Medieval Minstrel. Troubadour. Jongleur. What do these words bring to mind? Maybe something like Jaskier/Dandelion from The Witcher (fantasy novels and TV series)? Or along the lines of these nineteenth-century tiles?
Minstrels were much romanticised by, you guessed it, the Romantics (think 1800s, e.g. Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel and Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border). That romantic legacy still influences us today, manifesting in characters like The Witcher’s Jaskier (right), or Kvothe in Rothfuss’s fantasy The Name of the Wind. As minstrel-expert Anthony Bonner puts it, mention “minstrel” today and you’re likely to imagine “a fellow dressed in a Robin Hood costume singing under his lady's window, and accompanying himself with a lute.”
Confession time: I did too. I also thought minstrels were honoured members of medieval society, as per Chambers' rosy 1903 description:
“[Minstrels] wandered at their will from castle to castle, … sure of their ready welcome alike in the village tavern, the guildhall, and the baron's keep.... In the great castles, while lords and ladies supped or sat around the fire, it was theirs to while away many a long bookless evening with courtly geste or witty sally. At wedding or betrothal, baptism or knight-dubbing, treaty or tournament, their presence was indispensable. The greater festivities saw them literally in their hundreds, and rich was their reward in money and in jewels, in costly garments, and in broad acres.”
Similarly, I always imagined minstrels as flamboyantly dressed, poetic and noble in spirit, and welcome guests wherever they wandered.
Turns out that, as a general rule, medieval people viewed them quite differently. Back then, minstrels were regarded as at best servants, or, if they didn’t have a regular employer, as downright disreputable. The very word “minstrel” likely derives from “to minister”, i.e. a minstrel is “somebody who serves another”. Minstrels were not ye olde equivalent of rock stars or looked up to as gifted artistes. Our modern concept of artistic genius is a Romantic creation too. In the Middle Ages, if a minstrel was itinerant and lacking regular respectable employment or patrons, they were likely to be considered suspect strangers, associates of thieves and gamblers, and promoters of lechery and immoral pleasures.
Medieval English prude, Thomas of Chobham, exemplified this divide when he described musicians in 1235:
“Some take part in public drinking-bouts and licentious gatherings, where they sing licentious songs to induce people to lasciviousness. These shall be damned like [other low entertainers]. There are, however, others … who sing the deeds of noble men and the legends of saints and these give comfort to men in their afflictions or in their anxieties.”
These latter, virtuous minstrels are therefore not damned. Note: Thomas was in holy orders, and thus predictably fixated on matters of sex and sin.
The main problem Chobham has with his damnable minstrels is the tone of their songs (they provoke wild and sinful behaviour in their listeners). Their wandering existence also offends him. Chobham declares that itinerant performers generally are
“entertainers who have no occupation, but are busybodies who have no fixed place of abode, but haunt the courts of the great and spread scandal and disgrace”.
So, wandering minstrels were disreputable. But I suggest they were also desirable. In those days before recorded music or instant access to news (near unimaginable today), travelling performers were in demand. People wanted to be entertained. They also wanted the latest from places the wanderers had visited. Lords also got kudos from employing minstrels to entertain guests. I’m going to borrow a theme from Chobham’s book and say most medieval people fancied a little licentious behaviour once in a while.
Disreputable and desirable: these are not mutually exclusive qualities. The one can increase the other. The allure of the wandering medieval minstrel was probably heightened by with a little whiff of wickedness. Which is exactly why I chose I write about them in my “Minstrel Knights” series.
Bonner, Anthony, Songs of the Troubadours, Allen & Unwin, 1973.
Chambers, E. K., The Mediaeval Stage, Clarendon Press, 1903.
Harris, Joseph, and Reichl, Karl, “Performance and performers”, in Karl Reichl (ed.), Medieval Oral Literature, De Gruyter, 2011, pp. 141–190.
Peters, Gretchen, The Musical Sounds of French Cities: Players, Patrons, and Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Shuffleton, George, “Is there a minstrel in the house?: Domestic entertainment in late medieval England”, Philological Quarterly, vol. 87, 2008, pp. 51–76.
Spiced, warmed red wine. Drink up—it’s good for you! Depending on what part of the world you’re in, you might call it glühwein (Germany), vino caliente (Spain), glögg (Sweden), vin brulé (Italy), bisschopswijn (Holland), vin chaud (France), candola (Chile), vinho quente (Portugal), kuhano vino (Croatia), or glintwein (Russia). In the later medieval period, mulled wine was frequently referred to as “hippocras” (also spelled hipocras, ipocras, and ypocras). (An earlier name was “piment”.)
So why call it hippocras? It’s all down to a borrowing a word from another language, then jumping to false conclusions about what it meant. Medieval scholars loved to etymologise—to explain the meanings and origins of words in ways that revealed their deeper, often spiritual, significance. Hippocrates was the ancient Greek father of medicine, and “hippocras” was understood to be a wonderfully health-giving drink. Thus, the necessary conclusion was that Hippocrates had invented hippocras. Alternatively, some posited that the name comes from the fabric used to strain the spices from the wine—the hippocras bag. (Hippocrates was said to have used his voluminous sleeves to sieve his plonk.) Actually, the word was probably adopted from a Byzantine Greek term for mulled wine, which I believe sounds like “hypo-cratos”. It means “lightly mixed” and had nothing whatsoever to do with Hippocrates (unless you count the shared Greekness).
Image 1. Hippocras being sieved with a hippocras bag (15th-century Tractatus de herbis, c142r Modena bib estense, ms.alfa L.2.98, Lat.993).
