This text was taken from Godwin's Life of Chaucer by William Godwin, London: T. Davison, White-Friars; 1804.
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DIVERSIONS OF OUR ANCESTORS IN THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY. — THE MINSTRELS — VARIETY OF THEIR ACCOMPLISHMENTS.
Next after the studies, the literary compositions, and the religion of any period, there is no cause which more powerfully tends to modify the youthful mind, than the species of amusements which may chance to be prevalent.
A principal source of the amusements which distinguished the age of Chaucer, arose from a class of men commonly known by the appellation of minstrels.
These have already been mentioned. They were direct successors of the bards, the scalds, and the harpers of the ancient Britons, Saxons and Danes.
There is no reason to doubt that the persons who exercise these successive professions, originally composed the words and the music of the pieces they performed. They united in their own persons the characters of poet, musical composer, and performer of vocal and instrumental music.
The further we extend our enquiries into the remotest period of their existence, with the more veneration do we find them to have been regarded. The bards who flourished in this island in the druidical times, constituted a part of the religious hierarchy; and their performances were probably never degraded by being brought forward on profane and ordinary occasions. The scalds, through perhaps they were not considered precisely as priests, were viewed in some manner as sacred; and persons invested with this character passed from province to province, from country to country, and between the encampments of hostile armies, in absolute security. There was this difference however between the scalds and the minstrels of the remotest periods on the one hand, and the bards on the other, that while the latter only officiated on religious occasions and the most important solemnities, the former were itinerant, frequented the halls of princes and barons, and derived their subsistence from the spontaneous bounty of those whom they sought to entertain.
Another point of degeneracy which we may remark in the itinerant poets and musicians even before the Norman conquest, is the be found in the different end they sometimes proposed to themselves in their performances. The bard was a serious, as well as sacred, character. So was the scald of the north, when Regner Lodbrog composed his Funeral Hymn, and Egil sung the stanzas denominated his Ransom.a The object of their effusions was to express the heroic sentiments of their souls, and to inspire into their hearers the love of piety or virtue. Their successors in the latest periods of the Anglo-Saxon government by no means discarded this feature of their ancient character; but they occasionally condescended to engage in a humbler project, to aim at the amusement of their hearers, and for this purpose to lay aside the solemnity and gravity of their strains. To the tragic vein of their ancestors they added a comic vein of their own. This is strongly marked to us by the word principally employed by the Saxons to denominate their profession. They were called gleemen.b This name they derived from a primitive word in their language, originally signifying music. But, as their art became varied in its object, the word by which they were denominated insensibly changed its meaning, and glee came to signify bilarity, sport, laughter, as at this day. This is sufficiently conformable to what has universally been observed of the progress of human society. The savage is a grave character, its mode of existence is too insecure, and he is too often called upon for sudden and unforeseen exertion, not to maintain in him inflexibly this temper of mind. The barbarian, in proportion as he recedes from this primitive condition of man, feels himself more secure and at his east, dismisses his gloom, and is at leisure to cultivate a sort of rude vein of jocularity and sport.
A further criterion, distinguishing the period when the itinerant musician was held in the highest honour, from the time of his degeneracy, seems to be, that in the earliest times persons of this class travelled for the most part singly, and more lately in companies. Anlaff king of the Danes came alone into the camp of Athelstan the Saxon monarch.c The musician was even sometimes followed by an attendant who bore his harp. It was under this appearance that Alfred the Great penetrated into the Danish camp.d This style is similar to that which presents itself in the earliest times of the Greeks. Is thus that we conceive Homer to have recited his poems; and it is thus that Homer describes the bard of kind Alcinous.
When literature began to grow more common, one of the first effects was to detach in a great measure the character of the poet from that of the reciter of verses. The authors of almost all the old romances now subsisting were monks. They were written however for the purpose of being recited to music; and of consequence, while the monk was the author, the itinerant musician was the performer only. Professors of this class therefore, having lost the most sacred part of their character, we glad to associate themselves into bands, and to offer their joint powers of amusement to such as were willing to give them audience.
