Jigging dolls are jointed figures with a greater or lesser degree of articulation. Since dancing is their major activity, the legs may be jointed at the hip, knee and foot, although many have no more than a hip joint. Arms often hang freely and sometimes consist of no more than a hand at the end of a sleeve. Such figures are found in many societies and go back to the very distant past. It is also not always clear when they were toys and when they were used for some form of entertainment, or even divination. Manipulation is very simple and depends mainly on shaking or causing a vibration that makes the limbs fly around, but a good performer can obtain some amazingly lifelike effects.
Jigging dolls fall under two main headings: those which have a string passing through the body and whose movements depend on the tension of that string, and those with a short rod fixed to the back or head, or sometimes a simple wire suspending the figure whose movements depend upon being held over a vibrating piece of wood.
A well-known 12th-century woodcut shows two boys playing with a pair of knights, each mounted on a string running through the body. In Catalan-Provençal areas by the 16th century a common word was “bavastel”, which seems to have referred to such figures and is cognate with the Italian word “bagatelle” which later became more specifically associated with the glove puppet. The Italian Gerolamo Cardano (1510-1576) mentions a show performed by two Sicilians in his book De varietate rerum, published in 1557. He uses the word “magatellos” (another variant of “bagatelle”) and describes these as small wooden figures that performed dancing, singing, fighting and tricks and were accompanied by instruments. By the 18th century such figures seem to have been a common entertainment by street buskers, who also played an instrument such as a bagpipe or hurdy-gurdy. These are best-known today by the French term “planchette” puppets, and are so-called because the musician had them mounted on a string attached at one end to an upright fixed into a piece of wood (or planchette) and at the other to his own knee. Movement of the leg controlled the tension of the string and made the figures, usually in pairs, dance.
A gouache of 1739 by J. Dumont le Rom and J. Daullé depicts a bagpiper using a male and female figure. In addition he is accompanied by a little girl playing a hurdy-gurdy. In Paris, up to the 1900s, buskers (particularly poor children of Italian, and often Savoyard, origin) drew crowds to street corners with their “planchette” puppets. Such performances are described in an article in the Magasin Pittoresque of 1846, illustrated by Gavarni: “Who of you has not seen, on the corner of some street, a youth of this sort from Piedmont dressed in rags, with his high Italian haircut, “planchette” puppets and his alert and searching expression …in front of the narrow plank where the fife and tambourine music makes these strange puppets dance. What a joy it is when the boy moves his knee more briskly, forcing their dance into increasingly dramatic movements, throwing the dancers into the air simultaneously, crashing them together, tangling and twirling, before sending them flying as they smack their backs on the pavement or graze their foreheads on the gutter!”
The “planchette” puppet can often be seen today in use by street buskers of varying degrees of skill. It has had its most spectacular revival with the Flemish company Theater Taptoe in 1982.
A variant of the technique can be found in Côte d’Ivoire where small figures are mounted on strings held between the toes of the feet of the performer (usually a boy). In this case the performer is not usually a musician and there is no board or “planchette” (see Toe/Foot Puppet.)
The second type of jigging doll usually performs on a piece of wood that is held at one end by the performer sitting on it. Quite often it has a paddle shape with a narrow central section and a wider end over which the figure is held. With his free hand the performer taps the plank and the dance is accompanied by the audible effect of the wooden feet touching the plank.
Such figures can be found amongst other places in Britain and Ireland, Portugal, North America, and rural Iran. Today this type of jigging puppet, which was very popular in the early 20th century, has taken on strong folkloric associations.
One of the best exponents of this type of jigging doll, as well as the “planchette” figures, is the Flemish musician and puppeteer Chris Geris, whose wife, Mieke, generally accompanies him on a hurdy-gurdy.