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Medieval Minstrels: Disreputable and Desirable

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.

Further Reading:

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.


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