What does mountebank mean and Where does the word “mountebank” come from?

Much of the business of Italian cities of the Middle Ages was conducted upon benches placed in the streets or public squares, especially in Venice.

The Italian word for bench, banca, accounts for our English word “bank.”

Usually the business thus conducted in public was of the ordinary serious nature, but there were also itinerant quacks in those days, just as there are today.

Such men knew, as others had known from the beginning of time, that the best way to get folks to buy their wares was to attract a crowd, and the best way to attract a crowd was to put on a show.

Juggling was the favorite performance, but in order to be seen to better advantage, the juggler would, of course, step up upon a bench if one were nearby, perhaps at the shouted request of someone in his audience.

The Italian for such a request is “Monta in banco (Climb upon a bench).” Quacks soon realized that it was to their advantage to have a bench nearby upon which to mount, and even to get on it before being asked. Hence they came to be known as montimbancos, altered to mountebank in England.

Sometimes the quack was assisted by a professional clown, or by a rope-dancer, or an acrobat, or a ballad singer, and sometimes in their wanderings the mountebanks would accumulate a considerable show, somewhat on the order of a traveling vaudeville.

The majority, however, traveled alone or with one or two assistants. Some English writers in the seventeenth century tried to bring the Italian term saltimbanco into the language.

This, from the Italian saltare, to leap, was applied especially to the charlatans who performed upon their platforms or benches by dancing, leaping, or tumbling.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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