Byline: VICTOR LEWIS-SMITH
IN the world of musical instrument retail, there is no more frightening place to be than the section of the store devoted to electronic keyboards. Here, loitering juveniles with baked-bean faces produce neoteric squawks from Yamaha samplers so powerful that they can cause the brain to become thixotropic at a distance of two miles (until the aurally assaulted staff finally unplug the equipment in despair), but things were very different in the music shops of my childhood.
Back then, the only "electronic" keyboard on sale was the Winfield button-chord windblown reed organ ([pounds sterling]12. 13s. 6d), a device that combined the best features of a Pifco hair drier with the worst features of a medieval portative organ, and shopkeepers were happy to leave it plugged in all day.
Why? Well, not only did it produce a feeble whimpering tone reminiscent of an asthmatic cuckoo being slowly throttled, but it took so long to "speak" after a key was depressed that the staff knew they'd have closed the store and be safely home watching Dixon of Dock Green long before the desired note finally emerged.
In last night's Medieval Lives (BBC2), Terry Jones looked at the sort of instruments you might have found in a music shop during the Dark Ages. Tiny portative organs, tone- deaf umbrellas ( aka crumhorns), lutes, flutes, and citoles were all in common use, and any selfrespecting minstrel of the period was expected to be proficient on them all, as well as being an accomplished acrobat.
Walking and talking much like his Alan Whicker parody of 30 years ago, the former Python explained that showbiz valued the all-round entertainer just as much in the Middle Ages as it does now, and even cited the case of Taillefer, an 11thcentury minstrel whose skills extended to singing, juggling, and telling gags during the Battle of Hastings, to keep up the morale of the troops. A tradition that Jim Davidson continues to this day, except that Jim cannot juggle, and Taillefer's gags were more topical.
Continuing an obsession that began with Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Jones argued persuasively that life in the Middle Ages wasn't so very different from our own, and that minstrels weren't the effete wandering luvvies they're often made out to be. Their name translates as "little servants", and that's precisely what they were, often being required to wait on table, recite poetry, play instruments, and imitate birds, as well as tell jokes, the oldest of which is (according to my research) "Q: prithee sire, how do you separate the men from the boys in a monastery?" "A: with a crowbar" (well I've been telling it since the Middle Ages).
Initially, their simple epic tales of derring-do were top of the medieval pops, with one mind-numbingly repetitive song "staying at number one for almost a century" ( presumably a reference to Everything I Do by Bryan Adams), but by the 12th century, highly educated troubadours from Poitiers had begun writing satire and singing sophisticated songs about courtly love, and were soon replacing the rough-and-ready minstrels. …