The name of minstrel in England is posterior to the Norman conquest; and it may be doubted whether persons of this denomination, in opposition to the scalds and harpers of our remoter ancestors, ever appeared but in this associated manner. Even before the invasion of king William, we meet with them on the continent in this form. It is recorded of the emperor Henry III, that, at his marriage with Agnes de Poitou in 1044, he "suffered an infinite multitude of minstrels [infintam bistrionum et joculatroum multitudinem] to go away sad and fasting, having refused to bestow upon them either gifts or provisions."e A similar remark, as to the point we are treating of, occurs in an ancient historian, respecting the year 1185.f
The character of the minstrel therefore, at least when he appeared under this form, was infinitely more complicated than that of the bard or the scaled, his predecessors. We may distinctly trace in him the different accomplishments of a player upon some musical instrument, a vocal performer, a dancer, a posture-master, a jester, a professor of legerdemain and a sorcerer. We may easily conceive, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the means of amusement invented by our ancestors were as yet so limited, with what welcome a cheerful and numerous party of persons, possessing such various powers of entertainment and surprise, was received in the halls of the great, and the fairs and places of assembly resorted to by the inferior classes.
That they played on certain musical instruments is a point which needs not to be insisted upon. This is obviously the first idea annexed to the term minstrel by the historians and miscellaneous writers their contemporaries.
That they sung certain poetical compositions to the accord of their harps is almost equally clear. Nearly all our old ballads and romances were composed to be sung by the minstrels. Thus Chaucer, in his voluminous production entitled Troilus and Creseide, addressing his work, says,
So praie I god that none miswrité the,
Ne the misse-metre, for defaute of tongue,
And, redde where so thou be, or ellés songe,
That though be understonde God I beseche.
B. v, ver. 1794.
Edward IV. in 1469 granted a charter to his minstrels, which is extant, and, among the duties required of them, one which is specified is, that they are to "sing,g in the king's chapel and the chapel of St. Paul's cathedral, for the souls of the king and queen, so long as they live, and when they shall be no more."
In the songs of the minstrels, perhaps more than in any other of their performances, they still preserved that dignity and elevation of sentiment which descended to them from the bards and scalds of a remoter antiquity. Many of their songs and tales indeed were of a lighter kind, and intended to promote hilarity. They certainly did not disdain the assistance of buffoonery and scurrile mirth. But it is impossible to look into the poetry of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, without perceiving that much of it is descriptive of heroic actions, impregnated with generous sentiment, and calculated to inspire a gallant and noble spirit of beneficence and adventure. Accordingly, those writers who speak of them wit hteh greatest severity yet acknowledge, that "they frequently celebrated the deeds of illustrious men and heroes, either relating them in a style of perspicuous and pleasant discourse, or singing them in a well-modulated voice to the sound of their harps, that so they might rouse the lords and noble personages who were the auditors of their amusements, to the practice of virtue, and the imitation of the purest examples: such as Tacitus tella us was the office of the bards among the ancient Gauls.
Qui veut avoir renom des bons et des vaillans,
Il doit aler souvent a la pluie et au champs,
et ester en la bataille, ainsty que fu Rollans,
Les Quatre Fils Haimon, et Charlon liplus grans,
lid us lions de bourges, et Guion de Connans,
Perceval li Galois, Lancelot, et Tristans,
Alixandres, Artus, Godefroy li sachans;
Dequoy cils menestriers font les nobles romans."h
The dancing was one of the accomplishments exhibited by the minstrels, is evident from various testimonies. In a poem of lydgate, entitled Reson and Sensualite, he professes to speak
Of all maner mynstralcye
That any man kan specifye,
and in his enumeration observes,
Ffor there were rotys of Almayne,
and eke of Arragon and Spayne,
Songés, stampés and eke daunces,
divers plente of plesaunces.i
Fauchet also, in explaining what were the trouverres and jonglears of France, says, "The great lords before whom they performed, were accustomed to give them distinguished rewards, and even garments from their own wardrobe, which they did not fail to exhibit at other courts, with the hope of exciting those who saw them to acts of similar liberality: a practice which continued a long time, for I myself remember to have seen Martin Baraton (formerly an old minstrel of Orleans), who at festivals and marriages, beat upon a tabourin of silver, ornamented also with little plates of silver, upon which were engraved the arms of such persons as e had taught to dance."k
A further accomplishment studied by the minstrels was the skill of a posture-masture. Thus Joinville in his Life of St. Louis: "With the prince there came three minstrels of Armenia, having three horns at their belts. When they began to blow, you would have vowed that it was the voice of a swan, so rich and sweet was the melody they uttered. They also performed three wonderful leaps; and, placing a towel under their feet, turned round in a very extraordinary manner; the two first held their heads averted, &c."l
The minstrels also studied, with a view to the amusement of the persons whose houses they frequented, the art of showing themselves ready in various ingenious gibes and mockeries, suggested by such occasions as might offer. Thus in a poem of Adam Davie, who flourished about the year 1312, we have
Merry it is in halle to here the harpe,
The minstrelles synge, the jogelours carpe m
and in William of Nassyngton, about 1480, in the commencement of a religious treatise,
I warn you furst at the' begynninge,
that I will make no vain carpinge
of dedes of armes ne of amours,
as dus mynstrelles and jestours,
that makes carpinge in many a place, &c.n
The minstrels also practised the art of legerdemain. This seems sufficiently clear from the name of jongleur, jogeler, juglear, by which they were occasionally known, and which from them has gradually come to be appropriated to those who are skilful in slight-of-hand. Something nearly allied to this is described by Chaucer in the Romaunt of the Rose.
