The most comprehensive history of medieval reception, vols. 5&6

Originally published with The Medieval Review, December 1, 2021.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity, volumes 5 and 6. Cambridge, UK: Open Book, 2018. Pp. 397; 324. £38.95 each (hb). ISBN: 978-1-78374-535-7; 978-1-78374-540-1 (hb).

Reviewed by Richard Utz

Georgia Institute of Technology

These final two volumes of Jan Ziolkowski’s fascinating reception history of the medieval juggler narrative display the same qualities as the first four volumes: a wealth of connections across numerous media, meticulously researched and lavishly illustrated, make this magnum opus a rich tapestry of information for anyone interested in how the Middle Ages have been researched, remembered, imagined, and used.

In volume 5, Tumbling into the Twentieth Century, Ziolkowski documents the increasing interest in the story in the wake of the success of Jules Massenet’s opera Le jongleur de Notre Dame in the early twentieth century. One manifestation of this popularity can be measured by the impressive number of retellings and reprints (books, typescripts, manuscripts), and the inclusion of Anatole France’s version of the medieval tale in textbooks for the teaching of French in other countries, a clear sign that the narrative had come to represent France and its cultural history. Another manifestation can be traced in the vast number of planned or actual performances, audio recordings, and films, including the idea for a film by a former clown, acrobat, aerialist, and skater by the name of Charlie Chaplin; annual performances during the weeks leading up to Christmas on Fred Waring’s America, a 1950s vaudeville-type television show; and the 50-minute made-for-television movie, The Juggler of Notre Dame, co-produced (please imagine!) by Walt Disney and the Catholic Paulist Order in 1982. A third kind of manifestation of the story’s popularity appears in its appropriation by members of many different faiths, and even in sports: it seems New York Giants coach Allie Sherman rallied his 1960s team by retelling the events of “Our Lady and the Juggler.” Finally, and unsurprisingly considering its child-like main character, volume 5 includes a sizeable section surveying numerous adaptations of the tale for children.

In volume 6, War and Peace, Sex and Violence, Ziolkowski presents examples that demonstrate the extreme malleability of the juggler narrative during WWII: Conservatives in occupied France as well as in the areas under the Vichy régime found the medieval tale and its nineteenth-century derivatives attractive, but they also inspired members of the French, Belgian, and Dutch resistance movement. In Great Britain, nostalgia and perhaps also loyalty to an occupied ally may have inspired the publication of some English versions of the story. Germany and Austria only show relatively little interest in the juggler before and during the war. Beginning in WWII, and increasingly so by the 1960s, the juggler’s story became associated with family audiences and the Christmas season. A striking degree of otherness and temporal distance emanates from many of these versions, one that may remind academic medievalists of the alterity that medieval studies scholars underlined in their work throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

Ziolkowski centers other observations on several case studies: the University of Notre Dame, which called one of its campus literary magazines The Juggler (full title: The Juggler of Notre Dame; founded in 1919), and especially one of the institution’s alumni and professors, Richard Sullivan (1909-1981), who attempted to revive the Marian aspects of the story; Robert Lax (1915-2000), a friend of Trappist theologian Thomas Merton and convert to Catholicism, who attempted to turn the juggler story into a movie; film star Tony Curtis (1925-2010), who played the acrobat in The Young Juggler, a telefilm that aired only once and is now known only to 1960s film buffs; W. H. Auden, whose faux-naïf poem “The Ballad of Barnaby” was originally drafted in 1969 as the libretto for a musical to be performed by a girls’ school in Connecticut; and various composers of music and ballet performances from Alfred Huth, Francis Poulenc, Ulysses Kay, and Juan Orrego-Salas, to Peter Maxwell Davis. Ziolkowski ends by describing the spurious use of the juggler in art and photography, laments the slow disappearance of the narrative as a result of “fable-fatigue” and “exasperation with the miracle” (150), and expresses hope that the juggler story won’t disappear entirely because “To kill off a story requires total annihilation” (174). I would like to add that Ziolkowski’s own six tomes dedicated to the narrative may well inspire some revivals, too.

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down my reading and reviewing of this mega project. I apologize for this delay because the books truly deserve to be known and read. As a collection, they constitute the most detailed and most readable medievalist reception history I know. Two conditions rendered this result possible: the author’s awesome learnedness, and his application of this learnedness to the broad online access to isolated archives, scholarship, and otherwise unrelated factoids. Without the author’s amazing ability to compartmentalize as well as synthesize the millions of minutiae the Web yields, academic and non-academic readers could very easily lose interest as the red thread of the juggler story appears and reappears in a maze of genres, audiences, countries, social classes, languages, and cultures. In addition, the author’s determination to lower the linguistic drawbridge so that non-medievalists will enjoy his books is evident everywhere. Puns in chapter headings (“Membranes of Things Past” or “Missal Attack”) and affective authorial responses throughout invite readers to immerse themselves in one story, character, and subject after another, and a gentle and benevolent attitude toward human foibles accompanies even the strangest motivations among those shown to appropriate all or some aspects of the juggler narrative. And those with an interest in immersing more deeply will find all the scholarly commentary anyone might want in the extensive annotations. Unlike the sometimes unspeakably self-righteous academic investigations exclusively (and unceasingly) focused on “the worst of the worst” of modern and contemporary (ab)uses of the Middle Ages, Ziolkowski’s comprehensive studies reveal that most references to and uses of the medieval past, while integral to nineteenth- and twentieth-century mentalities, are in no way intrinsically complicit in violent or discriminatory ideologies or actions.

A case in point is Otto Blechman’s 1953 retelling/redrawing of the juggler narrative, The Juggler of Our Lady. Freshly graduated from Oberlin, the young artist was offered to design a “graphic novel” on a Noel theme. He was Jewish and apparently knew little about the Christian holiday. However, as part of the ubiquitous nature of postmedieval medievalia, he and some of his friends were familiar with the story of the juggler, which seemed to have enough of a connection to fulfill the publisher’s mandate for a book that would sell as a seasonal gift. Although the young artist could very well have secularized the story into a parable of his own life (the juggler performing to a world full of indifference for his art and dedication), he decided not to obliterate the religious theme involved. Armed with the outlines of medieval culture in Will Durant’s influential cultural history, specifically the volume on The Age of Faith, he resolved to situate the juggler’s story in a medieval monastery, but managed to ecumenize it so that it became attractive and acceptable to a larger audience: it could speak to those with a nostalgia for such a simpler “age of faith” as much as to those only deploring the general lack of spirituality in the twentieth century. While a minor event within the gargantuan cultural phenomenon of modern medievalism, Blechman’s imaginative and unassuming transmutation, which was adapted into a nine-minute animated version in 1957, with a voiceover by none other than Boris Karloff, may well be as representative of the modern reception of medieval culture as Hubert Lanzinger’s infamous 1935 portrait of Hitler as the knightly “Standard Bearer,” a meme that nowadays seems to accompany every other article on the troubling continuities between medieval past and medievalist present.

Jan Ziolkowski’s patient and ground-breaking effort encourages us to pay more attention to the benevolent and less sensational examples of modern receptions of the medieval. His books, freely accessible as they are via OpenBook publishers in .pdf and online versions (, are decades ahead of an academic industry still mostly wed to print and to prices that are sustainable only for the richest university libraries and independently wealthy individuals.

Denominators: medievalism, médiévalisme, Mittelalter-Rezeption, medievalismo, reception study, juggler figure, modernism