History fascinates me, which is a good thing since I must dig through the past to write novels set 200 years ago! In Loving Mr. Darcy I wrote of a summer festival at Pemberley with all sorts of entertainments for the guests to enjoy. Among them were clowns. Here follows a short – very short – history of clowns and how they would have appeared in the early 1800s.
The concept of individuals performing humorous stunts to entertain is as old as time. The ancient Greeks had their pantomimes, the French later borrowing the idea in their mimes. Royal courts had jesters and the Medieval common-folk had mummers. The Italians perfected the harlequin known for his amazing feats of acrobatics. Clown troupes of all types traveled the breadth of Europe for centuries, sometimes as part of an actors’ troupe or on their own.
The term “clown” is a derivative of cloyne from roughly the 1560s, meaning “rustic, boor, peasant.” The origin is uncertain, but perhaps from Scandinavian dialect (Icelandic klunni “clumsy, boorish fellow;” Swed. kluns “a hard knob, a clumsy fellow”), or akin to N.Fris. klönne, a “clumsy person,” or less likely from Latin colonus, “colonist, farmer,” hence the “rustic, boor” interpretation which apparently was the earliest English sense. By 1600 the meaning of “jester or fool” was well established.
The types of clowns and tricks they performed are numerous. Always the objective was to bring laughter through outlandish outfits, pratfalls, silent pantomime, and zany acrobatics. The men and women who pursued this profession did so very seriously. They studied the art, perfected their routines, and performed with mastery every bit as precise as a stage actor.
Clowns became associated with the circus in the late 1700s and we can thank Englishman Philip Astley for that. Astley was an ex-cavalryman who was a virtuoso horseback rider. In 1768 Astley opened an equestrian school to train riders. He used the opportunity to conduct shows – for a fee, of course – displaying his “feats at horsemanship.” The trick-riding phenomenon took off as a wildfire. He called his shows a “circus” based on the round ring he created. He discovered that horses ran best in a circular ring and that the audience had better visualization. After trial and error the perfect size of 42 feet became his standard and is still so today.
His shows grew and within two years he closed his riding school, devoting all his time to perfecting the circus. He added tightrope walkers, jugglers, tumblers, musicians, and yes, clowns. Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre opened in London in 1773, the Parisian one in 1782, and before he was done another 18 would arise in cities throughout Europe. The modern-day circus was born!