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What is a Mountebank?

By Devon Pryor
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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The term mountebank is derived from the Italian, montembanco, which refers to someone who gets up on a bench. Simply put, a mountebank is a peddler, particularly of bogus medicine. In closer association to its Italian derivative montembanco, the term mountebank refers to someone who sells bogus or quack medicine by standing on a pedestal or platform to address and entice an audience of potential quack medicine buyers.

A mountebank is someone who sells by means of deception, who dupes a customer into purchasing a good. Although the term originally pertains to someone who sells dubious medicines, it can also refer more generally to anyone who resorts to spectacle in order to attract buyers. A mountebank could be anyone who participates in flamboyant spectacle, trickery or pretense to obtain an advantage, especially monetary advantage.

Other synonymous names for such a person include charlatan and con artist. More specifically, a charlatan is a boastful pretender of knowledge or skill. In the same sense, a mountebank is someone whose means of beguiling their customer usually takes the form of some pretended knowledge, false knowledge which the potential buyer, presumably, does not share.

It should be understood that, according to original indication, a mountebank does not force his goods on a buyer. Nor does he generally fool a buyer into purchasing something by means of some grand and elaborate scheme. Rather, a mountebank plays upon the desires of people to ascertain the mysterious. A mountebank exploits someone's desire to know what few others know, and to thereby become part of the few.

The quintessential mountebank employs exclusivity and exoticism to attract his customers, and to make them want what he peddles. In this sense, the term mountebank can be applied to anyone who dupes a customer by means of feigning access to the inaccessible, and offering that access to the average person for a price. Within this connotation, one could consider palm readers, psychics, tarot card readers, and spiritual communicators to be species of mountebanks.

This is, of course, a view that would be held by a skeptic of what these people claim to offer their customers. The term mountebank expresses a negative connotation, and refers specifically to someone whose goods and services are untrustworthy and fabricated. Mountebank is a subjective term, a term that applies a qualitative judgment. A skeptic might, therefore, describe anyone who claims to have access, appropriate treatment, or a solution that the skeptic does not trust, as a mountebank.

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Discussion Comments

By serenesurface — On Oct 27, 2011

I guess we could go as far as saying that some salesmen and women are mountebanks. But the original meaning of the term is not really applicable very often anymore. How many of us actually see mountebanks on the street on high ground, trying to sell things? I certainly don't.

I used to see it in Eastern Europe during my childhood though. I never wanted to buy anything from a mountebank but I used to love watching them as a kid. They used to do so many things to grab people's attention.

I remember, one guy was trying to sell this 'natural ointment' that was a cure for all pains, aches, arthritis and injuries. He said that it came from a special tree that only grew in several regions of the world. He had this spatula type of tool and he kept smothering it in the ointment and throwing it in the air and doing tricks with it.

I don't know if anyone bought any, most people were content on just watching him and seeing what he had to say.

By Oceana — On Oct 27, 2011

@lighth0se33 - I suppose they come out of the woodwork around the holidays. I have seen one guy who returns each year with a different product. I guess he has access to an unending source of knowledge.

The first year, he offered to draw portraits for $20 that would reveal something about the person. He would draw seemingly happy people with sad expressions, and he would tell them he saw a secret sadness in their eyes. Since pretty much everyone has some heartbreak in their life, people would respond to this, and often, they would refer family and friends to him.

Another year, he sold a book about how to unlock the full potential of your brain. If you asked him about it, he would not reveal anything specific. That would be detrimental to his sales. He is a true mountebank.

By lighth0se33 — On Oct 26, 2011

I saw a mountebank in the middle of the mall, selling his knowledge in book form. He claimed to have found the fountain of youth, the cure for cancer, and the meaning of life. Conveniently, he had three separate books, each focusing on one topic.

He also had CDs and DVDs for sale, for those customers who prefer to listen or watch rather than read. The books were pretty thick, feeding the illusion that he must really have a lot to say about the subjects.

I would have thought that the mall would have had a “no mountebank” policy, but I guess they will allow anyone who can afford to rent a space sell their goods. At least he didn’t try to trap people as they walked past. He simply waited for them to approach his stand.

Has anyone else seen any “mall mountebanks,” particularly around Christmas time? The gimmicks they come up with never cease to amaze me.

By orangey03 — On Oct 26, 2011

@seag47 - It is sad that many false psychics make everyone believe that they are all mountebanks. I believe that a select few people in this world have the ability to see the future, as well as the skill to decipher things about a person simply by being near them.

There are documented instances in which psychics have been able to provide detailed information to cops, leading to the solving of cases, the finding of bodies, and even the rescue of victims. While the vast majority may actually be mountebanks, the gifted few should not have to endure this label.

By seag47 — On Oct 25, 2011

My friend is all about listening to psychics, but I have tried to tell her that they are mountebanks. Just because they hit upon something in her life by making vague generalizations, she believes they have the power to guide her in her life.

Once, a psychic told her that she saw trouble brewing at work. She also mentioned that she saw a new opportunity on the horizon, and she told my friend that she should take it.

My friend did hate her job, and on the day following her reading, she saw an ad in the paper about a work-at-home opportunity. She immediately quit her job, bought the information packet about the new opportunity, and found out it was all a fraud after investing hundreds of dollars into it.

She had been paying the psychic $50 per reading. So, she was left with almost nothing in her bank account and no job to help refill it.

By robbie21 — On Oct 25, 2011

I'm a big Agatha Christie fan, so when I saw the the term "mountebank," I immediately thought of Hercule Poirot. People are always thinking that he's one, but I was too lazy to look it up, so I never knew how to define mountebank.

Now that I've read the article, I get it! Poirot is a foreigner (Belgian) living in England between the World Wars. He plays on their xenophobia. He already looks different (small, round, with an "egg-shaped" head) and he plays up the difference by dressing in a foreign way (wearing patent leather shoes, for instance) and wearing an extravagant mustache.

So he's playing up the exotic, like the article mentions, but he's doing it to an extent that he becomes a caricature. That way, nobody takes him seriously. People speak more honestly to him than they ever would be an Englishman - because he doesn't "count" somehow - and of course the guilty parties underestimate him.

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