The Minstrel Class: Traveling Artists and Street Music

  July 14, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Minstrel Class: Traveling Artists and Street Music
Popular music in a settled community involves a somewhat organized class of persons who make their living by it. Like the bards of the older time, the mediaeval itinerant minstrels constituted a significant type.

Such rude musicians were the medium through which folk music "vas disseminated and preserved. By them the songs and dances of one locality were mingled with those of other places. They often wrought what they found into a finer shape or added to it from their own invention. They were usually skillful players, and often greatly improved musical instruments. Their business was not to theorize about music or to play the role of formal composers, but to render it with voice and finger so as to make it socially attractive and indispensable. They were bound to keep in touch with strictly popular taste. The minstrel, as his name implies, was the' servant' of his audiences. Yet, wherever he was also something of a genius, he was incidentally a leader and teacher as well.

Throughout the Middle Ages the popularity of traveling singers and players is constantly indicated. Perhaps they Inay have been the successors of the tricksters and mountebanks of the later Roman domination. The line between the clown and the minstrel proper was seldom sharply drawn. Often there was a strong prejudice against all such itinerants because of their lawlessness - a prejudice that took shape in edicts, civil and religious, which sometimes attempted to suppress them altogether.

But the popular craving for amusement - all the stronger because of the hard and narrow conditions of life - gave them employment and a measure of wondering admiration. Part of the contempt that has pursued the 'whole art of music even to modern times is due to the medireval association of it with coarse buffoonery, athletic tricks and shows of trained animals. Vagrant minstrels were too often mere beggars or thieves or corrupters of public morals. Yet it is only just to remember that the minstrel class was artistically serviceable in many ways.

Attention has been called to the guilds of the Meistersinger in Germany. Somewhat similar institutions appeared much earlier in England, France and the Low Countries, though they were not governed by such fantastic rules, nor were they ordinarily so secret and exclusive. They remind us of the bands of Gipsies that still exist in many parts of the world. Indeed, it" seems that between them and the modern Gipsies there is some real connection.

The earliest mention of a personage called' The King of the Jugglers' is in England at the time of William the Conqueror (before 1100. Several such 'Kings' are named in the 13th century at different places. For over four centuries the same title recurs, often with civil privileges conferred by' statute. The name implies the existence of organized societies. Several such brotherhoods are matters of record, notably the Confrerie de St. Julien, first recognized in Paris in 1331, and the ivIusicians' Company, established in London in 1472, the latter of which still exists in honor.

These are but samples of a multitude of such organizations that were once common in France and neighboring countries, and which varied widely in character, from the almost casual group of mere itinerants to the permanent town or city union that assumed to dictate within its boundaries who could ply the musical trade or profession. The connection of these medieeval institutions with the later guilds of town-musicians, especially in Germany, can be traced in considerable detail, as also with the modern learned and artistic musical societies and academies in various lands.

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