates the distinction between jongleur and troubadour, the family relationship of the first term with juggler by way of Latin, and the similarity of Franciscan jongleurs de Dieu to the tumbler of Our Lady. Beyond citing the story to account for why Francis and his adherents would have qualified as performers of this sort, the biographer draws upon the conception of the mystic as acrobat to elucidate the saint’s conversion. The holy man’s spiritual awakening is a turning topsy-turvy of his soul that can be equated with the physical actions of an acrobat who locomotes on his hands or who turns a somersault. The writer clarifies that the gymnast did not upend himself for the novelty or perversity of the perspective, but rather as an act of devotion. Like the entertainer in the French poem, Francis gains metaphysically from seeing his world upside down. The posture is one that caught the Englishman’s fancy: with unmistakable relish, he quoted a definition of paradox as “Truth standing on her head to attract attention.”

In discussing the Italian saint, Chesterton does not isolate the Virgin for special notice, beyond alluding to the Tumblers of Our Lady. Yet elsewhere he highlights her. For instance, in his 1911 The Ballad of the White Horse he describes how a vision of Mary stimulates Alfred of Wessex to achieve a major victory in 878. The battle of the Christian sovereign against an invading army of heathen Scandinavians takes place in the Vale of the White Horse at Ethandune. From the toponym the poem takes its title. As the modern poet coordinates the past and present, King Alfred anticipates a kind of staunch Christian who would be needed nearly eleven hundred and fifty years after his regnal dates. Likewise, the Saxon in Chesterton’s verse brawls not so much against Danes of the ninth century as against false philosophers of the twentieth.

T. S. Eliot disliked the analogy with cavalry, to put it mildly: it left him saddlesore. Signaling that he had perused the epic, he referred to it slantingly and slightingly by announcing: “I have seen the forces of death with Mr. Chesterton at their head upon a white horse.” The military detachments the American-born poet had in mind were wielders of pens who in his view proved to be lethal to the English language. To exemplify them, he singled out an author whose medievalesque style and values were radically opposed to the modernism Eliot and his closest poetic allies embodied.

Chesterton’s thinking, and his resolve to describe it in the metaphors of Our Lady’s Tumbler, had an outsized impact on his proponents, and not solely on converts to Catholicism. In 1943, the only authorized biography of him was printed. Its author came from a family that had been Catholic since all four of her grandparents. She devoted a chapter to her subject specifically in his guise as “Our Lady’s Tumbler.” As she recollects the ending of the medieval story, the peaked performer looks up at the statue of Our Lady and commends his own routine. She sees the great man himself as exuding such confidence, along with a deep humility. In closing the chapter, she focuses upon the seeming contradiction between “Chesterton the philosopher pondering on the Logos and Chesterton the child offering trinkets to Our Lady.”

In 1952, the Anglican Dorothy L. Sayers fashioned an unsuspectingly grim simile to justify the sway that Chesterton had held over her and others of her set in her younger days. The English writer, famed first and foremost for her crime fiction, described him as being “a kind of Christian liberator,” who had delivered a freedom like the effects of German aerial sorties a decade earlier:

Like a beneficent bomb, he blew out of the Church a quantity of stained glass of a very poor period, and let in gusts of fresh air in which the dead leaves of doctrine danced with all the energy and indecorum of Our Lady’s Tumbler.

She could have hit on a more congenial way to bring home the point that her predecessor had thrown open the window to much-needed oxygen. She presented her idol not as a blast from the past but as a blast of the past. Still, the shattered panes of presumably nineteenth-century windows tell us dramatically that Chesterton achieved breakthroughs in Catholicism. Among other things, he provided an alternative to the artistic and moral values associated with modernism and the Bloomsbury group of English intellectuals active in the early twentieth century. He took a childlike view of wonderment at the infusion of everything in the universe by divine mystery, and he liked to poke fun at pretentious intellectualism. These qualities aligned him with both Francis as the jongleur of God and the unnamed hero of the medieval poem as jongleur de Notre Dame.

