Minstrels and Minstrelsy in Late Medieval England 
by Richard Rastall and Andrew Taylor.
Boydell, 445 pp., £85, April 2023, 978 1 83765 039 2
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Of all​ the medieval people who sound as though they should be made up, Roland le Pettour, also known as Roland le Fartere, must be near the top of the list. An entertainer who worked for Henry II, Roland is recorded in several medieval registers as holding substantial tracts of land north of Ipswich. His yearly service to the king, at least as it has come down to us, was ‘saltum, siflum et pettum’: a jump, a whistle and a fart.

Roland fits poorly with the image of medieval minstrels that later took hold. In the 18th and 19th centuries early entertainers were depicted either as quasi-religious bards who plucked their harps at court while intoning the histories of their people, or as romantic wanderers who earned their keep with love songs. In their own time, however, minstrels were viewed less favourably – at best as figures of some social value and at worst as licentious rogues. The bishop and philosopher John of Salisbury argued in the 12th century that when it came to ‘actors and mimes, clowns and prostitutes, pimps and similar prodigal men’, the ideal prince ‘ought rather to exterminate than to encourage’ them. In a penitential composed around 1216, the theologian Thomas Chobham complained about contortionists, professional flatterers and musicians who went to drinking establishments and inflamed their listeners with obscene songs. (He was kinder to entertainers who sang of saints and princes and comforted the sad and the sick.) The Franciscan Thomas Docking compared performers of false stories to strippers – those who ‘undressed’ in shameful shows – and complained about musicians who enticed their listeners into idleness and lewdness. There were pettier charges too. Various writers bemoaned the way performers corrupted the stories of historical events or legendary figures. A commission in 1442 evaluating the priory at Durham Cathedral investigated accusations that the prior paid entertainers too much.

Despite the scorn directed at minstrels, they were indispensable to medieval society. In The House of Fame, Chaucer imagines Fame living in a castle made of beryl. In the niches he sets every imaginable kind of minstrel, performing stories of woe and of delight – that is, ‘of all that belongs to fame’. Among them are Orpheus playing his harp, the centaur Chiron and a Welsh bard called Glascurion, as well as hosts of lesser harpers. Thousands of other musicians play bagpipes, flutes, clarions and reeds; German pipers demonstrate dance steps; trumpeters provide a ‘bloody’ soundtrack to battle. Chaucer was writing primarily about literary fame, but he recognised that, in a world where literacy was still limited to elites, fame depended on oral performers.

Canny men understood this principle well. Edward III knew that it wasn’t enough to host a round table linking his reign with the legend of King Arthur, as he did at Windsor in 1358. For maximum effect, he also sent heralds to announce the event abroad. Medieval public relations had to be managed just as carefully as their modern equivalents. Edward II tried to curtail minstrel activity, possibly to quash the dissemination of negative songs about him. In an ordinance from 1315, he sought to impose restrictions on the number of minstrels visiting any given household and the kinds of gift they could demand for their service. By contrast, William de Longchamp, lord chancellor in the late 12th century, tried to improve his public image by writing his own praise poems and paying French musicians to sing them in the streets.

Medieval minstrels left few written traces, and the references that do appear in texts from the period already carry a whiff of nostalgia. But a new book co-authored by Richard Rastall and Andrew Taylor sheds some light on the ways they worked and lived. Rastall and Taylor begin by explaining what minstrels were (no simple task). The word comes from the Anglo-Norman menestral, which could refer to a travelling musician or storyteller, or to an artisan or functionary. It is related to the Latin minister, another person who serves in an office. At the most basic level, a minstrel was someone who provided entertainment involving music, or musical accompaniment for specific events. But as the book shows, the job of a minstrel changed depending on time and circumstance, and involved a number of tasks that would rarely fall to a musician today. The other words used also confuse the matter. In some documents a minstrel is called a histrio or a mimus, terms that in classical Latin refer to actors, though medieval minstrels were not usually stage actors. Elsewhere, they appear as squires (scutiferi) or yeomen (valetti). On the battlefield, the work of a minstrel may have overlapped with that of a herald – issuing proclamations, carrying messages, identifying the dead – and some men seem to have done both jobs.

Minstrels provided art as entertainment, but also, in a time before the mechanical production and reproduction of sound, laboured to make a wide range of noises appropriate for various occasions. There were two basic types of musical accompaniment. Loud or ‘haut’ minstrelsy was for outdoors or large rooms, and featured instruments such as trumpets, horns and tabors (snare drums). Loud minstrelsy might include fanfares and military signals, heraldic announcements, and the sounds used to drive game and communicate during a hunt. Soft or ‘bas’ minstrelsy – also known as ‘still’ minstrelsy – was performed indoors and used quieter instruments such as harps, lutes and fiddles. Indoor musicians worked at feasts, announcing the courses and playing music while guests ate and danced. Those rich enough to be able to afford the services of a professional musician could relax by listening to music in private quarters.