There was many a timberstere,
And sailours that, I dare well swere
Ycoutheo hir crafte full parfitly.
The timbres up full subtilly thei casten, and hentp hem full oft upon a finger faire and soft, that they ne failed never mo.
Tricks of nature similar to his are of a very ancient date. Taillefer, the gallant warrior who first broke the ranks of the saxon army at the battle of hastings, and who, by the circumstance of being recorded as singing on that occasion the Song of Roland, has been made a name of importance in the history of literature and art, is described by his poetical historian as, previously to the commencement of the action, casting his spear three times into the air, and catching it as often by the point; after which he threw it into the midst of the enemy, and, drawing his sword, tossed it aloft as many times as he had done his spear, catching it again with such dexterity that those who looked on attributed his feats to the power of enchantmentq having thus in the hearing of the whole army chanted the song of victory, and in their sight performed this tricks of agility and muscular precision, he rushed into the thickest ranks of the hostile squadrons, and, dealing death on every side, became himself the voluntary sacrifice which was to precede the triumph, fixing his countrymen for ever in the empire of the island they invaded.
Dexterites of the sort here mentioned may even be traced to a period more remote than that of Taillefer. In a manuscript of the Psalms of David, which is supposed to have been written in England, and has been attributed to the times of the Saxons, there is an illuminated frontispiece, in which, among several figures, one is introduced in the act of keeping up three balls with this right hand, and three knives with his left, at the same time in the air.r
The skill of the minstrels in the art of sorcery and pretended enchantments likewise, appears from Chaucer and other contemporary writers ot have been by no means inconsiderable. This species of illusion is twice spoken of in the Canterbury Tales. The first instance occurs in the Friar's Tale. A summoner meets a fiend, and, expressing some surprise that he finds him exactly in human form, the fiend replies,
nay certainly, in hell ether have we none,
(no determinate figure)
But whan us liketh we can take us one,
Or elleś make you wene that we ben shape
Sometime like a man, or like an ape;
Or like an angel can I ride or go:
it is no wonder thing though it be so,
A lousy jogelour can deceiven the,
And parde yets can I more craft than he.
Ver. 7043, Tyrwhit's Edition.
A more copious description of this species of illusions occurs in the Franklin's Tale.
Doun of his hors Aurelius light anon,
And forth with his magicien is gon
Home to his hous, and madet hem wel at ese,
Hem lackéd no vitaille that might hem plese.
So wel arrayéd hous as ther was one,
Aurelius in his lif saw never none.
He shewéd him, uor they went to soupere,
Forestés, parkés, ful of wildé dere;
Ther saw he hartés with vhir hornes hie,
The greates that were ever sene with eie;
He saw of hem an hundred slain with houndes,
And som with arwes blede of bitter woundes;
he saw, whan voided were the wildé dere,
Thise fauconers upon a faire rivere,
That with vhir haukes han the heron slain.
wTho saw he knightés justen in a plain:
And after this he did him xswiche plesance,
That he him shew'd his lady on a dance,
On which himselven dancéd, as him thought.
And whan this maister, that this magike wrought,
Saw it was time, he clapp'd his hondés two,
And farewell, al the revel is ago.
And yet yremued they ne'er out of the hous,
Whiley they saw all thise sightés merveillous,
But in his studie, ther his bokés be,
They saten still, and no wight but they thre.
