Wandering Minstrels in the Middle Ages (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Wandering Minstrels in the Middle Ages

Q1: Describe the two different types of minstrels in the Middle Ages. Explain the different reasons why these men and women became minstrels.

A1: Some minstrels were employed by the rich. As the rich tended to speak Latin and French, the songs were performed in these languages. The main audience for wandering minstrels were farm and town workers. These songs were performed in English and were much more critical of society than those sung by minstrels employed by the rich. Both groups of minstrels were motivated by money. It would seem that wandering minstrels received a great deal less than those employed by the rich and powerful. Political opinions probably had an effect on the type of minstrel they decided to be. For example, those who sympathised with the poor were more likely to become wandering minstrels.

Q2: Select passages from the sources in this unit that suggests that wandering minstrels were very popular in the Middle Ages.

A2: William Langland in source 2 claims that he knew the rhymes of Robin Hood better than he knew the Lord's Prayer. David Stephens (source 3) argues that wandering minstrels were like today's journalists as they kept the people informed about what was going on in the world. As most of the population were not allowed to leave their village, wandering minstrels provided an important service during the Middle Ages.

Q3: Study source 8. Select songs from this unit that the Bishop of Worcester would probably have claimed "move men to mischievous behaviour".

A3: Sources 5 and 6 are both potentially dangerous songs. The Husbandman Song claims that the tax system was so unfair that if the poor had a leader they would probably revolt. The Gest of Robin Hood deals with a man who did lead a revolt and "did poor men much good". This is supported by source 4 where John Major argues that Robin Hood "robbed those that were wealthy" and gave money to the poor.

Q4: Compare the value of sources 6, 8 and 9 to a historian writing about working-class entertainment during the Middle Ages.

A4: There are a great many sources about the culture of the rich. Several authors wrote about the books they read, the music they listened to and the paintings that they looked at. A considerable number of these books, song lyrics and paintings have survived.

As the vast majority of people were illiterate, their culture was mainly an oral culture. It was only in the later stages of the Middle Ages that their songs and stories began to be written down. Even when they recorded their culture in words, it was often judged to be "mischievous" and attempts were made to destroy it. As a result, very few of the songs performed by wandering minstrels have survived. That is why the few songs that have, such as The Husbandman Song, are so important to the historian interested in working-class culture.

One way of finding out about working-class culture is through the sources produced by the rich and powerful. For example, source 8 illustrates how the songs performed by the wandering minstrels worried the leaders of the Church. This is understandable as these songs told stories of how Robin Hood stole from the Church and gave money to the poor (source 4).

The law passed by Edward IV in 1469 (source 9) also illustrates that the king and his parliament were also worried about the influence of the wandering minstrels. Under the terms of this law, wandering minstrels had to be approved by the minstrel guild before they could perform in public. Those minstrels who were known to perform "mischievous" songs would have been refused permission to join the guild.