The circus


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Texts written by Pascal Jacob

Rosine Lagier collections


The word circus comes from the Latin, “circus” which means circle and represents both a place and a show.   

An initiative by demobilized service man, Sergeant Major Philip Astley gave rise to the modern circus in London in 1768. This was the beginning of a spectacular enterprise, where man and beast would perform unusual feats together and which saw the magnificent static circuses built throughout the 19th century replaced by ever more impressive canvas structures over the course of the next century. It is a story of horses and riders, a dramatic saga during which men and women brave heights and fly, objects defy the laws of gravity and audiences the world over marvel at these feats, tirelessly repeated. For two hundred and forty one years both acrobats and big tops have followed the daily routine of setting up and taking down, ever since the day which marked the beginning of the circus when a leather-booted man dressed in red sped off, balanced atop a galloping horse around a simple circle drawn in the grass and dust of a river bank to the amazement and admiration of the panel of spectators. 

Throughout the first two centuries of its existence, the circus was continually evolving. From the 1970s there was a radical change in time-honoured techniques, leading to the advent of a new style of circus which was both strong and symbolic, spectacular and grounded, but also aware of its history and resolutely focused on the future. Within forty years the circus had undergone an aesthetic and technical revolution quite unlike any previous developments. Supported by the growth in circus schools, which were mainly French-speaking, this transformation enabled an increasing number of companies to be set up and facilitated aesthetic developments. Circus arts, which originated in France, spread to the four corners of the world: a new conquest in new lands... 


Although the circus came into being in the 18th century, it did not offer very much which did not already exist. We must go back several thousand years to witness certain ceremonial rituals in Africa, Egypt in particular and more specifically Asia and especially China, to understand the origins of acrobatics and its various ramifications over time. The development of acrobatics originated in rites involving imitating animal behaviour. In order to persuade the Gods to ensure the hunters came across the most prey, the group would imitate certain animals as explicitly as possible, using feathers, horns and skins to make it even more realistic and to dispel any remaining doubts in the minds of the benevolent powers. Many of the prey were characterised by their speed, strength, agility and grace and by choosing the most talented members of the clan to imitate each one, these men would, little by little, become just as skilled as the animals. Understanding these strange skills encouraged men to compete to be the most accurate and the most talented. When the first societies left behind their nomadic, hunter-gatherer origins to become sedentary breeders and farmers, these sacred practices slowly became secular pleasures. This gave rise to some of the core disciplines in the history of acrobatics. Chinese poles, which is a popular circus act nowadays, originally comes from climbing fruit trees and man's quest to be more agile and quicker than any rivals by climbing to the top of the tree as quickly as possible to pick the coveted fruit. Born out of necessity, some contributed in this way to establishing a genuine acrobatic technique which became part of the repertoire of the most demanding physical feats, but above all a pretext for a range of complex and spectacular figures. As they slowly spread throughout the West by means of the Silk Routes, these tests of skill, balance and strength contributed towards building a common heritage, and a living repertoire of poses and figures which lead to mutual developments over the course of meetings and encounters. 

Street entertainers

Around the 10th century, a whole population who were the victims of persecution and often starvation, set off on the biggest migration in its history. Organised into troops with several dozen individuals, the Tziganes left India in search of a more hospitable land where their children could grow up free from famine and danger. They travelled for thousands of miles and several groups managed to reach Europe in the 14th century.  Those who crossed over the lands of Sigismund of Bohemia, a king who was sympathetic with their plight, were given the status of Bohemians, whereas the less fortunate ones were regarded with suspicion by the sedentary populations.  The Tziganes had strange powers and interesting secrets:  they could make bears and monkeys dance, talk to horses, dance on tight ropes and contort their bodies gracefully.  They came across Western street entertainers at fair grounds and occasionally taught them some of their skills.  The word “saltimbanque” (street entertainer) comes from the ancient Italian term “saltare in banco”, meaning jump on a bench, a platform or trestle tables. From this generic word comes “banquette”, the wooden surround to the ring, or “banque”, a group of acrobats performing a banquine, and the acrobatic discipline of banquine itself.  Little by little, the “Great Western Banque” was founded, bringing together countless “banquistes” from ever more varied origins, ancestors of some of the greatest modern circus dynasties.     

In the 17th and 18th centuries, street entertainers used fairs as a place to perform.  Those in Saint Germain, Saint Laurent and Saint Ovide in Paris were vast areas devoted to leisure, combining science, trade and shows in equal measure.  Charlatans offering to satisfy passers-by with ointments and miraculous powders often employed one or more street entertainers to help them attract a crowd in front of their stand.  A jump, a couple of pirouettes and a few steps on a tight rope was enough to attract an interested audience who would listen to the sales pitch, hoping to see more tricks at the end of the presentation of potions.  At the Saint Germain Fair there were several hundred stalls where thousands of living or lifeless wares were on offer. The rhinoceros on show in 1749 was the first of its kind in Paris and its exotic nature made it a huge success.

In the second half of the 18th century, as the fairs were slowly being prohibited, tight rope walkers, jugglers and acrobats joined forces with vaulters, sometimes even through real marriages:  the modern circus was born.     