The Juggler and the Paulines

I don’t know of any other way to reach as many people. As a Paulist, I’m especially interested in reaching people outside my church—the Protestant, the Jew, the agnostic.

—The head of Paulist Productions, about the 1982 movie “The Juggler of Notre Dame”

Of the two medieval versions of Our Lady’s Tumbler, one survives as a French poem that its poet compares explicitly with exempla. The other is an actual Latin prose specimen of such edifying stories. As the coordination with exemplary literature signals, the tale is attested first in forms bound up with preaching. In turn, such public speaking is often associated with proselytizing. The implantation of Catholicism in many regions of the world may be regarded as both an essential stage in imperialism and colonialism and a sincere attempt to spread salvation and bring redemption. Both viewpoints have truth to them. In either case, the juggler has been transported hither and yon thanks to the globalization of Catholic Christianity. Global Gothic is restricted largely to countries heavily populated by descendants of Europeans, especially English. Global or world Christianity and global Catholicism have filtered farther afield, carrying with them the jongleur from the Middle Ages.

Within the Catholic faith, the Paulines have put the narrative to systematic use over long stretches of time and space. The Society of Saint Paul was begun in 1914. To address the spiritual needs of life today through commensurately modern means, it and its many affiliated organizations are devoted to evangelizing the teachings of Christ through all suitable media. The brothers and sisters of this order have laid hold of Our Lady’s Tumbler repeatedly. The earliest such appropriation was probably in 1970 as a children’s book in Italian, A Juggler in Paradise by Giovanni Bonetto. The original was published in Rome under the aegis of the Society of Saint Paul (see Fig. 3.8).

Fig. 3.8 Front cover of Giovanni Bonetto, Un giocoliere in paradiso, illus. Gino Gavioli (Rome: Paoline, 1970).

A brief introduction refers to the short account known as “Le jongleur de Notre Dame.” Even if the tale went back to popular legends of the Middle Ages, it had become interlaced in particular with the name of Anatole France. The writer of the introductory pages alludes to Jules Massenet, but connects the narrative more generally with Marcelino Bread and Wine of José Maria Sánchez-Silva. The front cover of Bonetto’s book depicts the hero, here a tow-headed little boy who has a horse called Candido, and who juggles in a circus. As it turns out, the youth’s long-winded and thrice-hyphenated name describes verbatim in Italian his appearance, “blond-haired and blue-eyed.” The front and rear, outer and inner end leaves contain vignettes of a dozen monks—who loosely resemble twelve apostles—who pop up in this piece of children’s literature.

The story takes place in an imaginary settlement called Luciardenti, or “Blazing Lights.” Initially a paradise, the hamlet is laid waste by marauding barbarians. In the aftermath, one of the brethren finds the flaxen-haired and azure-eyed boy frost-bitten in a snowdrift and transports him back to the monastery. In the abbey, the young man takes the habit and assumes a monastic name, Brother Welcome. Nearly immediately he becomes impatient at his inability to contribute as the other monks do. He meditates upon the observation, made by the head of the institution, that “to pray is to please God.” Soon he disappears, and his fellows find him juggling before an image of the Virgin and Child. Although enjoined to discontinue this practice, the youth persists, until finally he lays down his life. By this juncture the abbot has seen the Madonna not only reveal a smile of pleasure in her eyes but even descend to daub the sweat from the juggler with the fringe of her blue mantle, as the infant Jesus prances nearby.

This version of the narrative lacks a Hollywood “lives happily ever after,” since the central figure expires. The death of a leading character is atypical in a children’s book, perhaps especially when the main role is for a child, but as a religion Christianity is well equipped to prime its devotees for the beneficial aspects of dying at any age. Despite this probable drawback, the story was later translated into Japanese and Spanish by branches of the society (see Fig. 3.9).

