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AN ESSAY

ON

THE ANCIENT MINSTRELS IN ENGLAND.

I. The MINSTRELS (A) were an order of men in the middle ages, who subsisted by the arts of poetry and music, and sang to the harp verses composed by themselves, or others 1. They also appear to have accompanied their songs with mimickry and action; and to have practised such various means of diverting as were much admired in those rude times, and supplied the want of more refined entertainment (B). These arts rendered them extremely popular and acceptable in this and all the neighbouring countries; where no high scene of festivity was esteemed complete that was not set off with the exercise of their talents; and where, so long as the spirit of chivalry subsisted, they were protected and caressed, because their songs tended to do honour to the ruling passion of the times, and to encourage and foment a martial spirit.

The Minstrels seem to have been the genuine successors of the ancient Bards (c), who, under different names, were admired and revered, from the earliest ages, among the people of Gaul, Britain, Ireland, and the North; and indeed by almost all the first inhabitants of Europe, whether of

(A) The larger notes and illustrations referred to by the letters (A) (B) &c. are thrown together to the end of this Essay.

1 Wedded to no hypothesis, the Author hath readily corrected any mistakes which have been proved to be in this Essay; and considering the novelty of the subject, and the time, and place, when and where he first took it up, many such had been excusable.-That the term minstrel was not confined, as some contend, to a mere musician, in this country, any more than on the Continent, will be considered more fully in the last note (GG) at the end of this Essay.

Celtic or Gothic race2; but by none more than by our own Teutonic ancestors 3, particularly by all the Danish tribes4. Among these they were distinguished by the name of SCALDS, a word which denotes "smoothers and polishers of language5." The origin of their art was attributed to ODIN or WODEN, the father of their gods, and the professors of it were held in the highest estimation. Their skill was considered as something divine; their persons were deemed sacred; their attendance was solicited by kings; and they were every where loaded with honours and rewards. short, Poets and their art were held among them in that rude admiration, which is ever shown by an ignorant people to such as excel them in intellectual accomplishments.

In

As these honours were paid to Poetry and Song, from the earliest times, in those countries which our Anglo-Saxon ancestors inhabited before their removal into Britain, we may reasonably conclude, that they would not lay aside all their regard for men of this sort immediately on quitting their German forests. At least, so long as they retained their ancient manners and opinions, they would still hold them in high estimation. But as the Saxons, soon after their establishment in this island, were converted to Christianity, in proportion as literature prevailed among them, this rude admiration would begin to abate, and poetry would be no longer a peculiar profession. Thus the POET and the MINSTREL early with us became two persons (D). Poetry was cultivated by men of letters indiscriminately; and many of the most popular rhymes were composed amidst the leisure and retirement of monasteries. But the minstrels continued a distinct order of men for many ages after the Norman

2 Vide Pelloutier Hist. des Celtes, tom. 1, 1. 2, c. 6, 10. 3 Tacit. de Mor. Germ. cap. 2.

4 Vide Bartholin. De Causis contemptæ a Danis Mortis, lib. i. cap. 10. Wormij Literatura Runic, ad finem.- See also "Northern Antiquities, or a Description of the Manners, Customs, &c., of the ancient Danes and other Northern Nations: from the French of M. Mallet." London, printed for T. Carnan, 1770. 2 vols. 8vo.

5 Torfæi Præf. ad Orcad. Hist.-Pref. to "Five Pieces of Runic Poetry," &c.

conquest, and got their livelihood by singing verses to the harp at the houses of the great (E). There they were still hospitably and respectfully received, and retained many of the honours shown to their predecessors, the BARDS and SCALDS (F). And though, as their art declined, many of them only recited the compositions of others, some of them still composed songs themselves, and all of them could probably invent a few stanzas on occasion. I have no doubt but most of the old heroic ballads in this collection were composed by this order of men; for, although some of the larger metrical romances might come from the pen of the monks or others, yet the smaller narratives were probably composed by the minstrels who sang them. From the amazing variations which occur in different copies of the old pieces, it is evident they made no scruple to alter each other's productions; and the reciter added or omitted whole stanzas according to his own fancy or convenience.