But minstrels did more than merely play songs. Some worked as bearwards, who cared for and trained dancing bears, or waferers, who were employed by large households to bake sweet wafers and distribute them at the end of banquets, possibly with some amusing patter. They were natural messengers, spies, diplomats and propagandists. Minstrels could also moonlight. At Durham Priory, Thomas Harper was equipped with a harp in the 1330s, but he was also paid for carpentry work. Minstrels serving their princes at times of war might pick up weapons when necessary.

In a fascinating section on urban minstrelsy, Rastall (who wrote most of the chapters) draws on records from civic authorities and guilds to describe some of the duties assigned to minstrels employed by towns. They were paid for their work through regular taxation and appeared at both special events and ordinary functions. They accompanied town ceremonies and processions on saints’ days, the most festive and expensive of which was Corpus Christi. When a town received a noble or royal visitor, minstrels were essential to the elaborate performance that welcomed and instructed them. In April 1474, the future Edward V was conducted through six stations or ‘sights’ at Coventry, each presenting an allegorical scene and accompanied by music chosen for its symbolic weight. A display featuring the three Magi had the music of ‘small pipes’, possibly the bagpipes often used to lead pilgrims on their journeys. A scene in which St George rescued a princess from a dragon – meant to be read as Christ’s salvation of souls from Satan – was accompanied by heavenly organ music. Given that Edward was then three years old, the nuances of the arrangement probably escaped him.

Civic musicians took on more humble work too. Horn-blowers (usually an occupation in its own right) announced proclamations and called the townsfolk to assembly. As ‘waits’, minstrels kept the night watch, calling the hours, warning of windy conditions in port cities and filling the darkness with melody. The better-off locals could even pay musicians to wake them at a particular hour, ‘a sort of musical alarm clock’. Medieval illuminations show that minstrels played at bath houses, where sex workers often operated (the financial records here are missing). They also provided ‘rough music’ to help humiliate criminals on their way to the pillory.

Minstrels and Minstrelsy pays careful attention to the working conditions of medieval entertainers. Rastall has made extensive use of the University of Toronto’s Records of Early English Drama project, which aims to document all evidence of drama and entertainment in England, Wales and Scotland until 1642, when Parliament ordered the closure of London theatres. REED’s sources are mostly bureaucratic, consisting of cathedral statutes, letters of complaint, minutes of meetings, legal statutes and many, many account books. Rastall draws an almost overwhelming amount of information from this archive, but by tracing individuals across records, he also succeeds in giving a rough outline of a few minstrels’ careers.

This is complicated by spotty records and confusing names. There were three minstrels called John Cliff, possibly relatives. The second of them, John Cliff of Coventry, was given a silver scutcheon and two nakers (kettledrums) by John of Gaunt in 1381. Later he accompanied Henry V on one of his French campaigns. Instead of being paid directly for his wartime service, Cliff received securities. These included ‘a reading desk of silver, over gilt, the foot of it in the fashion of a tabernacle, standing on four feet; two ewers of silver gilt, one enamelled with the arms of England and France, the other with harts; a table with various relics in it, standing on two lions – weighing together, 26 lb 6 oz’. Nineteen years later, after Cliff and his wife had both died, the items were finally redeemed for wages by executors.

Minstrels’ employers – royal households, noble families and religious institutions as well as towns – each had needs particular to their business. The queen would have lutenists play to her and her ladies, but had little use for loud minstrelsy; the king’s minstrels, by contrast, worked at the ceremonial events where it was required. Religious houses might have minstrels perform at a saint’s feast day, or play music for celebratory dances, such as the one that took place at St Paul’s Cathedral to mark the birth in 1312 of the future Edward III. There were other, highly specific functions. Records show that there was a common practice of minstrels performing in front of images of the Virgin in church, sometimes while nobles were giving alms. The king’s minstrels would play during meetings with visiting dignitaries, and Rastall suggests that one of their roles was to drown out the sound of private conversations at large events. When the king was travelling, minstrels signalled his location to the rest of the household, rather like a medieval tracking device. And in stressful situations, minstrels sometimes served by soothing their employers. In 1297, a harper called Meliorus was rewarded by Edward I for ‘making his minstrelsy before the king for several days at the time of the king’s bloodletting at Plumpton’. Another harper was paid in 1337 for spending time with Edward of Woodstock during a childhood illness.

Employers had to provide minstrels with instruments and livery, which meant more than simply uniforms. Livery included carefully calculated quantities of bread and ale (minstrels ate in the hall, but would be supplied with extra rations if illness or their duties kept them from coming to meals). It also included bedding, candles, fuel, and supplies for minstrels’ horses. Royal employers provided allowances for shoes, as well as fur and cloth for minstrels to make their own garments. They typically gave out new robes at Christmas, Pentecost and special events such as weddings and coronations, and the king supplied the metal collars that members of his household – not only minstrels, but also knights and lords – might be required to wear. There is evidence of employers arranging a comfortable retirement for minstrels too old to work: a property to provide an elderly musician with an income for life or maintenance in a religious house.