Fig. 3.9 Front cover of Giovanni Bonetto, 天国の サーカス ぼうや [Tengoku no sākasu bōya], trans. Hiro Ebina, illus. Gino Gavioli (Tokyo: Joshi Pauro kai, 1974).

Other adaptations of the tale made by the Paulines include a fifty-minute made-for-television movie coproduced with Walt Disney for airing in 1982, and a compressed telling included in a cluster of Saintly Tales and Legends from 2004. The film has transdenominational pizzaz thanks to its Christmas setting. In sum, the juggler is well aligned with the spirit and values of the Paulines. Their publications and other products are meant to evangelize, and the medieval performer helps to achieve this end in a way accessible to nonclerics. He shows that if the worker has the right outlook, no toil is empty busywork, but in fact all labor has potential as a mode of devotion.

Two Bills: Buckley Jr. and Bennett

The evidence of G. K. Chesterton, Giovanni Bonetto, and other authors and composers from Europe with whom we will intersect later is interesting and important. That said, in recent decades the juggler has been invoked as a cultural shibboleth especially in the Catholic intelligentsia not of Britain or Europe but instead of the United States.

In a 1997 autobiography, William F. Buckley Jr. seized upon the medieval performer as an image of his own Catholic belief (see Fig. 3.10).

Fig. 3.10 William F. Buckley Jr. Photograph by Bert Goulait, 1985, public domain,,_Jr._1985.jpg

The mere fact that a public intellectual of his religion should choose to compare himself to the acrobat before the Madonna was not unheard-of. Yet this tough-talking American writer and political commentator invested the analogy with greater significance than any of his predecessors had done. In the preamble to his life story, the conservative rephrased pages from an earlier book of his, in which he had recapitulated Anatole France’s version. Calling the French short story “the familiar tale,” he summed up his interpretation of it by accentuating private over public enactment of religious observance. Although he did not perform an outright gesture of devotion, he topped off this section of the introduction by stating how un-wishy-washy his own trust in God (and the Virgin Mary) had been:

My faith has not wavered, though I permit myself to wonder whether, if it had, I’d permit myself to advertise it: Would I encourage my dinner companions to know that I was blind in my left eye? I wish I could here give to my readers a sense of my own personal struggle, but there is no sufficient story there to tell. I leave it at this, that if I could juggle, I’d do so for Our Lady.

The author does not grant himself a ceasefire to wonder if he is consonant with the jongleur from the Middle Ages in not keeping his worship private, and in effect in trumpeting his unshakable loyalty to Catholicism. Those two decisions might seem to conflict with the juggler’s solitary humility.

In co-opting the tale, Buckley responded unusually to its fundamental elements. His own conviction may never have wavered, but the narrative that he adduces diverges from what he seeks to make of it. Furthermore, the differences account in no small part for the story’s fascination. It tells of a man who sawtooths between highs and lows in belief and hope. The medieval performer (and his later reincarnation in Anatole France’s version) is first ignited by a sudden soulful awakening, then despairs as he rates himself incapable of expressing his new spiritual insight at the level of his fellow monks, and finally triumphs behind closed doors when despite the obstacles he contrives a means of communicating his veneration of the Virgin. The author from the twentieth century avows that he would juggle for Our Lady, but the explicit audience for his avowal of religious confidence, and for his own manipulation of words, is not Mary alone but instead his readers. Whereas the minstrel from the Middle Ages kept his piety rigorously personal, the modern-day polemicist proudly publicizes and politicizes his.

