Page images

Danish reigns. So that we cannot doubt but the English Harper and Songster would, at least in a subordinate degree, enjoy the same kind of honours, and be received with similar respect, among the inferior English gentry and populace. I must be allowed, therefore, to consider them as belonging to the same community, as subordinate members at least of the same college; and therefore, in gleaning the scanty materials for this slight history, I shall collect whatever inci. dents I can find relating to minstrels and their art, and arrange them, as they occur in our own annals, without distinction : as it will not be always easy to ascertain, from the slight mention of them by our regular historians, whether the artists were Norman or English. For it need not be remarked, that subjects of this trivial nature are but incidentally mentioned by our ancient annalists, and were fastidiously rejected by other grave and serious writers; so that, unless they were accidentally connected with such events as became recorded in history, they would pass unnoticed through the lapse of ages, and be as unknown to posterity as other topics relating to the private life and amusements of the greatest nations.

On this account it can hardly be expected that we should be able to produce regular and unbroken annals of the minstrel art and its professors, or have sufficient information whether every minstrel or harper composed himself, or only repeated the songs he chanted. Some probably did the one, and some the other; and it would have been wonderful indeed, if men whose peculiar profession it was, and who devoted their time and talents to entertain their hearers with poetical compositions, were peculiarly deprived of all poetical genius themselves, and had been under a physical incapacity of cumposing those common popular rhymes which were the usual subjects of their recitation. Whoever examines any considerable quantity of these, finds them in style and colouring as different from the elaborate production of the sedentary composer at his desk or in his cell, as the rambling harper or minstrel was remote in his modes of life and habits of thinking from the retired scholar or the solitary monk (r).

It is well known that on the Continent, whence our Norman nobles came, the bard who composed, the harper who played and sang, and even the dancer and the mimic, were all considered as of one community, and were even all included under the common name of Minstrels.8 I must therefore be allowed the same application of the term here, without being expected to prove that every singer composed, or every composer chanted, his own song; much less that every one excelled in all the arts which were occasionally exercised by some or other of this fraternity.

IV. After the Norman Conquest, the first occurrence which I have met with relating to this order of men is the founding of a priory and hospital by one of them ; scil. the Priory and Hospital of St. Bartholomew, in Smithfield, London, by Royer or Raherus, the King's Minstrel, in the third year of King Henry I., A.D. 1102. He was the

8 See notes (B) and (aa).

first Prior of his own establishment, and presided over it to the time of his death (T 2).

In the reign of King Henry II. we have upon record the name of Galfrid, or Jeffrey, a harper, who in 1180 received a corrody, or annuity, from the abbey of Hide, near Winchester; and, as in the early times every harper was expected to sing, we cannot doubt but this reward was given to him for his music and his songs; which, if they were for the solace of the monks there, we may conclude would be in the English language (U).

Under his romautic son, King Richard I., the minstrel profession seems to have acquired additional splendour. Richard, who was the great hero of chivalry, was also the distinguished patron of poets and minstrels. He was himself of their number, and some of his poems are still extant.' They were no less patronized by his favourites and chief officers. His Chancellor, William Bishop of Ely, is expressly mentioned to have invited singers and minstrels from France, whom he loaded with rewards ; and they in return celebrated him as the most accomplished person in the world (U2). This high distinction and regard, although confined perhaps in the first instance to poets and songsters of the French nation, must have had a tendency to do honour to poetry and song among all his subjects, and to encourage the cultivation of these arts among the natives ; as the indulgent favour shown by the monarch or his great courtiers to the Provençal Troubadour, or Norman Rymour, would naturally be imitated by their inferior vassals to the English Gleeman or Minstrel. At more than a century after the Conquest, the national distinctions must have begun to decline, and both the Norman and English languages would be heard in the houses of the great (U 3); so that probably about this era, or soon after, we are to date that remarkable intercommunity and exchange of each other's compositions, which we discover to have taken place at some early period between the French and English Minstrels; the same set of phrases, the same species of characters, incidents, and adventures, and often the same identical stories, being found in the old metrical romances of both nations (v).

