Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Juggler of Notre Dame
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This thirteenth-century illumination depicts the Jongleur of Notre Dame, the iconic protagonist of the French poem, Our Lady’s Tumbler. This poem from around 1200 tells the story of a tumbler (later reconfigured as a jongleur) who is dismayed by his inability to participate in the liturgical offices like the monks in the monastery he has joined. Our protagonist decides that he will instead perform acrobatics before a statue of the Virgin Mary to express his devotion, and begs her to consider it a valid form of worship. In the poem, the Virgin Mary is pleased, and fans the sweat-drenched tumbler. When the tumbler falls ill and dies only a short time later, the Virgin Mary personally oversees the tumbler’s ascent to Paradise. The illumination captures the jongleur just as he completes his acrobatic ceremonials, still contorted into a backbend before the Virgin Mary and Child. An angel extends a towel from the heavens. The tumbler's vielle, a stringed instrument the size of a modern viola, lays at the feet of the Virgin and Child.

    In the illumination, the Virgin Mary is illustrated in her aspect as Queen of Heaven. Although she is unhaloed, she wears a crown and an elegant red mantle and wields considerable authority. Both the illumination and poem suggest that currying favor with the Queen of Heaven results in great benefit, whether through her graceful assistance or heavenly access. Veneration of Notre Dame (a French title for the Virgin Mary) is simultaneously a worship of the Child, as Mary’s prayers to her son carry particular weight. Our Lady’s Tumbler indicates that the ability to read and write and profession as a monk are not the only ways to win God's favor. Instead, Our Lady’s Tumbler implicitly contends that an individual’s internal devotion, sincerity, and purity can contribute to salvation.

    Our Lady’s Tumbler and this illumination contribute to a complex discourse on the place of jongleurs in medieval communities. While entertainers were given privileged positions in Romanesque statuary, the Gothic period apparently saw a marked decline in the status of jongleurs and tumblers. Images of entertainers in that period were placed in locations of lesser importance like the underside of choir seats (known as misericords) or in the marginalia of manuscripts. The conventional opinion was that jongleurs were foolish, irresponsible charlatans. However, Carol Symes contends that some jongleurs held regional power through "crafty management of pre-existing structures and conventions” and their aptitude for effective communication. Regardless of their place in medieval social hierarchy, Our Lady’s Tumbler and the illumination suggest that entertainers had the potential to gain God's grace for their community as well as for themselves. But God, who knew his [the tumbler's] intentions
    And his great sense of duty
    And the love for which he did his acts
    Did not wish to hide his deeds;
    Thus the Lord wished and bid
    That the works of His friend
    Be known and manifested,
    Because he had joyfully served His mother,
    And so that each one would know
    And understand and see
    That God refuses no one
    Who in love trusts himself to Him,
    No matter how he does his duty,
    So long as he loves God and does right.

    Translated by Everett C. Wilkie, Jr.
    Allegorica 4 (1979): 99

  • Source: Gallica
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Acrobats Lay Piety Mary, Virgin, Saint- Cult Miracles Monasticism Tumbeor Nostre Dame, Old French Poem
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 13
  • Date:
  • Related Work: Juggling the Middle Ages, virtual galleries from the exhibit at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, October 16, 2018 – March 3, 2019.
    Limestone acrobat pilaster, circa 1150-70, French (Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection (47.101.25)).
    Poster for Jules Massenet's opera, Le jongleur de Notre Dame, 1904, Paris.
    Glyn Warren Philpot, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, 1928,collection of Ömer M. Koç.
  • Current Location: Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, 3516
  • Original Location: Artois region
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Paint; Ink;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 32.8/24.5/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Peters, Gretchen. "Urban Minstrels in Late Medieval Southern France: Opportunities, Status and Professional Relationships." Early Music History 19 (2000): 201-235;
    Symes, Carol. "The Confraternity of Jongleurs and the Cult of the Virgin: Vernacular Devotion and Documentation in Medieval Arras." The Church and Vernacular Literature in Medieval France. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2009. Pages 176-197;
    Symes, Carol. "The Lordship of Jongleurs." The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe, 950-1350." Edited by Adam Kosto, Alan Cooper, and Robert Berkhofer. Ashgate, 2005. Pages 231-246;
    Van Oort, Jessica. "The Minstrel Dances in Good Company: Del Tumbeor Nostre Dame." Dance Chronicle 34 (2011): 239-275;
    Wilkie, Everett C. Jr. "Our Lady's Tumbler." Allegorica 4 (1979): 81-120;
    Ziolkowski, Jan M. The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity. Volume 1: The Middle Ages. OpenBook Publishers, 2018. This is the first in a six-volume series treating the reception of the Juggler of Notre Dame from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century. See details including links for online versions;
    Juggling the Middle Ages. Interview with Jan Ziolkowski. From the Medievalists.net Podcasts