Around the same time, Buckley referred to the juggler in a commencement address he presented at none other than Notre Dame. On May 21, 1978, he proclaimed: “Ladies and gentlemen, I can give you on this feast day—like Our Lady’s juggler—only that little I have to offer.” He considered the speech counterproductive, for being too melancholic on what should have been an exuberant occasion. He enlisted the medieval entertainer only as an throwaway parenthesis in what was essentially agitprop, a condemnation of US President Carter for having been too soft on communism. The orator nodded to a previous title of his, Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country. The topic of thankfulness could accord well with the juggler, who almost personifies the antithesis of the ingrate, ungratefulness, unappreciativeness, and other such negatives. In the earlier book, Buckley had also drawn upon the story, but to a very different end. However improbably and incongruously, he related the tale there primarily as a parable for responsible civic commitment. Secondarily, he leveraged the imagery of the narrative to pass judgment on deficit spending: “Without an economic surplus we are left with not even enough to afford a set of the juggler’s mallets and balls.” Both these political and economic constructions take us far from the spirit of either the early thirteenth-century narrative or its belle époque reworkings by France and Massenet. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Buckley’s version of Le jongleur de Notre Dame camouflages sharp-toothed ideology beneath the meek cowl of spirituality.

Another prominent Catholic who has promulgated the story for the faith it illustrates is William J. Bennett. This other US conservative, just as button-down as Buckley, achieved high national visibility through having administered as the third Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988 (see Fig. 3.11). In both his Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories and the derivative revamping of the same anthology for children, he subsumes the tale of the jongleur (in Anatole France’s version) under the heading “Faith.” In this back-to-basics reconstruction of the narrative for young people, he supplies the moral “Faith leads us to employ our God-given talents in God’s service.” This typology veers from the classification under “Joy” that was made in the medieval Tabula exemplorum, or “Synopsis of Exempla.” All the same, this use of the story transports us all the way back to its implementation as an exemplum in the Middle Ages. Indeed, Bennett’s conviction about the place that the past can hold in present-day culture would have been readily comprehensible and congenial to many men of letters from a half millennium earlier. In his words, “our literature and history are a rich quarry of moral literacy.”

Fig. 3.11 Bill Bennett. Photograph by Gage Skidmore, 2011, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Lyric Juggler and Patrick Kavanagh

The story of the juggler or jongleur as invoked by the third-generation Irish-American poet and critic Shaemus O’Sheel is catholic at once with an upper- and lower-case c. Praising a fellow American man of letters, he lingered over Joyce Kilmer’s observation that “every moment of every life” belongs to “the unfolding of the great mystery of human destiny.” Yet the teleology is stamped as specifically Catholic, with a capital initial letter. It culminates when “all God’s errant children” are gathered “into the Church Militant and the Communion of Saints.” To reach that felicitous outcome requires devotion, which led him to our tale: “Like Our Lady’s Tumbler in the medieval story, he saw the potentialities of worship in every commonplace and trivial action.”

Especially in Ireland, the narrative has been instanced in explicitly Catholic contexts. A case in point would be the tale’s appearance in one of two novels by Bernard Duffy, active mostly as a comic playwright. Writing in 1918, the Irishman describes a real-life parish priest from the perspective of the altar boy who gives the book its title, Oriel. As pastor, this James Joseph MacMahon held responsibility for Saint Joseph’s Church. The vignette reflects the writer’s personal contacts in his boyhood, spent in the 1870s in Carrickmacross, a municipality in County Monaghan. The novelist retains the names of the deacon as well as of the house of worship, but alters the toponym of the town to Farney. Knowledge of the medieval story in this decade would have been highly improbable in Ireland or anywhere else, except among Romance philologists. Yet we should allow for slight anachronism: Duffy may have retrofitted upon a bygone era a scene that would have been altogether plausible at any point from the 1890s onward. From then on, Anatole France’s version became omnipresent. Additionally, English translations of the medieval French poem spread far and wide.

Early in the chapter on the pastor, a nod to Our Lady’s Tumbler sets the stage discreetly. The dean tells Oriel not to blush at his childhood ambitions. MacMahon says: “Why, when I was your age I wanted to be an itinerant tumbler.” But the weightier allusion to the tale comes in a moment of truth that begins when the boy, wishing to make a gift when the collection box is passed among the congregation, donates a prized button. The clergyman, after finding the offering, reprimands whoever of his parishioners had the effrontery to fling into the coffer such a trifle. When Oriel later acknowledges why he made this donation, the man of the cloth narrates the medieval story. MacMahon reveals, “I always liked the tale myself because of my early ambitions, and you will like it because it resembles your own.”

