The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Thursday, 15 May 2008

16. Admirable diversions

Do you know the difference between your minstrels and your bards, your bufos and your troubadours, your gleemen and your joglars? There are a number of articles in EB9 which might educate you to better classify your itinerant musicians. One of the more concise is MINSTREL, by William Minto, M.A., Professor of English Language at the University of Aberdeen.

The "minstrels," according to Bishop Percy, "were an order of men in the Middle Ages who united the arts of poetry and music, and sang verses to the harp of their own composing, who appear to have accompanied their songs with mimicry and action, and to have practised such various means of diverting as were much admired in those rude times [...]."

Minto opens with this description from Reliques of Ancient Poetry - the source of the popular associations with the term 'minstrel' that appealed to the 19th century medievalist. An erroneous association:

The imagination was fascinated by this romantic figure, and the laborious and soured antiquary Ritson argued in vain that nobody before Bishop Percy had ever applied the word minstrel to such an order of men, that no such order of men ever did exist in England, and that the historical English "minstrels," so-called, were a much less gifted and respectable class, being really instrumental musicians, either retainers or strollers.

Why is it that no one ever listens to laborious and soured antiquaries? Is a little precision too much to ask for when speaking of past times and peoples?

[T]here can be little doubt that Ritson was substantially right [...]. The romantic bishop transferred to the English minstrel the social status and brilliant gifts of the Anglo-Saxon gleoman or scop, and the French troubadour in the flourishing period of Provencal poetry. That the gleemen sang to the harp verses of their own composing, that some of them travelled from court to court as honoured guests, while others were important attached court officials, and all received costly presents, is a well attested historical fact. [...] [A] successful gleeman was as much honoured as a modern poet-laureate, and as richly rewarded as a fashionable prima donna.

11th to 13th century Provence was definitely the place to go for a colourful variety of peripatetic musical entertainment. French joglars, we are informed, closest resemble the ideal of the English minstrel: they "played, sang, recited, conjured, [were] men of versatile powers of entertainment, who performed at the houses of the nobility, and were liberally renumerated[.]" Above the joglar, we have the lofty trobadors, "whose distinction it was to compose verses, whether or not they had sufficient executive faculty to sing or recite them." At the bottom of the heap, but surely most appealing of all, were the bufos "who strolled among the common people, singing ribald songs, showing feats of skill and strength, exhibiting learned dogs and goats, and so forth[.]" Messieurs et Mesdames, voila Hugo! La chevre le plus intelligent! Encroyable.

Whilst medieval England was sadly bereft of such sparkling diversions: do not despair, ye would-be beholder of marvels, if you live in Australia, Britain or the United States, because the spirit of the Bufo and the Joglar is very much alive, in the personages of modern-day minstrels Mike West and Katie Euliss, performing across these continents in the course of perpetual wanderings, as Truckstop Honeymoon. By a most happy coincidence they will be taking to a tiered stage in the bowels of a converted Norwegian fishing boat moored at Canning Dock, Liverpool, on Thursday 22nd May, 2008. I am reliably informed that admission to this splendid occasion, widely touted as the principle cultural event in the city's European Capital of Culture year, will cost a mere £5. Exhibition of a learned goat between musical sets has not yet been confirmed.

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