Magic tricks are about much more than smoke and mirrors. Throughout history, illusions and sleights of hand have come to address and reflect not only advancements in technology, but also particular perceptions, fears, and anxieties of the public in their day. This is what makes the study of illusionism so interesting to humanities and social science researchers in the modern world.
Read on to learn what one humanities professor is discovering about the history of magic, and what the world of illusions reveals about the world around you—the world you’ll study in humanities school.
1000-1500: Modern Magic’s Early Stages in the Middle Ages
Peter Lamont is the researcher behind this new study placing the history of magic in a cultural context. He is currently a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Edinburgh, but his career has also given him an insider look at magic’s performative properties as a president of the Edinburgh Magic Circle.
His magic studies begin in the Middle Ages, a time when “magicians astonished people by making a coin disappear,” he explains.
At a time when magic was associated with the occult and witchcraft, the growing trading nature of society allowed street performers to astonish passers-by with great effect. They could elicit stronger emotional responses from disappearing coins than they could previously have done with cups and balls, the stand-by trick of the earliest magicians. Some performers even made a living out of disappearing coins and other small valuables, as modern ideas like property rights and cheating by short-changing came into public consciousness.
Today’s audiences hold the same ideas to heart, so “we still find it astonishing they can make a coin disappear,” says Lamont. “They can still astonish audiences who are increasingly hard to astonish.”
Victorian Era Humanities Studies: Unpacking the Golden Age of Illusionists
Victorian England is best known as a strictly austere time of scientific discovery and industrial advancements. When studied for its magic, however, the era reveals a society enamoured with the supernatural. Along with the advancement of humanities studies and natural sciences studies, came the notion of “natural magic”—magic brought to light by the scientific discoveries of the day.
Fashionable Victorians hosted magicians to entertain guests with “parlour magic,” illusionists sold out theatres, and machines built to solve mathematical problems were billed as a form of “modern witchery” called “mathemagic.” Electricity and mechanical automata made audiences believe performers could disappear, levitate, and conjure spirits out of the ether.
In the words of Roger Luckhurst, historian with the British Library: “Because the advancements in science were so rapid, the natural and the supernatural often became blurred in public thinking. It was a golden age of belief in supernatural forces and energies, ghost stories, weird transmissions and spooky phenomena.”
Using Humanities Studies and History to Enrich the Magic of Today
Lamont’s studies go on to explore the psychological science behind magic trends stemming from the Victorian Age, from mesmerism to mind-reading and beyond. Students who pursue humanities programs will encounter work by researchers like Lamont who participate in the deep critical analysis of social customs. Lamont is even producing exhibitions along with his research, allowing humanities students to experience “authentic historical recreations of specific magic effects.”
According to Lamont, historical and cultural context are integral to successful magic “because magicians are constantly adapting to different audiences, who know different things.”
Although today’s young magicians may try to develop their skills by watching magicians on YouTube, Lamont believes “those experienced and knowledgeable about magic think the history is important. The more history and theory we have in magic, the more we can be creative and produce richer and more satisfying performances.”
If you’re interested in taking closer looks at modern and historical phenomena like magic, humanities programs at liberal arts colleges might be for you.
At a liberal arts college in Chicago, you can hone your critical thinking and research skills while learning about a wide range of spellbinding topics. Does this speak to you?
Visit Shimer for more information about getting started!