Medieval Minstrels

The Medieval minstrels had an important role in the society, despite initially being condemned by the Church. In times when the poetry was not committed to writing, but merely handed by memory from one generation to the next, the minstrel was the keeper of national literature and songs.

The development of civilization brought more refinement, and the Medieval minstrel had to adapt to the new taste requirements. The entertainer had to diversify the subjects of his songs, as well as the instruments on which he played.

Medieval minstrels history

The Saxons were a musical people. It was usual at their feasts to pass the harp round from hand to hand, and every man was supposed to be able to sing in his turn and accompany himself on the instrument.

The harper of the Middle Ages was the most distinguished among the minstrels craft. He was the reciter, and often the composer, of heroic and historical poems, of romance and love songs.

After the Norman Conquest, the Medieval minstrels had even more duties, performing at an increased number of feasts and celebrations.

Medieval musicians

Medieval Minstrels

They associated with bands of musicians, whose task was to fill the intervals between minstrels recitations and songs. To further entertain the audience, the musicians performance was often enhanced with a mime. The minstrel chanted the ancient romances of chivalry, the national stories, or the exploits of the master of the feast or of his family. When the guests were merry at their drinking, the minstrels sang laughable stories, called fabliaux, which were frequently of the grossest description.

Minstrels’ musical instruments

Popular minstrel’s instruments were the lyre, viol, flute, cymbals, or organ. A favorite was the set of hand-bells named carillons, which the player struck with two hammers.

Already introduced into divine service, the organ became under the hands of St. Dunstan an even larger and important instrument, with pipes of brass and inflated with bellows. According to William of Malmesbury, Dunstan gave many such instruments to Churches.

The music played by Medieval minstrels

Dinner music

The Middle Ages manuscripts contain many representations of dinners, where minstrels are shown mostly preceding the servants bearing the dishes. After introducing the feast, the minstrels continued to play. Many illuminated manuscripts are showing one or two minstrels standing beside the table, playing their instruments during the progress of the meal.

During the medieval dinner the minstrels entertained the guests with more than just instrumental performances. Frequently the harper was reciting a romance or history, or was singing chansons of a lighter character. He was usually sitting upon the floor, however many times was allowed to sit on the table.

After the dinner ended, the host preceded by the minstrels went to the great chamber or in the hall, where the dance commenced.

During the Medieval period the minstrels played on the floor together with the dancers. In the late Middle Ages, especially on feast occasions, they played in the music gallery, located above the screens, the entrance passage to the hall.

Medieval marriage processions and feasts were also accompanied by bands of minstrels playing the harp, violin, cittern, tabor, bagpipes, hand-bells, cymbals, and kettle-drums.

Sacred music

In the Middle Ages many minstrels serving in nobles’ households assisted at the celebration of divine worship. The custom was to hear Mass before dinner and the evening prayer before supper. In the lords’ castles, the service was performed by the chaplain in the chapel and the minstrels assisted in the musical part of the ceremony, with the organ being the most usual instrument. Sometimes the singing of psalms was accompanied by a band of musicians. This is suggested by the Medieval manuscripts showing various instruments like the trumpet, violin, cittern, or harp in the hands of angels.

Minstrels in Medieval society

At the Royal Court there was a king of the minstrels, who was at the head of the band of royal musicians. The court fashion was imitated by the great nobles, and members of the nobility had even three minstrels serving in their household.

A significant number of Medieval minstrels were in the service of the clergy. Records dating from the 14th century mention the minstrels of the Bishop of Winchester, while the Ordinance of Edward II tells us that minstrels flocked to the houses of prelates as well as of nobles and gentlemen.

The wandering minstrels, like any other members of the society, always found hospitality in the monasteries’ guest houses. They were also welcomed and paid for their skill, besides receiving food and lodging.

At tournaments, the scene and the charges of men and horses were animated by bands of minstrels, richly dressed, some of them bearing the badge of their Guild. In actual war, it looks like only the trumpet, the tabor and the horn were used.

Minstrels versus Troubadours

We should differentiate between minstrels and troubadours. The minstrel belongs to the North, while the troubadours had their origins in Provence. As a rule (there were some exceptions), the minstrels were musicians performing works created by others. The troubadours performed their own compositions, and they could be of noble origin, the first whose work is recorded being William IX, Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony. They were the masters of the courtly love rules, and sometimes could influence the verdict of a court of love.

A Medieval minstrel stood to a troubadour in a similar relationship as the squire to the knight. The minstrels were the musical attendants on their courtly troubadours masters, they sang their songs and were the musicians who accompanied them. They were even the bearers of letters of the troubadours to their friends or their lady-love.

The two classes were in good relations, many times a chivalric attachment existing between the minstrel and the troubadour. However, due to their desire for a roving life or maybe because the number of musicians exceeded the demand, the minstrels decided to start a business on their own. It happened mostly after the First Crusade and as a result, the wandering minstrel appeared.

Medieval Guilds of minstrels

The minstrels were organized in their own Guilds. A charter of King Edward IV is mentioning their Guild as being governed by a Marshall appointed for life, and two wardens chosen annually. They were authorized to admit brothers and sisters in the Guild, to defend their rights, but also to govern and punish them if needed.

On the other hand there was a feudal scale of authority as well, in the sense that the chief minstrel of a lord exercised his authority over the other minstrels living on that particular lord’s domains.

In the times of Chaucer, the minstrels were still welcome to the halls of princes and barons, where they performed at all great festive ceremonies. They were always feasted with the best cheer, and rewarded with gifts of robes, and with money. In the rolls and registers of the 14th and 15th centuries, the private expenditure of the princes and great families had frequent entries of payments to the minstrels who attended their feasts.

Gradually, the Medieval minstrels status declined and, at a later period, their position was reduced to that of ballad-singers who wandered about the streets and visited village fairs.