1902 Encyclopedia > Minstrel


MINSTREL. The " minstrels," according to Bishop Percy, " were an order of men in the Middle Ages who united the arts of poetry and music, and sang verses to the harp of their own composing, who appear to have accompanied their songs with mimicry and action, and to have practised such various means of diverting as were much admired in those rude times, and supplied the want of more refined entertainments." This conception of the "minstrel " has been generally- accepted in England ever since Percy published his Reliques of Ancient Poetry, which he gave to the world as the products of the genius of these anonymous popular poets and harpers. The name has been fixed in the language by the usage of romantic poets and novelists ; Scott's " last minstrel " and Moore's " minstrel boy " were minstrels in Percy's sense of the word. The imagination was fascinated by this romantic figure, and the laborious and soured antiquary Ritson argued in vain that nobody before Bishop Percy had ever applied the word minstrel to such an order of men, that no such order of men ever did exist in medimval England, and that the historical English "minstrels," so-called, were a much less gifted and respectable class, being really instrumental musicians, either retainers or strollers.

The dispute between Ritson and Percy was partly a dispute about a word, and partly a dispute about historical facts; and there can be little doubt that Ritson was substantially right in both respects. The romantic bishop transferred to the media English minstrel the social status and brilliant gifts of the Anglo-S6.xon gleoman or scop, and the French troubadour in the flourishing period of Provencal poetry. That thegleemen sang to the harp verses of their own composing, that some of them travelled from court to court as honoured guests, while others were important attached court officials, and all received costly presents, is a well attested historical fact. The household bard at Heorot in the poem of Beowulf, a man who bore many things in mind and found skilfully linked words to express them, was one of King Hrothgar's thanes ; the gleeman of the Traveller's Song had visited all the tribal chiefs of Europe, and received many precious gifts, rings and bracelets of gold. The incidents in these poems may not. be historic, but they furnish indubitable testimony to the social position of the gleeman in those days ; a successful gleeman was as much honoured as a modern poet-laureate, and as richly rewarded as a fashionable prima donna. Further, the strolling &e-man of a humbler class seems to have been respected as a non-combatant ; this much we may infer from the stories about Alfred and Anlaff having penetrated an enemy's camp in the disguise of gleemen, whether these stories are true or not, for otherwise they would not have been invented. The position of poets and singers in Provence from the 11th to the 13th century is still clearer. The classification of them by King Alphonso of Castile in 1273, by which time honourable designations were getting mixed, may help to determine the exact position of the English " minstrel." There was first the lowest class, the bufos, who strolled among the common people, singing ribald songs, playing on instruments, showing feats of skill and strength, exhibiting learned dogs and goats, and so forth ; then the joglars or joculat.ores, who played, sang, recited, conjured, men of versatile powers of entertainment, who performed at the houses of the nobility, and were liberally remunerated ; then the trobadors, or inventores, whose distinction it was to compose verses, whether or not they had sufficient executive faculty to sing or recite them.

If we compare these distinctions with Percy's definition of the minstrel, we see that his minstrel would have corresponded with the joy/ar, who also wrote his own songs and recitations. Now in the palmy days of Provencal song there were many professional joglars, such as Arnaut Daniel or Perdigo, who stood high among the most brilliant troubadours, and visited on terms of social equality with nobles and princes. But long before English became the court language the fashion had disappeared, and a new division of functions had been developed. In Chaucer'stime the poet of society no longer sang his verses to harp or fiddle, or amused his patrons with feats of legerdemain ; the king's gestour (teller of gestes) discharged the professional duty of amusing with witty stories ; and the social position of the joglar had very much sunk. Ritson was perfectly right in saying that no English poet of any social position was a professional reciter to the harp of verses of his own composing. The Provencal joglar, travelling from court to court, combined our modern functions of poet, society journalist, entertainer, and musician. But about the time when the word " minstrel " came to be applied to him the English joglar was rapidly sinking or had already sunk to the social position of the modern strolling mountebank, travelling showman, or music-hall singer. And the word minstrel had had a separate history before it became synonymous (as in the Cut/tohem Anglieum of 1483) with gesticulator, histrio, joculator, and other names for strolling entertainers. Derived from the Low Latin ministralis, it was originally applied to those retainers whose business it was to play upon musical instruments for the entertainment of their lords. In Chaucer's Spire's Tale, the " minstralles " play before King Cambuscan as he dines in state " biforn him at the bord deliciously," and the " loude minstralcye " precedes him when he rises and withdraws to the ornamented chamber, Ther as they sownen diverse instrumentz, That it is lyk an heuen for to here.

But even in Chaucer's time there were less respectable musicians than those of the king's household - strolling musicians, players on trumpets, clarions, taborets, lutes, rebecks, fiddles, and other instruments. These also were known by the generic name of minstrels, whether because many of them had learnt their art in noble households before they took to a vagabond life, or because the more respectable of them affected to be in the service or under the patronage of powerful nobles, as later on companies of strolling players figured as the " servants " of distinguished patrons. All the allusions to minstrels in literature from Langland's time to Spenser's point to them as strolling musicians. Some of them may have sung to the harp verses of their own composing, and some of them may have composed some of the ballads that now charm us with their fresh and simple art ; but the profession of the "minstrel," properly so-called, was much less romantic than Bishop Percy painted it. It was not merely " the bigots of the iron time" that "called their harmless art a crime "; in a repressive Act passed by Henry IV. they appear with " westours, rymours, et autres vacabondes " among the turbulent elements of the community.

In a passage in Malory's Merle Dartltur, the word minstrel is applied to a personage who comes much nearer the ideal of the Provencal joy/ar. When Sir Dinadan wished to infuriate King Mark, he composed a satirical song, and gave it to Elyot a harper to sing through the country, Tristram guaranteeing him against the consequences. When King Mark took him to task for this, the harper's answer was, " Wit you well I am a minstrel, and I must do as I am commanded of these lords that I bear the arms of." And because he was a minstrel King Mark allowed him to go unharmed. The service done by Elyot the harper in the old romance is a good illustration of the political function of the itinerant niediteval jocutator; but even he did not sing verses of his own composing, and he was not a " minstrel " in the sense in which the word was used by romantic poets after the publication of Percy's .11eliques. (w. tvi.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries