To understand the significance of gatherings to our people, we must first understand fairs--what they were, where they were held, and how they were eventually used to oppress our people.
A fair is a temporary market where buyers and sellers gather to transact business. Historically, fairs were created to promote trade and solve the early problems of distribution. They provided an opportunity for the demonstration of skills and crafts, the exchange of ideas, and the bartering of goods. They concentrated supply and demand in certain places at certain times, and were usually developed or held at points of major caravan route intersections and wherever people congregated for religious festivals.
Festivals and fairs were so important to trade and commerce in ancient Rome that they became a primary feature of the Roman calendar and a fixture of Roman religious life during both the Republican and Imperial eras. The government encouraged Roman people to celebrate these state holidays or “Feriae” ("holidays" in the sense of "holy days") with public funding and days off of work. The Romans eventually introduced these markets and fairs all over northern Europe to encourage trade within their conquered provinces.
In every great cult, religion and commerce are inextricably linked. In the first centuries of Christendom, “The first fairs were formed by the gathering of worshippers and pilgrims in sacred places, and especially within or about the walls of abbeys and cathedrals on the Feast days of the Saints enshrined in them. ... Bishops and abbots, of course, never overlooked the reasonable source of profit to their shrines and the maintainers of them, which would be derived from tolls upon the trade occasioned by themselves, and carried on within the bounds of their own lawful jurisdiction.” [Morley, “Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair”].
The fair is where the rope-walker made his living. Sometimes they would simply perform high above the fair, other times they would team up with other performers (bear tamers, contortionists, etc), and sometimes they would be sponsored by a merchant in advance who would put up a curtain and charge an entrance fee
During the fifth century in France, a series of Councils of Bishops began to attack the mountebanks’ companies (which rope-walkers were often a part of) and treat them as though they were evil on earth. At the time, rope-walkers generally practiced their craft exclusively at markets and fairs, which were always held near the Church or in the churchyard itself. So when the Châlon Council in 549 AD forbade them to come near the Church’s property, what they were doing was virtually putting a ban on the ‘profane’ art of rope-walking. Moreover, around 554 AD, Childbert, King of the Francs, was said to have forbade the clerics from watching the mountebanks at all. Over the next couple hundred years, further French Councils continued to rule out any form of entertainment for the clerics which led to rope-walkers being seen as strangers apart from society. To make matters worse, Philippe Auguste, King of France from 1180 to 1223, kicked Mountebanks out of the French Court where for centuries they had been welcome.
While rope-walkers lost some huge privileges in 5th-century France, things seem to have got back on track by the 1300s. In the Middle Ages, a tightrope act was thought to be essential to give any public event its proper air of mystery, thus rope walkers started appearing in many grand displays. During the lavish coronation of Queen Isabeau in 1389 Paris, it is said that a cord had been placed from the towers of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame to the roof of the highest house on the Pont St. Michel. A funambulist acrobat then went down the cord singing, with two lighted candles in his hands.
Christine de Pisan documented: ‘There was a man in Paris, in the reign of good King Charles, who could tumble and jump and do such tricks on the rope that no one today would believe had they not been witnessed at the time. He would stretch thin ropes from the towers of Notre-Dame to the Palace and on these ropes he would leap and perform such feats of agility that he seemed to be flying. Therefore he became known as ’Le Voleur’. I saw him myself as did many others. He was said to have no equal in his art, which he performed many times before the King. One day however, he missed his footing on the rope and fell from such a height that he broke all his bones. “Surely,” said the King when he learned of it, “bad luck must befall the man who presumes so much of his senses, his strength, his lightness or any other thing.”
This trend continued at the coronation of Edward VI in Westminister in 1547. According to the “Archeologia Britannica”: ‘There was a great rope, as great as the cable of a ship, stretched from the battlements of St. Paul’s [London] steeple, with a great anchor at one end, fastened a little before the Dean of Saint Paul’s house-gate; and when His Majesty approached near the same, there came a man, a stranger being a native of Aragon, lying on the rope with his head forward, casting his arms and legs abroad, running on his breast on the rope from the battlements to the ground, as if it had been an arrow out of a bow. Then he came to His Majesty, and kissed his foot; and so, after certain words to his Highness, he departed from him again, and went upwards upon the rope, till he came over the midst of the churchyard, where he, having a rope about him, played certain mysteries on the rope, as tumbling, and casting one leg from another. Then took he the rope, and tied it to the cable, and tied himself by the right leg a little space beneath the wrist of the foot, and hung by one leg a certain space, and after recovered himself again with the said rope and unknit the knot, and came down again.’
When Philip of Spain arrived in London to meet Queen Mary in 1554, a rope walker paid his respects to the occasion via rope. And in Venice in the mid-16th century, the annual Carnival gained a new opening tradition — Svolo del Turco (Flight of the Angel) — when a Turkish acrobat walked on a rope strung between the bell tower of the St. Mark’s Church and a boat docked on the Piazzetta.
In 1556, Hieronymus Cardanus praised rope walkers in De Subtilitate: “Those who dance on the rope, who call themselves Funambuli, are the most daring of all men, taming the laws of nature with artiface. Indeed rope-dancing has its origins in natural magic. For the art of magic depends on natural causes and what is admirable in it comes from the occult and the hidden.”
Despite all these grand public performances and shows of praise and support around Europe, tightrope walkers in the late 1600s in England once again became associated with a disreputable element, including pickpockets, streetwalkers, and conmen. The people of Charing Cross complained that rope-dancer Jacob Hall’s booth attracted so many rogues to the area that they constantly lose things out of their shops. They started a petition against him, and the Chief Justice told him in court that his booth is a nuisance to the parish. In his early-1700s song collection “Pills to Purge Melancholy,” Thomas D’Urfey wrote: “In houses of boards men walk upon cords / An easy as squirrels crack filbords / The cut-purses they do bite, and rob away.” And over in France, French Councils continued to target and persecute Mountebanks and Funambule, following complaints from the Paris priests that Sunday mass was being deserted for the rope-dancers show. The “trouble-makers” were thereafter confined to the fairs of Saint-Germain and Saint-Laurent.
One of the most famous funambulists of the late 1700s was Madame Saqui. She performed many times for Napoleon Bonaparte, often walking a wire with fireworks exploding all around her. She honored the celebration of the birth of his heir by walking between the towers of the Notre-Dame cathedral, performed at Vauxhall Gardens, and is mentioned in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair--to name a few of her incredible accomplishments; Furthermore, she ran her own circus theater for some time and continued to perform well into her 70s.
The 1800s brought acrobats and other similar performers indoors as businesses and showmen opened more permanent circus venues. Pablo Fanque was the first nonwhite circus proprietor in Victorian Britain, and he began his performance career doing equestrian stunts and rope walking. He started the Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal, in which he continued to perform; it quickly became the most popular circus in the area, and remained so for 30 years. Fanque toured all around the UK for years and also held many circus benefits — one of which, for circus performer William Kite, inspired the Beatles song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”
Ultimately, the teeter totter of public approval and lack thereof went back and forth for many, many centuries in Europe. Outlawed through history by government, organized sport, and religion, it is a wonder that line walking persisted at all.
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