Is There a Minstrel in the House?: Domestic Entertainment in Late Medieval England

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Medievalists have been arguing about minstrels for nearly two and a half centuries. This argument is both older than, and fundamental to, medieval studies as an academic discipline. Indeed, perhaps the only older, longer-running argument in the study of medieval literature concerns editorial techniques, and that argument has itself often become tangled up in questions of oral composition. In England, the opening salvo came in Thomas Percy's 1765 Essay on the Ancient Minstrels, a work that envisioned a glorious, unbroken history of the minstrel as the "genuine successor" of Celtic bards and Germanic scalds, and "a privileged character" in the Norman and English courts. (1) Percy suggested that minstrels composed much of what they recited, and that their profession was a prestigious one. But soon after the appearance of Percy's essay, Joseph Ritson angrily attacked many of Percy's claims, arguing that the term minstrel was far less precise than Percy had implied, that minstrels did not compose their material, and their office was often humble, even disreputable. Ritson admitted that French minstrels may have had a different status, hut English minstrels, he argued, were widely regarded as (in the words of a sixteenth-century statute), "rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars." (2)

The arguments about minstrels have naturally shifted over the past 240 years, hut in many respects they have not progressed very far beyond the original positions taken up by Percy and Ritson. On the one side are those who see the historical record and the surviving texts of medieval romance, ballads, and other verse forms as bearing the marks of a rich, thriving culture of professional oral performance. In addition, this group, who might best be called the "romantic" or "nostalgic" school, often credit minstrels with having composed some surviving texts. On the other side are those skeptics who do not deny the existence of medieval minstrels, hut who question their talents, their social importance, and their role in the transmission of surviving texts. The romantics point to examples like Taillefer, the minstrel who supposedly led the Normans into the Battle of Hastings by reciting portions of the Chanson Roland. The disenchanted insist on debunking these myths and point instead to the signs of minstrels' vulgarity and low reputation. Where the romantics speak of minstrel composition, the disenchanted speak of minstrel decomposition, the degradation and corruption wrought by oral performers of limited talents. (3) Beginning with Thomas Wright, the romantics have characterized various manuscript materials as "minstrel books." (4) The disenchanted have questioned these characterizations, and in the important recent work of Andrew Taylor, challenged the existence of the entire category. (5)

Both sides have continually revisited the confusing tangle of terms for medieval performers. Historical records and literary texts do not apply these terms consistently, and the Latin, French, and English terms do not seem to correspond perfectly, so that distinguishing a minstrel from a harper, a joculator, a disour, a jongleur, or a histrio is not always possible, though each of these terms refer to different types of performance. Percy was thus able to construct a seamless tradition of oral performers by conveniently ignoring possible distinctions between the kinds of performers described in the records he cited. E. K. Chambers made a similar move in his magisterial survey of English performance, seeing an unbroken connection between performers of different periods: "The distinctively Anglo-Saxon types of scop and gleomon ... do not cease to exist [after 1066], but they go under ground ... until the fourteenth century brings the English tongue to its own again." (6) The disenchanted, following Ritson's initial complaint about Percy's misleading conflation of terms, have tended to insist that (in England) "minstrel" meant "musician" rather than singer or storyteller, and have thus questioned the prominence of orally delivered narrative. …


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