Another wholesome instancing of the narrative can be tracked down in the popularizing hagiography of Joan Windham. A British nurse, she wrote, over four decades, numerous books about saints for children. She published her Six O’Clock Saints first in 1934. With two printings in December, the collection was inarguably intended for the Christmas retail market. The “Preface for Grown-Ups” declares that the stories in it were set down “with the object of making Children familiar with the Saints as Ordinary People to whom Interesting Things have happened” (see Fig. 3.12). Barnabas of Compiègne stands out as an oddity in not being designated as a fully validated holy man even in the table of contents. Nonetheless, he is treated as a genuine historical personage who passed away in 1642. This specific year may have been picked arbitrarily: no evidence is proffered.

Fig. 3.12 Barnabas and a monk. Illustration by Marigold Hunt, 1934. Published in Joan Windham, Six O’Clock Saints (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1934), 83.

Fig. 3.13 The Virgin blesses Barnabas. Illustration by Marigold Hunt, 1934. Published in Joan Windham, Six O’Clock Saints (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1934), 85.

To those versed in the tale as told by Anatole France, Windham’s reliance on the French short story is unconcealed throughout, in such features as the emphasis on six copper balls and the names of the monks in the monastery. Nonetheless, the recapitulator departs freely in her retelling as fancy drives her. For example, she emphasizes that the juggler wore clothing half blue and half white, out of reverence for the Virgin Mary. In her narrative, the statue of the Madonna itself becomes animate to caress Barnabas’s brow and smile at him (see Fig. 3.13). Illustrations of her version dwell on two episodes. First, the artists portray the performer’s sadness at being the only one of all the brothers not to have “a Special Thing to do for Our Lady” (see Figs. 3.14–3.17). Second, the illustrators show the entertainer standing on his head and juggling with “his six copper balls and twelve shiny knives, right in front of Our Lady’s Altar!”

Fig. 3.14 The juggler, feeling inept and useless in the monastery. Illustration by Mona Doneux, 1948. Published in Joan Windham, Sixty Saints for Boys (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1948), 382. © Joan Windham, 1948, Sixty Saints for Boys, Sheed & Ward, used by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. All rights reserved.

Fig. 3.15 The juggler sits in sadness while the statue of the Virgin is carved. Illustration by Elizabeth Andrewes, 1974. Published in Joan Windham, Story Library of the Saints, 3 vols. (London: Harwin, 1974), 1: 154.

Fig. 3.16 Barnaby performs before the Virgin. Illustration by Mona Doneux, 1948. Published in Joan Windham, Sixty Saints for Boys (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1948), 383. © Joan Windham, 1948, Sixty Saints for Boys, Sheed & Ward, used by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. All rights reserved.

Fig. 3.17 The juggler performs before the Virgin while monks watch. Illustration by Elizabeth Andrewes, 1974. Published in Joan Windham, Story Library of the Saints, 3 vols. (London: Harwin Press, 1974), 1: 156.

The Irish Catholic writer Patrick Kavanagh manifested a lifelong devotion to the Mother of God in his work, as for instance in his favorite prayer “Hail, Queen of Heaven” and in a poem entitled “The Lady of the Poets.” One of his most famous compositions, “A Christmas Childhood,” leads up to his reminiscences about the holiday he experienced when a six-year-old farm-boy: “And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned / On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.” The lyricist and novelist came by his devoutness naturally. After all, he was the first-born son of a father who selected the names for his children from the calendar of the saints and from the prayer known as the Litany of the Saints. The whole family was tied closely to the Virgin through its association with Saint Mary’s church in Inniskeen (see Fig. 3.18).