Philip Astley

A ring for a horse

History is cruel. It has forgotten all but one name: that of Philip Astley. And yet, when he roped off a circular performance area on a piece of land near the Thames in Lambeth, London, he was not the first to do so. Riders such as Johnson, Wolton, Bates and Simpson had already held horse shows in fields and marketplaces, stunning crowds with their audacious tricks. Some had even worked in circular spaces and had been known to intersperse their equestrian displays with other attractions. But most of these riders only ever met with limited success. Astley seems to be the first to have started treating his activities as a real business. Very quickly, he decided to protect his “feats of horsemanship” using a wooden enclosure, which forced spectators to buy tickets if they wished to attend. Little by little, he brought the circus in line with theatre and ballet, eventually constructing an edifice devoted solely to his shows. The very first permanent circus built to house equestrian and acrobatic shows had a circular performance area 13 meters wide – chosen so that the radius would match the riders' 6.5-meter lunging whips, which were essential for controlling the horses' pace.  A particular chain of events allowed Astley's achievements to became established all over the world when Charles Hughes, a rider from his own troupe, followed suit and emerged as his first serious competitor after opening London's second permanent circus. Hughes went on to spread the word about the modern circus to Russia, and became a favourite of Catherine the Great. In turn, John Bill Ricketts, one of the former’s riders, set sail for America in 1792 and set down the roots of the circus there. As well as being simple, dynamic, and capable of drawing all kinds of audiences, this new type of show imposed relatively few constraints: it was based on physical performances and so required no language, and the space in which it was carried could easily be recreated anywhere in the world that artists could be found. The circus was set to become a global phenomenon.

What's in a name...?

The term “circus” was primarily used as a popular synonym for “disorder”; its French form, “cirque”, could just as easily refer to a geographical basin as to a performance or a type of building. Philip Astley, the so-called father of the modern circus, never used this word for his shows. In fact, striving for a level of credibility that his equestrian displays alone could not create, after a few years in business, he chose to christen his enterprise the Royal Amphitheatre of Arts, and the word circus never besmirched this fine institution's name...Astley may have invented the concept behind the modern circus, then, but it was given its name by his immediate rival, Charles Hughes, in partnership with Charles Didbin, the writer of plays and pantomimes. The two were quick to present a staunch response to the Royal Amphitheatre in the form of their own Royal Circus, opened in 1782. In France, the word circus was not really used to front an establishment of this sort until 1807, when the Franconi brothers opened their Cirque Olympique. Peculiarly enough, at almost the same time, in 1805, the Royal Circus closed and the word circus became less seen on English buildings for some time. 

However, after a number of years of experimentation and development, including several test runs with different names, the circus – both the performance and the building which housed it – took on its modern name for good, and numerous variants soon cropped up in all four corners of the Western world: “circo”, “circul”, “sirkus”, “circus”, “zirkus”, “unpk” and “cyrk”.


Philip Astley was a builder by nature. The history books credit him with the construction of 19 permanent circuses across Europe, where his troupes of riders and acrobats performed. In 1774, he crossed the English Channel and went to present his new kind of show in Paris. He performed in the grounds of an indoor school, assuming a strong link with academic equestrianism, and enjoyed a certain success. In 1783, he returned to France, but this time, he had a building constructed specially to cater to the demands of his equestrian exercises: thus, the Rue du Faubourg du Temple became home to France's first ever permanent circus. Astley's son, John, took charge of the new establishment and worked to encourage public interest in Paris – and France as a whole – in trick-riding, balancing acts and acrobatics.

Nonetheless, it was a Venetian gentleman called Antonio Franconi who was really to be responsible for the rise of the circus in France. In 1782, he was exiled as the result of a duel which had gone wrong, and took refuge in France. There, he started by organising a combat arena in Lyon, before finally moving to Paris and offering his services to Philip Astley as a canary tamer. When events surrounding the French Revolution forced the British entrepreneur to leave the capital in a hurry, Franconi took the reins of the Astley Amphitheatre. Together with his two sons, Laurent and Henri, he developed the establishment's equestrian repertoire whilst enriching its programme with new attractions. In 1807, for the first time in France, the word circus was displayed on a building to announce a performance: the Franconis' Cirque Olympique presented trick-riding shows in the same vein as those of Astley and Hughes, but added theatrical aspects such as historical pantomimes, vast reconstructions of Napoleonic victories which created an implicit link between the circus and power.  

Eugène de Beauharnais, the Emperor's son-in-law, was a frequent audience member at the Cirque Olympique...  Philip Astley passed away in 1814; his son, John, in 1821. With them the first dynasty of the history of the modern circus disappeared. Be that as it may, the art form introduced by English riders in 1768 has never stopped developing, carried to the furthest corners of the earth by performers with extraordinary talents.  Antonio Franconi died in 1837, but he left a vast family behind, and some of his descendants continue to work in the circus to this day...

Texts written by Pascal Jacob, a major circus arts collector and enthusiast and the author of many works dedicated to the history of the circus and its disciplines.