Some minstrels were expected to be on the job at all times; others worked on rotation, performing at major feasts before returning home or earning extra money on the road. Minstrels also moved from one employer to another. This might be an internal promotion, as when a musician moved from the queen’s household or that of the prince of Wales to work directly for the king. Since minstrels often performed for guests or in public, they could also be hired – or poached – by those impressed by their skills. A number of minstrels worked in pairs, living, playing instruments and managing their finances together.

Minstrels had to learn to play their instruments, of course, and like much musical education today, this happened through individual instruction. The teacher might be a family member already in the business, or a professional paid for the purpose. In 1482, the Colchester harper John Colet signed an agreement for his son to spend a year learning harping and singing with William Wastell in London, presumably to polish skills the boy had already learned at home. There is, according to Rastall, no evidence that written music was used in minstrels’ education: budding musicians would have learned the repertory from more experienced ones. An example of what this teaching might have involved comes from the papers of George Cely, a merchant who worked for the Company of the Staple in Calais in the 1470s. Cely recorded in a small booklet the sums he spent on music and dancing lessons with the harper Thomas Rede. His tuition covered forty dances on the harp or the lute, seven songs, different ways of tuning the harp and ‘bills of footing’ that seem to have been paper instructions for dance steps. Cely also paid Rede to service his harp and for a class to refresh his knowledge of the songs that accompanied the dances. Cely was an amateur performer, but his papers indicate the kind of training required to build up a repertoire.

Minstrels learned from one another, especially when they travelled. Informal mentorships allowed them to observe the protocols of a noble household. They also furthered their education at minstrel schools. Usually held during Lent in Germany, France and the Low Countries, these were ‘high-powered meetings at which very experienced performers could meet, exchange ideas, buy instruments, learn the newest songs, styles and techniques, and test the job market’. The costs were covered by employers: a record from February 1289 refers to a fiddler called Merlin and two bagpipers, Barber and Morlanus, ‘given leave to go to the schools of minstrelsy overseas, by gift of the king himself to help with their expenses’.

The picture that emerges in Minstrels and Minstrelsy is of a professionalised and bureaucratised work culture. On the road, minstrels’ itineraries were predictable; they followed established routes and targeted lucrative events that took place year after year. Records from the city of York and Durham Priory show regular stays by minstrels, whose pay was pegged to their status. The king’s minstrels earned the most; their rank was legible from their livery, but this could easily be abused by impostors. In 1449, Henry VI instructed a group of royal minstrels to inquire into cases of unskilled ‘husbandmen and craftsmen’ who arrived on festival days pretending to be his musicians. Towns had a budget for visiting minstrels, so the fake minstrels were essentially defrauding real ones of income. Minstrels also undertook their own initiatives to protect their rights. In the 15th century, they founded a number of minstrel fraternities, guilds that provided financial aid to members who had fallen on hard times and restricted the work of entertainers from outside the area by levying fines or seizing instruments.

As the case of George Cely demonstrates, professional minstrels weren’t the only people telling stories or making music in this period. Before the invention of the phonograph, the most accessible entertainment was that which you provided for yourself. The statutes for Winchester College in the 1390s allowed scholars to stay in the hall after dinner on winter nights and share poems, songs and histories. Edward IV’s household management book shows that squires were expected to entertain themselves and guests in a similar way, by ‘talking of chronicles of kings … or in piping, or harping, singing or other martial acts’. The king’s closest attendants were trained for these duties by the Master of the Henchmen (who also taught them manners, dancing, riding and languages), suggesting that musical education was a matter for the whole court.

Not everyone in the Middle Ages appreciated noise at all hours. In 1306, the tailors of Oxford decided to celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist, according to their custom. They stayed up late in their shops, singing and playing fiddles, harps and any other instruments they had, possibly led by professional musicians. After midnight, they decided to dance in the High Street. A clerk called Gilbert Foxlee objected to the merriment, however, and appeared with an unsheathed sword. Some of the musicians attempted to calm him, but when he threatened to cut off William de Cleydon’s hand he was rushed and stabbed by a group of men. He died from his injuries eight weeks later.

In the Middle English romance Sir Cleges, an Arthurian knight squanders his fortune by giving lavish feasts. He is particularly generous to minstrels, who leave his hall with horses, robes and rings. His wealth gone, Cleges is soon forgotten by his friends. At Christmas, he prays to God for help, and finds a bough of miraculously ripe cherries in his garden. He decides to take them to the king’s court as a gift. When he arrives, dressed in rags, the servants treat him cruelly. But the royal harper recognises him: ‘Sometime men called him Cleges,’ he explains to the king, and the knight’s fortune and reputation are restored at once. Whatever role minstrels played in medieval society, the poem makes one thing clear: entertainers remembered those who paid them well.

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