Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 2. Minstrels’s Songs

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XVI. Transition English Song Collections

§ 2. Minstrels’s Songs

The collections of minstrels’s songs are especially rich. The minstrel no longer confined himself to songs of rude and humble ancestry, but encroached both on the devotional verse of the monk, and on the songs of the gallant. This readily explains itself, if one is mindful to identify these minstrels with that class of men who had more and more usurped the prerogatives of minstrelsy, the scolares vagantes, those irresponsible college graduates and light-hearted vagabonds, who were equally at home in ale-house, in hall, in market-place or in cloister, and who could sing with equal spirit a ribald and saucy love song, a convivial glee, a Christmas carol, a hymn to the Virgin, or a doleful lay on the instability of life or the fickleness of riches. Most of them were men who had taken minor orders, and who, therefore, knew missal, breviary and hymnal; their life at the university had given them some acquaintance with books, their wayside intercourse with the minstrel had given them his ballads and his jargon of washed-out romantic tales and their homely contact with the people had taught them the songs of the street and of the folk-festival; they were, therefore, “the main intermediaries between the learned and the vernacular letters of the day,” and they tended to reduce all to a common level. If they compelled the rude folk-song to conform to the metres of the Latin hymns, they compensated for this by reducing to these same simple metres the artistically fashioned stanzas of highly wrought spiritual songs, as well as by introducing the popular refrain into lyrics of every kind. When they sang of the joys of Mary, of the righteousness of a saint, or of a prince renowned for his deeds, they received the approbation of bishop or abbot; when they satirised his cupidity, or sang wanton songs at banquets, they called down the bishop’s indignation; but, bishop or no bishop, they never lacked an audience.

As the ability to read became more general, and as taste was refined by the possession of books of real poetic merit, the minstrel, even if one who had tarried in the schools, found his audience more and more limited to the common folk; but, even in the fifteenth century, though his wretched copies of the old romances, with their sing-song monotony, might be the laughing-stock of people of taste, his Christmas carols would still gain him admission to the halls of the nobility.

As the minstrel thus trespassed upon the provinces of religious and polite poets, so each of these in turn invaded the fields of others, with the result that the monk adopted the formulary of amatory address for his love songs to the Virgin, and the gallant introduced elements from the folk-poetry into his embroidered lays.

Considering this confusion, for purposes of discussion it is more satisfactory to classify the songs with reference to types than with reference to authorship. Romances and tales have been dealt with elsewhere: though they are to be found in the collections, and were, probably, chanted in humdrum fashion to the accompaniment of a harp, they are narratives, and not at all lyrical.