The distinguished service which Richard received from one of his own minstrels, in rescuing him from his cruel and tedious captivity, is a remarkable fact, which ought to be recorded for the honour of poets and their art. This fact I shall relate in the following words of an ancient writer:

“ The Englishmen were more than a whole yeare without hearing any tydings of their King, or in what place he was kept prisoner. He had trained up in his court a Rimer or Minstrill,” called Blondel de Nesle, who) so saith the manuscript of Old Poesies, and an auncient manuscript French Chronicle) being so long without the sight of his Lord, his life seemed wearisome to him, and he became confounded with melancholly. Knowne it was that he came backe from the Holy Land; but none could tell in what countrey he arrived. Whereupon this Blondel, resolving to make search for him in many countries, but he would heare some newes of him; after expence of divers dayes in travaile, he came to a towne4 (by good hap) peere to the castell where his maister King Richard was kept. Of his host he demanded to whom the castell appertained, and the host told him that it belonged to the Duke of Austria. Then he enquired whether there were any prisoners therein detained or no; for alwayes he made such secret questionings wheresoever he came. And the hoste gave answer, there was one onely prisoner, but he knew not what he was, and yet he had bin detained there more than the space of a yeare. When Blondel heard this, he wrought such meanes, that he became acquainted with them of the castell, as Minstrels doe easily win acquaintance any where ; 5 but see the king he could not, neither understand that it was he. One day he sat directly before a window of the castell, where King Richard was kept prisoner, and began to sing a song in French, which King Richard and Blondel had sometime composed together. When King Richard heard the song, he knew it was Blondel that sung it; and when Blondel paused at halfe of the song, the King began the other half, and completed it. Thus Blondel won knowledge of the King his maister, and returning home into England, made the Barons of the countria acquainted where the King was.” This happened about the year 1193.

9 See a pathetic Song of his in Mr. Walpole's Catalogue of Royal Authors, vol. i. p. 5. The reader will find a translation of it into modern French in Hist. Littéraire des Troubadours, 1774, 3 tom. 12mo. See vol. i. (p. 58), where some more of Richard's poetry is translated. In Dr. Burney's Hist. of Music, vol. ii. p. 238, is a poetical version of it in English.

1 Mons. Favine's Theatre of Honour and Knighthood, translated from the French. Lond. 1623, fol. tom. ii. p. 49. An elegant relation of the same event (from the French of Presid. Fauchet's “ Recueil," &c.) may be seen in “Miscellanies in Prose and Verse by Anna Williams, Lond. 1766." 4to, p. 46. It will excite the reader's admiration to be informed that most of the pieces of that collection were composed under the disadvantage of a total deprivation of sight.

The following old Provençal lines are given as the very original song;' which I shall accompany with an imitation offered by Dr. Burney, ii. 237:—

2 Favine's words are, “ Jongleur appellé Blondiaux de Nesle." (Paris, 1620, 4to, p. 1106.) But Fauchet, who bas given the same story, thus expresses it, “ Or ce roy ayant nourri un Menestrel appellé Blondel," &c. liv. ii. p. 92. "Des anciens Poëtes François." He is however said to have been another Blondel, not Blondel (or Blondiaux) de Nesle; but this no way affects the circumstances of the story.

3 This the author calls in another place “An ancient MS. of old Poesies, written about those very times. From this MS. Favine gives a good account of the taking of Richard by the Duke of Austria, who sold him to the emperor. As for the MS. chronicle, it is evidently the same that supplied Fauchet with this story. See his “Recueil de l'Origine de la langue et Poesie Françoise, Ryme, et Romans," &c. Par. 1581.

4 Tribales.-"Retrudi eum præcepit in Triballis: a quo carcere nullus ante dies istos exivit."-Lat. Chron. of Otho of Austria: apud Favin.

5 “Comme Menestrels s'accointent legerement."-Favine. (Fauchet expresses it in the same manner.)

6 I give this passage corrected; as the English translator of Favine's book appeared here to have mistaken the original :- Scil. “Et quant Blondel eut dit la moitie de la Chanson, le Roy Richart se prist a dire l'autre moitie et l'acheva."-Favine, p. 1106. Fauchet has also expressed it in nearly the same words. Recueil, p. 93.

7 In a little romance or novel, entitled, “La Tour Tenebreuse, et les Jours Lumineux, Contes Angloises, accompagnez d'Historiettes, & tirez d'une ancienne Chronique composee par Richard, surnomme Cour de Lion, Roy d'Angleterre," &c. Paris, 1705, 12mo.- In the preface to this romance the editor has given another song of Blondel de Nesle, as also a copy of the song written by King Richard, and published by Mr. 8 The words of the original, viz. “ Citharisator homo jocosus in GESTIS antiquorum valde peritus," I conceive to give the precise idea of the ancient Minstrel.See note (v 2). That Gesta was appropriated to romantic stories, see note (1) part iv. (1.)

Domna vostra beutas
Elas bellas faissos
Els bels oils amoros
Els gens cors ben taillats
Don sieu empresenats
De vostra amor que mi lia.


Your beauty, lady fair,
None views without delight;
But still so cold an air
No passion can excite :
Yet this I patient see
While all are shunn'd like me.