Fig. 3.18 Patrick Kavanagh Centre, former Catholic St. Mary’s church, Inniskeen, Ireland. Photograph from Wikimedia, 2009, CC BY-SA 1.0,

Among Kavanagh’s pieces of poetry stands out one from 1959, called “Our Lady’s Tumbler.” The lyric quietly presumes awareness of the minstrel’s story as a means of expressing thankfulness for his poetic rebirth. The poet most likely encountered the tale from the Middle Ages though the translation by Eugene Mason. In the poem, the Irishman offers his own verse to celebrate the joys of existence, with a special focus on spring and summer. Only the last line echoes the title, by citing the worship that the entertainer of the medieval narrative tendered to the Virgin: “I come to you to verse my thanks / To parks and flowers and canal banks / I bring you this verse interlude / Our Lady’s Tumbler’s gratitude.” The second-person addressee here is Mary. The reference to canal banks compresses much into two words. In 1955, Kavanagh had to go under the surgeon’s scalpel for the removal of a cancerous lung, along with a rib. In the protracted convalescence that ensued, he underwent an epiphany on such a waterside embankment in Dublin. This awakening revitalized creatively or even perhaps truly vitalized him for the first time in his days on earth. In his autobiography, he later referred to this instant as his birth.

Kavanagh rued that devotion was ever more compartmentalized within strictly formal religion, and that God was ever less apparent in more mundane life and labor. As a corrective to those two tendencies, he espoused a theology that has been styled one of “everydayness.” Among the best-known lines associated with him are four that serve as the epitaph on the cross that marks his grave. These verses enjoin readers to have a sixth sense for the miraculous depths that lie beneath what may appear outwardly workaday. The Irish verse-maker was no saint, and yet he has been likened to a medieval monk for his finding of God in the day-to-day and pedestrian. With equal relevance, he has also been compared with the Russian spiritual tradition of holy fools. Like the the misunderstood minstrel and the hallowed halfwit alike, he could look coarse, primitive, and even loutish. Yet he was no dullard. Rather, he was gracefully transcendent in his devotion—and his art. Intensely verbal, he exerted himself simultaneously to avoid intellectualizing the essence of life, faith, and emotion.

Despite the miracle by which the Madonna becomes animate, the jongleur proved well suited to Kavanagh’s credo of the quotidian. The performer from the Middle Ages meshed well with the bard’s resistance to “tales of French-hot miracles,” as well as to the end of the spectrum where Lourdes and Fátima are located. Kavanagh frowned upon the Romanization of Irish Catholicism that was underway when he composed the poem. At the same time, by the middle of the twentieth century the story of Our Lady’s Tumbler had become fastened irrevocably to one day above all, namely Christmas, and to associations that were anything but everyday.

“The Chapel at Mountain State Mental Hospital”

What about the final throes of the twentieth century? At first blush, “The Chapel at Mountain State Mental Hospital” by Virginia Hamilton Adair might seem to constitute an exception to the general retreat or even rout of Our Lady’s Tumbler from adult literature in the waning years of the second millennium, but in fact it does not do so. The lyric is likely to have been drafted decades before its publication, in response to experiences that were mid- rather than late twentieth-century.

The poem describes a sermon of sorts before a motley crew in a mental hospital. Though no primates of the Church are present, the cardinal event (so to speak) takes place when a lady, wearing a skirt but no panties, turns unerring sideways handsprings and somersaults past the altar for God. Finally, she moves “demure and quiet to her seat.” The account of the episode ends with a stanza pointing out that the jongleur would relate to this character, who is described as “Jean, the cartwheel queen of Mountain State.” Neither irrelevantly nor unintentionally, this personal name is the same as that borne by the protagonist in the opera by Massenet, as well as in other versions too—but the assonance here between the proper noun and the word “queen” brings home to us that in this instance we are dealing with a homograph and not a homophone. The character in this piece is female.