In the early ages, as was hinted above, the profession of oral itinerant Poet was held in the utmost reverence among all the Danish tribes; and therefore we might have concluded, that it was not unknown or unrespected among their Saxon brethren in Britain, even if history had been altogether silent on this subject. The original country of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors is well known to have lain chiefly in the Cimbric Chersonese, in the tracts of land since distinguished by the name of Jutland, Angelen, and Holstein 6 The Jutes and Angles in particular, who composed twothirds of the conquerors of Britain, were a Danish people, and their country at this day belongs to the crown of Denmark7; so that when the Danes again infested England, three or four hundred years after, they made war on the

6 Vide Chronic. Saxon. à Gibson, pp. 12, 13, 4to. -Bed. Hist. Eccles. à Smith, lib. i. c. xv.-"Ealdsexe [Regio antiq. Saxonum] in cervice Cimbricae Chersonesi, Holsatiam proprie dictam, Dithmarsiam, Stormariam, et Wagriam, complectens." Annot. in Bed. à Smith, p. 52. Et vide Camdeni

Britan.

7 "Anglia Vetus, hodie etiam Anglen, sita est inter Saxones et Giotes [Jutos], habens oppidum capitale Sleswick." Ethelwerd. lib. i.

....

descendants of their own ancestors 8. From this near affinity we might expect to discover a strong resemblance between both nations in their customs, manners, and even language; and, in fact, we find them to differ no more than would naturally happen between a parent country and its own colonies, that had been severed in a rude uncivilized state, and had dropt all intercourse for three or four centuries; especially if we reflect that the colony here settled had adopted a new religion, extremely opposite in all respects to the ancient Paganism of the mother-country; and that even at first, along with the original Angli, had been incorporated a large mixture of Saxons from the neighbouring parts of Germany; and afterwards, among the Danish invaders, had come vast multitudes of adventurers from the more northern parts of Scandinavia. But all these were only different tribes of the same common Teutonic stock, and spoke only different dialects of the same Gothic language9.

From this sameness of original and similarity of manners we might justly have wondered, if a character, so dignified and distinguished among the ancient Danes as the Scald or Bard, had been totally unknown or unregarded in this sister nation. And indeed this argument is so strong, and, at the same time, the early annals of the Anglo-Saxons are so scanty and defective (a), that no objections from their silence could be sufficient to overthrow it. For if these popular bards were confessedly revered and admired in those very countries which the Anglo-Saxons inhabited before their removal into Britain, and if they were afterwards common and numerous among the other descendants of the same Teutonic ancestors, can we do otherwise than conclude, that men of this order accompanied such tribes as migrated hither; that they afterwards subsisted here, though perhaps with less splendour than in the North; and that there never was wanting a succession of them to hand down 8 See Northern Antiquities, &c. vol. i. pp. 7, 8, 185, 259, 260, 261. 9 Ibid. Preface, p. xxvi.

the art, though some particular conjunctures may have rendered it more respectable at one time than another? And this was evidently the case. For though much greater honours seem to have been heaped upon the northern Scalds, in whom the characters of historian, genealogist, poet, and musician, were all united, than appear to have been paid to the Minstrels and Harpers (H) of the Anglo-Saxons, whose talents were chiefly calculated to entertain and divert; while the Scalds professed to inform and instruct, and were at once the moralists and theologues of their Pagan countrymen; yet the Anglo-Saxon Minstrels continued to possess no small portion of public favour; and the arts they professed were so extremely acceptable to our ancestors, that the word Glee, which peculiarly denoted their art, continues still in our own language to be of all others the most expressive of that popular mirth and jollity, that strong sensation of delight, which is felt by unpolished and simple minds (1).

II. Having premised these general considerations, I shall now proceed to collect from history such particular incidents as occur on this subject; and, whether the facts themselves are true or not, they are related by authors who lived too near the Saxon times, and had before them too many recent monuments of the Anglo-Saxon nation, not to know what was conformable to the genius and manners of that people; and therefore we may presume, that their relations prove at least the existence of the customs and habits they attribute to our forefathers before the Conquest, whatever becomes of the particular incidents and events themselves. If this be admitted, we shall not want sufficient proofs to show that Minstrelsy and Song were not extinct among the AngloSaxons; and that the professor of them here, if not quite so respectable a personage as the Danish Scald, was yet highly favoured and protected, and continued still to enjoy considerable privileges.

Even so early as the first invasion of Britain by the

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