Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs and Other Pieces of Our Earlier Poets Together With Some Few of Later Date (Complete)

Library of Alexandria, 28 sep. 2020

When Percy wrote the opening sentence in his first sketch of that "Essay on the Ancient English Minstrels" (1765), which was the foundation of the literature of the subject, he little expected the severe handling he was to receive from the furious Ritson for his hasty utterance. His words were, "The minstrels seem to have been the genuine successors of the ancient bards, who united the arts of poetry and music, and sung verses to the harp of their own composing." The bishop was afterwards convinced, from Ritson's remarks, that the rule he had enunciated was too rigid, and in the later form of the Essay he somewhat modified his language. The last portion of the sentence then stood, "composed by themselves or others," and a note was added to the effect that he was "wedded to no hypothesis."

Sir Walter Scott criticised the controversy in his interesting article on Romance in the supplement to the Encyclopædia Britannica, where he wrote: "When so popular a department of poetry has attained this decided character, it becomes time to inquire who were the composers of these numerous, lengthened, and once-admired narratives which are called metrical romances, and from whence they drew their authority. Both these subjects of discussion have been the source of great controversy among antiquarians; a class of men who, be it said with their forgiveness, are apt to be both positive and polemical upon the very points which are least susceptible of proof, and which are least valuable if the truth could be ascertained; and which, therefore, we would gladly have seen handled with more diffidence and better temper in proportion to their uncertainty." After some remarks upon the essays of Percy and Ritson, he added, "Yet there is so little room for this extreme loss of temper, that upon a recent perusal of both these ingenious essays, we were surprised to find that the reverend editor of the Reliques and the accurate antiquary have differed so very little as in essential facts they appear to have done. Quotations are indeed made by both with no sparing hand; and hot arguments, and on one side, at least, hard words are unsparingly employed; while, as is said to happen in theological polemics, the contest grows warmer in proportion as the ground concerning which it is carried on is narrower and more insignificant. In reality their systems do not essentially differ." Ritson's great object was to set forth more clearly than Percy had done that the term minstrel was a comprehensive one, including the poet, the singer, and the musician, not to mention the fablier, conteur, jugleur, baladin, &c.

Ritson delighted in collecting instances of the degradation into which the minstrel gradually sank, and, with little of Percy's taste, he actually preferred the ballad-writer's songs to those of the minstrel. Percy, on the other hand, gathered together all the material he could to set the minstrel in a good light. There is abundant evidence that the latter was right in his view of the minstrel's position in feudal times, but there were grades in this profession as in others, and law-givers doubtless found it necessary to control such Bohemians as wandered about the country without licence. The minstrel of a noble house was distinguished by bearing the badge of his lord attached to a silver chain, and just as in later times the players who did not bear the name of some courtier were the subjects of parliamentary enactments, so the unattached minstrels were treated as vagrants. Besides the minstrels of great lords, there were others attached to important cities. On May 26, 1298, as appears by the Wardrobe accounts of Edward I., that king gave 6s. 8d. to Walter Lovel, the harper of Chichester, whom he found playing the harp before the tomb of St. Richard in the Cathedral of Chichester.

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