Entertainment & Technology

The Book of Charlatans:13th Century Middle Eastern Con Games

The Spanish Prisoner, Pig in a Poke, The Long Con, the Short Con and Everything In Between…

Grifters, card sharks, hustlers, and ‘yeggs’, mechanics, and hand-guys, the list could go on for ever. If it’s not the oldest profession in the world it is certainly the second. 

We’re talking abut the Con Game. The long con, the short con, and everything in between, the Spanish Prisoner, Pig in a Poke, there are thousands of ways to ‘get over on someone’ and for those of us not in the profession there has always been an inordinate interest in these ‘slicksters’.

Most of us feel that the con game is something fairly new and in that assumption we would be terrible wrong. Looking back on the history of Charlatans you might be surprised at some of the games played as far back as the 12th century. One fellow, trying to convince his cronies he had been blessed with the divine light, had 40 glow worms woven into his hair and with his turban on, looked as though his head was aglow. It astonished the members of his Mosque to the degree that they lay countless coins at his feet.

Glow worms lighting up a cave

In the medieval city of Tinnis, on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, a supposed prophet was legendary for his ability to cure lepers and resurrect the dead. His sanctity was so great that even creatures of the sea would pay him homage. When he strolled along the shore, the fish leapt from the waters to kiss his feet. But the creatures were drawn to something besides his spiritual purity: he had coated his toes with a potion—one part human feces, one part basil, and one part Persian gum resin, all mixed with jasmine oil—that worked like catnip on fish. Hate to have had to wash his socks!

These stories go on and on, and are legends born from mystical tales and shady dealings. 

In a wonderful new book, aptly titled, “The Book Of Charlatans“, written by 13th century author al-Jawbari, there is a compendium of such tales, broken down by devious professions. As the story is told, the emir Rukn al-Din was quite interested in such matters and wanted a book written that would provide a home for a complete list these sordid tales. He chose al-Jawbari, who refused at first, but was later convinced to undertake the project.

“The Book of Charlatans”

A-Jawbari was an interesting fellow whose travels took him from Morocco through the Arabian Peninsula and on into India. Along the way he met many of the ‘underground’ characters that people his book…It is said that he read over 300 different books on the occult and natural sciences, and was out to prove many of these gospel.

Finally, somewhere around the 1220’s, as al-Jawbari was persuaded to write his book, he did so and claimed it was the first time ever that the public would be informed about things mystical and rare. (Hard to argue as there were very few printed books in the 13th Century). 

The book itself is a delight to read. It is a rare collection of fun and  interesting stories broken down into readable chapters, and whether any of it is factual, really makes no matter. 

The Book of Charlatans” is just a ‘darn good read’. From the New York Review of Books;

“The text has now been translated into English for the first time by Humphrey Davies for the bilingual Library of Arabic Literature series, under the title The Book of Charlatans. Organized into thirty chapters by criminal type—from spurious dentists to house thieves—it provides us with an unusual glimpse into the street life of medieval Islamic societies rarely captured in more elevated Arabic literary sources.”.

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