This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 7. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 3-6.

The minstrel was one of the most picturesque figures of medieval life. He seems to have inherited some features of the Roman histrions and others of the bards of Gaul and Germany. In the summer, arrayed in particolored costume, and with a harp or viol across his shoulders, he ambled on a gaily-caparisoned mule from town to town and from castle to castle. His song was introduced and followed by feats of agility and legerdemain, and was accompanied with such crude music as he could command. His themes were the miracles of the saints, the stories of Scripture, or perhaps more frequently, the legends of later heroes. At the country fairs and in the market places he gathered an appreciative crowd, and in the feudal castles, whose monotony, except in actual warfare, was broken only by tournaments, he was the most welcome. High and low, old and young, glowed with enthusiasm as he sang of the prowess of Christian warriors. Lords and ladies took delight in rewarding him with substantial gifts. Kings and princes attached the most skillful of his class to their retinue. Even bishops and abbesses sought to retain their serviced permanently.


Minstrelsy may be deemed as the mother of a literature which paved the way for a revival of the drama. The accents of these versatile gleemen aroused the Muses from their protracted sleep. In nearly all parts of what is now known as France the "gay science" found more or less gifted votaries among the well-born cultured. The trouvères and troubadours successively took up the lyre, the former to the north of the Loire, and the latter under the softer skies of the south, where the Langue d'Oc, a tongue resembling Italian rather than French, was spoken. Uninfluenced by ancient models, but not free, especially after the first crusade, from a tinge of Oriental imagery and refinement, the consequent efflorescence of poetry, viewed as a whole, presents a striking picture of the thought and sentiment of the age which produced it, the age when chivalry was gilding the darker features of feudalism and the misery it wrought.

That the merits of minstrel literature obtained a wide acknowledgement there can be no doubt. Once heard, a passage of noble poetry, with or without the aid of music, could not be forgotten. "Many of your love verses to me," writes Hélöise to Abelard, "were so beautiful in their language and melody that your name was incessantly in the mouths of all, and even the most illiterate were charmed. You caused women to envy me. Every tongue spoke of your Hélöise; every street and every house resounded with my name." In other words, the minstrels were more sought after and recompensed than ever, and their social status advanced. Making Paris their headquarters, those of the north formed themselves into a corporation, acquired exclusive privileges, received permission to style their chief Roi, and became so opulent that two members of the fraternity alone could afford to build a church and a hospital in the street they inhabited. While this may seem incredible, it should be remembered that the purses which the jongleurs carried in their belts as a part of their equipment were always well filled at the mansions of the rich, where they were lavishly entertained, even the poor also contributing freely of their means.


The success and popularity of these jongleurs attracted unworthy followers and imitators. These low fellows, unable to obtain entrance to courts and baronial halls, donned grotesque dresses, stationed themselves in market-place or village green and supplemented their verses with coarse buffoonery, feats of legerdemain, tricks with monkeys, and doggerel appealing to a vitiated taste. It was to no purpose that Philip Augustus and Saint Louis banished them from the country, or that the poets, finding the honored names of trouvère and troubadour trailed through the dirt, angrily denounced them as bastards, and ceased to provide them with verse. The contempt in which they came to be held is clearly shown by the fact that jonglerie was employed as a term for anything base, and a decree was issued condemning them to imprisonment as rogues and vagabonds.

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