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Moutebanks and Snake-Oil Sellers as Dramatic Artists

Tuesday, July 9, 2024 - 21:30

This is a fascinating article drawing connections between early modern "traveling medicine show" performers and more commedia traditions, as well as simply recognizing the mountebank tradition as a form of theater. And, of course, we're intersted in the parts women played in this profession.

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Mirabella, Bella. 2005. “’Quacking Delilahs’: Female Mountebanks in Early Modern England and Italy” in Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown & Peter Parolin. Ashgate, Burlington. ISBN 978-0-7546-0953-7

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Although this collection does have one paper addressing female homoeroticism on stage, I have covered it primarily as background reading for exploring role-playing and stage theatrics as a context for romance tropes involving female couples.

Mirabella - ’Quacking Delilahs’: Female Mountebanks in Early Modern England and Italy

In the era before, women were accepted on the professional stage, they performed in less formal venues – squares, fairs, street corners, inn courtyards, and such – the venue of mountebanks. Typically, this was not as the primary performer, and therefore we must search more carefully for the evidence. The underlying purpose of these vaudeville-like mountebank performances, was to sell non-professional, medical treatments: folk or “quack” remedies. [Note: in this write-up I’m going to use “quack” to cover the entire range both of products and vendors, but the term had a broader sense of “traditional medicine” rather than the specific implication of fake and ineffective cures that it has today.]

Performance had the multifaceted role of drawing and holding potential customers, convincing customers of the efficacy of treatment, and offering spectacles of cures as entertainment. Performances could include dancing, music, acrobatics, and (always) glib patter. It might include faked illnesses or injuries, healed before the audience, and even spectacles such as snake handling. [Note: Also toad-eating, whence, by analogy, the term toad-eater, or toadie for a fawning, obedient follower.] Mountebanks usually traveled and performed in groups, and women are depicted participating as dancers, musicians, and participants in physical comedy.

Mountebanks (by various names) were common throughout Europe – the word mountebank coming from Italian montimbanco “to mount the stage”. (This article covers research into mountebanks in both England and Italy, so some observations may apply only to one or the other.) They made their living by selling quack cures, but part of the audience might buy them, not for their efficacy, but in exchange for the performance. Sometimes the sales portion of the event would be followed by a play. In Italy, there was overlap between mountebank performances, and Commedia dell’ Arte, both in personnel/context and in dramatic content, with commedia plays often using the themes of quack doctors and cures.

The popularity of the Italian commedia/mountebank performances was due in part to the presence of female performers. One famous performer La Vettoria is described as dancing and doing acrobatics “dressed like a trim and neat boy”. Female performers were – in popular thought – considered to sideline as whores, using the sales portion of the event to set up assignations. In turn, male mountebanks were considered to turn their glib tongues to seduction as well as sales. But female participants were not always treated as sex-workers on the side. The aforementioned La Vettoria went home under escort after performances to protect her from her fans.

Other women are described simply as performing, or in some cases, as selling their own quack cures, as well as serving as sales personnel for a male quack. In some cases, a husband and wife team formed the core of a mountebank troupe. There are cases of a mountebank’s widow continuing the trade on her own. Female sellers were especially useful for a female clientele, offering advice and cures for gynecological issues, as well as cosmetics and cures for bad breath, and “the ill scent of the arm pits”. (There is a discussion of how women’s economic and social activities have been erased in much scholarship, which treats them as accessories to their husbands rather than equal partners.)

Civic authorities treated quack doctors and mountebanks as an essential part of the healthcare landscape. Acts were passed authorizing them, and local authorities permitted and licensed their performances. At the same time, medical professionals criticized their trade, and legal penalties for traveling performers were applied to unlicensed mountebanks. Legal records thus provide another source of data for identifying specific female quack/performance.

Both the public image and the reality of mountebanks ranged from knowledgeable folk healers to harmless entertainment to dangerous fraud. Women were, of course, excluded from the formal medical professions so, however knowledgeable and efficacious they might be, they were automatically classified with mountebanks and quacks. Female practitioners came in for especially vicious criticism from professionals, as they not only infringed on the medical profession, but on male spheres of authority.

In addition to traveling mountebanks, some providers of quack or folk remedies offered similar performances in the context of a fixed shop, or from their homes. A fixed location provided the opportunity for more elaborate “stage dressing” for the performance, including anatomical displays of skeletons and such.

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