So why was hippocras recommended for medicinal reasons? Here’s what Bartolomaeus Anglicus says about spiced wine in his De proprietatibus rerum:
suche wynes with her savour pleseth the taste, and exciteth appetite, and comforteth bothe the brayn & the stomak with here good odour & smylle, & clenseth also the blood; & pureth and cometh into the innere partyes of the veynes & of the membres
(As the book title suggests, De proprietatibus rerum was originally written in Latin, but this quote is from the Middle English translation made by John Trevisa in 1397. I do love the spelling.)
If you really wanted to pump up the efficacy of your medicinal mulled wine, you could heat some gold and use the metal to warm your drink. The qualities of the gold would then transfer to the wine. So what would gold do for your wellbeing? As the medical authority Constantinus Africanus wrote in the eleventh century,
[gold] has the property of relieving a defective stomach and comforts the fearful and those who suffer from a heart complaint. Galen confirms that it is effective against melancholy and baldness.
Apparently, gold was also effective against haemorrhoids and warts. I can’t vouch for these effects, but I’m sure having enough gold to warm my wine would relieve any melancholy.
In case you’re wondering what set me exploring the medieval benefits of mulled wine in the first place, it’s all down to a recipe book ... and a friend with a vineyard.
I was asked to contribute to Dragonblade’s Historical Recipe Cookbook and I just happened to be helping with my friend’s grape harvest at the same time, so the solution was obvious. My friend paid me in wine, which I then dutifully mulled in accordance with medieval recipes. Of course, I had to taste my experiments extensively, but that's all right: doubtless my health benefitted as a result.
“hippocras, n.”. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2023, https://www.oed.com
“When gold was medicine”, Medievalists.net, https://www.medievalists.net/2014/10/gold-medicine/
Scully, T., The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages, The Boydell Press, 1995.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of medieval warfare, I imagine it being fought with swords, bows, spears, and the occasional siege engine. I don’t think of cannons and gunpowder. I had assumed explosives only turned up at the very end of the Middle Ages. I was wrong.
So I began investigating the matter. It wasn’t news to me that gunpowder was invented in China in the first millennia AD. What was slightly startling was that Chinese alchemists may have stumbled over the sulphur, charcoal, and saltpetre mix that is gunpowder while looking for an elixir of eternal life. I trust no one ironically lost their lives in the discovery.
We don’t know for sure how gunpowder got from China to Europe (maybe via the Mongols, maybe along the Silk Road), but Roger Bacon was writing about an explosive powder by 1267, and the oldest written recipes for gunpowder in Europe appear between 1280 and 1300 in Marcus Graecus’s Liber Ignium, or Book of Fires. From that point on, you’d think that pugnacious Europeans would grasp the potential of making things go bang with indecent haste, but no. Gunpowder doesn’t seem to have much been used for hostile purposes until the 1320s, and even then, it didn’t revolutionise warfare immediately. It was more of a slow burn.
So what was holding gunpowder back in the 1300s? Why didn’t military commanders grasp its explosive potential for destruction more quickly? Here are a handful of the more important reasons:
o early cannons were very inaccurate;
o they were very slow to load and refire (maybe 5 to 6 shots per day);
o gunpowder was very expensive in the 1300s;
o cannons were heavy and hard to manoeuvre.
Then there was the danger involved in handling cannons. It wasn’t just those being fired at who were in danger of injury or death – being a military engineer was a hazardous occupation. The intense pressure gunpowder exerted on the interior of the cast metal sometimes caused the cannon itself to shatter. If the cannon were cast of iron, deadly shards would fly all around, decimating bystanders. One famous casualty of such friendly fire was King James II of Scotland at the siege of Roxburgh, in 1460. The immobility of a cannon, combined with its loudly advertised presence, also made it and its operators a prime target for enemy attack. Kill the gunmen, and you stop the nasty cannonballs.
Not only was firing cannons a job reserved for madmen, but it required considerable technical know-how. Cannons fired at an incredibly slow rate because they required careful and laborious loading. As Clifford Rogers tells us:
working from the mouth of the weapon, the gunner had to ladle and pack in enough powder to fill 3/5 of the chamber, and then plug the opening tightly with a wooden tampon that filled another fifth of the space, leaving an equal volume of empty air between the powder and the wood. The ball was then loaded in, wedged in place with triangular pieces of soft wood, and covered with some mixture of mud, loam and hay, which then had to be allowed to dry. All of this served to keep the ball in place as a plug for the powder chamber until the pressure of the gas generated by the burning powder built to a high level
Then BANG! But only if the gunpowder you put in the cannon was prepared properly and hasn’t absorbed so much water since that it is largely useless. (Early gunpowder was hygroscopic: it absorbed water, and wet things don’t tend to burn well.) Add to that, the correct proportions of sulphur, saltpetre, and charcoal were hotly debated, and saltpetre itself (potassium nitrate) was very expensive and hard to acquire.
Why all this investigation into the fickle and deadly beast that was medieval gunpowder? I wanted to get a secondary character right. In The Assassin and Her Knight, my heroine joins a small mercenary company in 1360s France. Its least attractive and most lovable member is John “The Wreck”, a man besotted with gunpowder. He’s not particularly murderous, just a man with an explosive obsession—a very useful insanity in the context of fourteenth-century warfare.
Cressy, D., Saltpeter: The Mother of Gunpowder, Oxford University Press, 2013.
Hamer, M., “Blast from the Past”, New Scientist, vol. 188, iss. 2524, 2005, pp. 33-35.
Rogers, C.J., “Gunpowder Artillery in Europe, 1326-1500: Innovation and Impact”, in D. Curzon, et al (ed’s), Technology, Violence, and War: Essays in Honor of Dr. John F. Guilmartin, Brill, 2019, pp. 39-71.