The description given by sir John Mandeville, the traveler, and contemporary of Chaucer, of the magic exhibited before the khan of Tartary, is so strikingly similar to this, as to afford a strong presumption that exhibitions, where something of this kind was attempted, were the practice of the age, and not the offspring of the poet's particular fancy. "and than comen Jogulours and Enchantoures that don many marvaylles: for they maken to come in the ayr the sonne and the mone, be seminge, to every mannes sight. And after they maken the nyght so derk, that no man may see no thinkg. And after they maken the day to come ayen fair and plesant with bright sonne to every mannes sight. And than they bringen in daunces of the fairest damyselles of the world and richest arrayed. And after they maken to comen in other damyselles, bringinge coupes of gold, fulle of mylk of diverse bestes, and yeven drynke to lordes and to ladyes. And than they make knyghtes to jousten in armes fulle lustyly; and they rennen togidre a great randoum; and they frusschen togidere fulle fiercly; and they breken here speres so rudely, that the tronchouns flen in sprotes and peces alle aboute the halle. And than they make to come in hunting for the hert and for the boor, with houndes renning with open mouthe. And many other thinges they don be craft of hir enchauntementes, that it is marveyle for to see." And elsewhere the traveler remarks, "and wher it be by craft or by nygromancye, I wot nere."z
A further talent pretended to by the minstrels, for, as they subsisted by their profession, they slighted no means of recommending themselves to the great or to the multitude, was that of the soothsayer and the apothecary. This is proved by a narrative preserved by Leland, the antiquary, respecting Fulco Guarine, an ancient baron, against whom king john entertained a deadly animosityaa the king dispossessed him of his lands, and Fulco was obliged to fly from place to place, attended by a band of resolute followers, and thus to save himself from the effects of the king's displeasure, among various expedients employed by him on this occasion, it is related of him that he "resorted to one John of Raumpayne, a soothsayer, and jocular, and minstrelle, and made hym his spy to Morice at Whitington," the estate of Fulco, but which king john had granted, by a patent under the broad seal, to this Morice. The consequence of Raumpayne's information was, that "Fulco and his bretherne laide waite for Morice as he went toward Salesbyri; and Fulco ther wounded hym; and Bracy cut off Morice hedde." This exploit gained to Fulco the possession of his castle, but, some time after, "syr Bracy was sore wounded, and token, and brought by Audeleghe to king John." In this situation Raumpayne was again of use. He "founde the meanes to caste them that kepte Bracy into a deadely slepe, and so he and Bracy cam to Fulco to Whitington."
As the minstrels appear ordinarily to have visited places of public resort and the houses of the great in companies, it will easily be supposed that the whole body of persons exercising this profession in England was extremely numerous. A curious example of this occurs in the history of the family of Dutton. "Hugh the first earl of Chester, in his charter of foundation of St. Werburg's Abbey in that city, had granted such a privilege to those who should come to Chester fair, that they should not be then apprehended for theft or any other misdemeanor, except the crime were committed during the fair. This special protection, occasioning a multitude of loose people to resort to that fair, was afterwards of signal benefit to one of his successors. For Ranulph the last earl of Chester, marching into Wales with a slender attendance, [circa 1212] was contrained to retire to his castle of Rothelan, to which the Welsh forthwith laid siege. In this distress he sent for help to the lord de Lacy constable of Chester: "who, making use of the minstrels of all sorts then met at Chester fair; by the allurement of their musick got together a vast number of such loose people as, by reason of the before specified priviledge, wee then in that city; whom he forthwith sent under the conduct of Dutton (his steward),' a gallant youth. Who was also his son-in-law. The Welsh alarmed at the approach of this rabble, supposing them to be a regular body of armed and disciplined veterans, instantly raised the siege and retired."bb For this service the jurisdiction of the minstrels within that district was granted to the representative of the name of Dutton, and continued in that family for several ages.
