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Playful Experiments and Comic Deceptions: A Cultural History of Magic Tricks in Late Medieval Europe

Da Silva Baptista, Vanessa; (2023) Playful Experiments and Comic Deceptions: A Cultural History of Magic Tricks in Late Medieval Europe. Doctoral thesis (Ph.D), UCL (University College London).

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Abstract

Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) is often cited as the first text to record substantial descriptions of illusionist magic. In the same year J. Prévost published Première partie des subtiles et plaisantes inventions, allegedly the first European text dedicated to instructions for the performance of magic tricks. Scholars of modern illusionist magic frequently contend that prior to the publication of these books, there was no significant appetite in Europe for texts describing or containing magic tricks. My thesis challenges this claim, arguing that there was a common understanding and appreciation of magic tricks as a form of domestic play and popular chemistry in late medieval Europe. Using a principal source base of over 550 magic tricks in 100 largely fourteenth and fifteenth-century manuscripts of predominantly English provenance, I demonstrate that magic tricks were a significant category of recipe literature that was consumed by a broad swathe of late medieval European people for a variety of reasons. Magic tricks were an expression of a wider playful medieval attitude towards experimentation with substances, their combinations, possibilities, purposes, and meanings that can also be observed in other arts and specialist crafts, including art technology and elite cooking. I argue that they are therefore an important but underutilised source for the history of science and technology. Further, my thesis is the first to apply modern theoretical approaches to illusionist magic to any premodern period. I show that medieval people conceptualised illusionist magic, including magic tricks, as a cognitive experience reliant on the rupture between what was seen and what was understood to be possible. Recipes are windows into what medieval people considered useful, interesting, or enjoyable. In the case of magic tricks, they show how medieval communities delighted in the manipulation, actual or theoretical, of the human mind and the material world.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Qualification: Ph.D
Title: Playful Experiments and Comic Deceptions: A Cultural History of Magic Tricks in Late Medieval Europe
Language: English
Additional information: Copyright © The Author 2023. Original content in this thesis is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) Licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/). Any third-party copyright material present remains the property of its respective owner(s) and is licensed under its existing terms. Access may initially be restricted at the author’s request.
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of S&HS > Dept of History
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10181710
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