1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Minstrel

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MINSTREL. The word “minstrel,” which is a derivative from the Latin minister, a servant, through the diminutives ministellus, ministrallus French menestrel), only acquired its special sense of household entertainer late in the 13th century. It was the equivalent of the Low Latin joculator[1] (Prov. joglar, Fr. jongleur, Mid. Eng. jogclour), and had an equally wide significance.

The minstrel of medieval England had his forerunners in the Teutonic scôp (O.H.G. scôpf or scof, a shaper or maker), and to a limited extent in the mimus of the later Roman empire. The earliest record of the Teutonic scôp is found in the Anglo-Saxon poem of Widsith, which in an earlier form probably dates back before the English conquest. Widsith, the far-traveller, belonged to a tribe which was neighbour to the Angles, and was sent on a mission to the Ostrogoth Eormanric (Hermanric or Ermanaric, d. 375), from whom he received a collar of beaten gold. He wandered from place to place singing or telling stories in the mead-hall, and saw many nations, from the Picts and Scots in the west to the Medes and Persians in the east. Finally he received a gift of land in his native country. The Complaint of Deor and Beowulf give further proof that the Teutonic scôp held an honourable position, which was shaken by the advent of Christianity. The scôp and the gleeman (the terms appear to have been practically synonymous) shared in the general condemnation passed by the Church on the dancers, jugglers, bear-leaders and tumblers. Saxo Grammaticus (Historia danica, bk. v.) condemns the Irish king Hugleik because he spent all his bounty on mimes and jugglers. That the loftier tradition of the scôpas was preserved in spite of these influences is shown by the tales of Alfred and Anlaf disguised as minstrels. With the Normans came the joculator or jogleur, who wore gaudy-coloured coats and the flat shoes of the Latin mimes, and had a shaven face and close-cut hair. Jogleurs were admitted everywhere, and enjoyed the freedom of speech accorded to the professional jester. Their impunity, however, was not always maintained, for Henry I. is said to have put out the eyes of Luc de la Barre for lampooning him. A fairly defined class distinction soon arose. Those minstrels who were attached to royal or noble households had a status very different from that of the motley entertainers, who soon came under the restrictions imposed on vagabonds generally. A joculator regis, Berdic by name, is mentioned in Domesday Book. The king's minstrels formed part of the royal household, and were placed under a rex, a fairly common term of honour in the craft (cf. Adenès li rois). Edward III. had nineteen minstrels in his pay, including three who bore the title of waits. The large towns had in their pay bodies of waits, generally designated in the civic accounts as histriones. A wait under Edward III. had to “pipe the watch” four times nightly between Michaelmas and Shere Tuesday, and three times nightly during the remainder of the year. In spite of the repeated prohibitions of the Church, the matter was compromised in practice. Even religious houses had their minstrels, and so pious a prelate as Robert Grosseteste had his private harper, whose chamber adjoined the bishop's. St Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologia) said that there was no sin in the minstrel's art if it were kept within the bounds of decency. Thomas de Cabham, bishop of Salisbury (d. 1313), in a Penitential distinguished three kinds of minstrels (histriones)—buffoons or tumblers; the wandering scurrae, by whom he probably meant the goliardi (see Goliard); and the singers and players of instruments. In the third class he discriminated between the singers of lewd songs and those joculatores who took their songs from the deeds of princes and the lives of saints. The performances of these joculatores were permissible, and they themselves were not to be excluded from the consolations of the Church. The Parisian minstrels were formed into a gild in 1341, and in England a charter of Edward IV. (1469) formed the royal minstrels into a gild, which minstrels throughout the country were compelled to join if they wished to exercise their trade. A new charter was conferred in 1604, when its jurisdiction was limited to the city of London and 3 m. round it. This corporation still exists, under the style of the Corporation of the Master, Wardens and Commonalty of the Art or Science of the Musicians of London.

During the best time of minstrelsy—the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries—the minstrel, especially when he composed his own songs, was held in high honour. He was probably of noble or good bourgeois birth, and was treated by his hosts more or less as an equal. The distinction between the troubadour and the jogleur which was established in Provence probably soon spread to France and England. In any case it is probable that the poverty which forms the staple topic of the poems of Rutebeuf (q.v.) was the commonest lot of the minstrel.

Entries of payments to minstrels occur in the accounts of corporations and religious houses throughout the 16th century; but the art of minstrelsy, already in its decline, was destroyed in England by the introduction of printing, and the minstrel of the entertainments given to Elizabeth at Kenilworth was little more than a survival.

The best account of the subject is to be found in. E. K. Chambers's Medieval Stage (1903), i. 23–86 and ii. 230–266. See also L. Gautier in Épopées françaises (vol. ii., 2nd ed., 1892); A. Schultz, Das höfische Leben zur Zeit der Minnesinger (2nd ed., 1889); T. Percy, Reliques of English Poetry (ed. H. B. Wheatley, 1876); J. Ritsori, Ancient English Metrical Romances (1802); J. J. Jusserand, English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages (4th ed., 1892).

  1. Used by John of Salisbury (Polycraticus, i. 8) as a generic term to cover mimi, salii or saliares, balatrones, aemiliani, gladiatores, palaestritae, gignadii, praestigiatores.