In this instance then we have an example of a sort of incorporation of commonwealth of minstrels; and indeed it was not to be supposed that so numerous an order of men could remain altogether without subordination and discipline. Under many successive kings of England from Henry I, we find mention of a court-minstrel.cc Blondel, who discovered Richard I. in his captivity, stood in this relation to that monarch;cc and it was the harper, or minstrel, of Edward I, who stands on record for his excessive zeal, when that prince, in his crusade to the holy land, was struck with the poisoned knife.dd Henry V, and other English monarchs, had a number of minstrels regularly in their pay, and these, being formed into a company, had certain officers over them, who are variously styled the king, the marshal, and the sergeant of the minstrels.ee The Great English nobility imitated their sovereigns, in the patronage and protection they extended to this order of men.ff
Much light may be derived in the history of the minstrels from the consideration of the various names by which they are designated among our ancient historians and miscellaneous writers. Minstrel has been deduced with sufficient probability from minister, a servant, quasi ministerellus, a little or inferior servant, and is variously written ministellus, ministrellus, ministrallus, menestrellus &c.gg They frequently spoken of by the epithet joculator, which term has been varied into juglator, jugleur, jongleur, and jogeler. Minus and bistrio are likewise names by which they are described by the Latin writers of the middle ages. Harlot is also a term which is applied to them in the charter granting jurisdiction over them to the family of Dutton;hh and it is probably in this sense that the word is used by Chaucer in the Romaunt of the Rose, where the god of love is described as appointing False-semblant his king of harlots:ii the corresponding term in his French original is "roy des riboulx."kk
Nothing can be more evident to any careful examiner of the contemporary writers, that that all this variety of terms is employed to express the same thing. In the story of Alfred penetrating into the Danish camp, the expression used by Ingulphus is "rex --- fingens se esse joculatorem." And William of Malmesbury, describing the same fact, says, "sub specie mimi, --- ut joculatorie professor artis." Indeed the word joculator is a literal translation of the Saxon term Glee-man: and this by the way, as both Ingulphus and Malmesbury wrote a short time after the conquest, furnishes a stron presumptive proof how soon the term Glee, as applied to the exhibitions of the minstrels, acquired the sense which it continues to bear. In like manner John of Salisbury, after having described the minstrels by every epithet with which his memory could furnish him, "mimi, salii vel saliares, balatrones, amiliani, gladiators, palastrita, gignadii,ll prastigiatores, malefici," sums them up under one comprehensive term, "tota joculatorum scana."mm In the authorities above citied, Leland's old English book of the Gestes of Guarine styles John of Raumpayne, "a soothsayer, and jocular, and minstrelle:" and the narrator of the story of Dutton, as if labouring in his expression under the consciousness of the variety of arts to which the minstrels devoted themselves, describes the multitude of them who resorted to Chester fair in the time of king John, by the phrase, "minstrels of all sorts." Indeed there would be no end in multiplying quotations from the ancient writers to prove that the minstrels were not more numerous as individuals, than they were multifarious in the accomplishments they cultivated.
a Mallet, Introduction à l'Histoire de Dannemare, tom. II. Blair, Dissertation o n Ossian. Henry, Book II, chap. 5.
b This word, with its radix, and various collateral descendants, is copiously illustrated by Percy, Essay on Minstrels, note I.
c Malmesbury, Lib. II, cap. 6.
d Malmesbury, Lib. II, cap.4. Ingulphus, Scriptores post Bedlam, p. 869.
e Chronie. Virtzburg. apud Percy, Note F.
f Rigordus de Gestis Philippi Aug. apud Du Cange, Gloss. Lat. sub voc. Ministelli.
g Rymer, Foedera, Tom. XI, 9 Edv. 4, Apr. 24. The word in the patent is exorare; but, as applied to the minstrels, it cannot be doubted that the above is the right translation.
h Anonym. apud Du Cange, sub voc. Ministelli.
i Bibliotheca Bodleiana, apud Warton , Vol. II, Sect. x.
k Fauchet, Recueil de l'Origine de la Langue et Poesie Fracçoise, Liv. I, ch. 8.
l Vid. Percy, note B.
m Warton, Vol. I, Sect. vi.
n Tyrwhit, Canterbury Tales, note on ver. 13775.
q Gaimar, apud Strutt, Sports and Pastimes of the people of England, B. III, chap. iii.
r Strutt, ubi supra.
z Tyrwhit, Canterbury Tales, note on ver. 11453.
aa Leland, Collectanea, Tom. I, p. 261, et seq.
bb Dugdale, apud Percy, Sect. iv.
cc Percy, Sect. iv.
dd Hemingford, apud ditto, Sect. v..
ee Percy, Sect. v.
ff ditto, Sect. vi.
gg Percy, Notes, A, B, N, A a.
hh Blount, apoud Percy, iv.
ii ver. 6068.
kk ver. 11559.
mm De Nugis Curialium, Lib. I, cap. 8.