Si bel trop affansia
Ja de vos non portrai
Que major honorai
Sol en votre deman
Que sautra des beisan
Tot can de vos volria.


No nymph my heart can wound
If favour she divide,
And smiles on all around
Unwilling to decide:
I'd rather hatred bear
Than love with other's share.

The access which Blondel so readily obtained in the privileged character of a Minstrel, is not the only instance upon record of the same nature (v 2). In this very reign of King Richard I., the young heiress of D'Evreux, Earl of Salisbury, had been carried abroad and secreted by her French relations in Normandy. To discover the place of her concealment, a knight of the Talbot family spent two years in exploring that province, at first under the disguise of a Pilgrim; till having found where she was confined, in order to gain admittance he assumed the dress and character of a Harper, and being a jocose person, exceedingly skilled in “the Gests of the antients” 8 (so they called the romances and stories which were the delight of that age), he was gladly received into the family. Whence he took an opportunity to carry off the young lady, whom he presented to the king; and he bestowed her on his natural brother, William Longespee (son of fair Rosamond), who became in her right Earl of Salisbury (v 3).

The next memorable event which I find in history reflects credit on the English minstrels: and this was their contributing to the Rescue of one of the great Earls of Chester, when besieged by the Welsh. This happened in the reign of King John, and is related to this


Hugh, the first Earl of Chester, in his charter of foundation of St. Werburg's Abbey in that city, had granted such a privilege to those who should come to Chester fair, that they should not be then apprehended for theft or any other misdemeanour, except the crime were committed during the fair. This special protection occasioning a multitude of loose people to resort to that fair, was afterwards of signal benefit to one of his successors. For Ranulph, the last Earl of

Walpole, mentioned above (in note 9, page xxx.); yet the two last are not in Provençal like the sonnet printed here; but in the old French, called Lanyage Ronan.

9 See Dugdale (Bar. i. 42, 101), who places it after 13 John, A.D. 1212. See also Plot's Staffordsh. Camden's B: itann. (Chusaire.)

Chester, marching into Wales with a slender attendance, was constrained to retire to his castle of Rothelan (or Rhuydland), to which the Welsh forth with laid siege. In this distress he sent for help to the Lord de Lacy, Constable of Chester: “Who, making use of the Minstrells of all surts, then met at Chester fair; by the allurement of their musick, got together a vast number of such loose people, as, by reason of the before specified priviledge, were then in that city; whom he forthwith sent under the conduct of Dutton (his steward)," a gallant youth, who was also his son-in-law. The Welsh, alarmed at the approach of this rabble, supposing them to be a regular body of armed and disciplined veterans, instantly raised the siege and retired.

For this good service, Ranulph is said to have granted to De Lacy, by charter, the patronage and authority over the minstrels and the loose and inferior people: who, retaining to himself that of the lower artificers, conferred on Dutton the jurisdiction of the minstrels and harlots:' and under the descendants of this family the minstrels enjoyed certain privileges and protection for many ages. For even so late as the reign of Elizabeth, when this profession had fallen into such discredit that it was considered in law as a nuisance, the minstrels under the jurisdiction of the family of Dutton are expressly excepted out of all acts of parliament made for their suppression ; and have continued to be so excepted ever since (w).

The ceremonies attending the exercise of this jurisdiction are thus described by Dugdale, as handed down to his time, viz. “ That at midsummer fair there, all the Minstrels of that countrey resorting to Chester do attend the heir of Dutton, from his lodging to St. John's church (he being then accompanied by many gentlemen of the countrey), one of the Minstrels' walking before him in a surcoat of his arins depicted on taffata; the rest of his fellows proceeding (two and two) and playing on their several sorts of musical instruments. And after divine service ended, give the like attendance on him back to his lodging; where a COURT being kept by his [Mr. Dutton's] steward, and all the Minstrels formally called, certain orders and laws are usually made for the better government of that Society, with penalties on those who transgress.”

In the same reign of King John we have a remarkable instance of a minstrel, who to his other talents superadded the character of Southsayer, and by his skill in drugs and medicated potions was able to rescue a knight from imprisonment. This occurs in Leland's Narrative of the GESTES of Guarine (or Warren) and his sons, which he “excerptid owte of an old Englisch boke yn ryme,"3 and is as follows:

Whitington Castle in Shropshire, which together with the coheiress of the original proprietor had been won' in a solemn turnament by the ancestor of the Guarines,' had, in the reign of King John, been seized

I See the ancient record in Blount's Law Dictionary. (Alt. Minstrel.) 2 Bar. 1. p. 101. 3 Leland's Collectanea, vol. i. pp. 261, 266, 267. 4. This old feudal custom of marrying an heiress to the knight who should vanquish VOL. I.

« PreviousContinue »