The stanza concludes: “Gaffer and girl convert us with their motions / to greater freedom in our own devotions; / the broken windows of the mind may give / the wingèd spirit still a space to live.” These verses capture much of the atmosphere in the tale of Our Lady’s Tumbler. The first describes the power of physical moves executed by the physical performer, here a woman, to bring us to religion, even more perhaps than the man preaching before her. The second makes explicit that the gymnastics affects the religious devotions of the viewers. The third refers to the circumstance that the dancer, like fools for God across the ages, may be perceived, and sometimes rightly, as delirious or even worse a dimwit or dunce. The final line encapsulates the dichotomy between body and soul, which the tumbling manages somehow to leave behind. Simultaneously, it may nod to the sparring over the athlete’s soul. In some versions of the tale, demons and angels roughhouse in the air at the end before the forces of good waft the redeemed spirit aloft to heaven.

The poet of this lyric had a career that was anything but par for the course. Even as a very young child, Adair displayed a flair for poetry that was encouraged by her father. Although a lifelong composer of verse, she published precious little after a few forays into leading magazines in the 1940s. Her first book, the bestselling Ants on the Melon, saw the light of day in 1996, when its author was eighty-three years old, sightless from glaucoma but still spritely in spirit. Thus she became prominent for her versecraft only extraordinarily late in life. Her inaugural volume brought welcome freshness and novelty to the literary scene.

“The Chapel at Mountain State Mental Hospital” came out in a second culling of Adair’s poetry, the 1998 Beliefs and Blasphemies. Devoted to the theme of religion, this effort did not garner the same wide-eyed adulation from reviewers and the public as her first volley of verse had elicited. Like the rest of the poems printed with it, the piece based on Our Lady’s Tumbler was out of step with the times. Born in 1913, the lyricist belonged to a generation that had been bathed in the story. She may have conceived and even drafted her lines decades before their ultimate publication date. The underlying faith, religious or otherwise, in the verse flies in the face of postmodernism, and harks back to the chirpier optimism of the mid-twentieth century, when the tale of the juggler pervaded literature, radio, and television.

Should we root around for any special Marian connections? Adair was originally called Mary Virginia Hamilton, but she harbored an aversion to the first name and shed it in favor of the second. Even so, no cornucopia of imagination is required to surmise a privileged relationship between Virginia, with the Virgin inset within it, and Mary—but that speaks to her parents’ more than to her own beliefs and values. A lifetime later, after her spouse’s death and her own retirement, she became steadfast not in Catholicism but in Zen Buddhism.

As the title suggests, the action of the poem transpires in the chapel of a mental hospital. The episode related in the lines may be premised on Adair’s firsthand encounters from 1950 to 1953 while a bibliotherapist at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia. Among the factors that could have predisposed the poet to an interest in mental illness, serious weight should be given to the clinical depression of her husband. She married Douglass Adair in 1936, and thus their marriage was more than thirty years old when he committed suicide in 1968.

One assessment of Ants on the Melon commented that Virginia Hamilton Adair’s debut volume contained many pieces of poetry that struck him as “transparently ‘worked for’ rather than ‘given’”—“few … products of ‘inspiration’ more than ‘perspiration.’” This assessment could have applied equally to the tumbler, and the common feature may have led her to identify with his doggedness. The question becomes one of determining how strictly we define the faith the jongleur or juggler expresses. Then again, who are we to decide what constitutes fidelity? The drift of the original story is that even a theologically uninformed illiterate may devise a means of worship so effective as to pique the compassion of an intermediary between God and humanity, and thereby to set in motion his own salvation.

Our Lady’s Tumbler has succeeded best when it has been stretched to its most capacious. In the beginning, it bestrode the chasm between laity and clergy, even between physicality and spirituality. It has exerted the most force when it has been construed with the maximum of magnanimity. It tells a story of faith, specifically of the Christian one, but the grandest messages of great religions bridge divides among people, rather than create or reinforce them.