Richard Tarleton – fool, actor, playwright, poet, musician and legend – was the foremost stage clown of his age, celebrated in his own lifetime and well beyond. As an actor, he was a star of the stage when permanent theatre buildings were new, a fool or comedian of great physical and verbal wit, a serious player of affecting pathos, and a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s own acting company, The Queen’s Players. As a successful playwright, he wrote in the tradition of morality plays. As a poet and essayist, he wrote on the theme of natural disasters and divine displeasure. As a musician, he was a player of pipe and tabor and a creator of extempore comedy songs. As a legend, much-loved and much-missed after his sudden death, he was a byword for exemplary wit, his name used to sell literature for decades, his image still used and recognised two centuries later.
This is the first of four articles trawling 16th and 17th century sources to build up a picture of the man. This introductory article begins with a short history of fools in their three types – natural, ungodly, and artificial – to put Tarleton in his historical context; clarifies what contemporaneous writers meant when they described him as a jester; then describes his ‘country fool’ clown’s costume and notable physical appearance. Two neglected topics comprise the second and third articles. Part 2: Tarleton the player and playwright considers his range as a comic and serious actor and his style as a playwight, with an evidenced reconstruction of his lost play, The Secound parte of the Seven Deadlie Sinns. Part 3: Richard Tarleton the musician and broadside writer examines his style as a taborer; describes Tarleton as a comedic creator of extempore songs from themes called out by the audience; and surveys the evidence for Tarleton as a composer of ballads. Part 4: Tributes to Tarleton – with a musical discovery from the 16th centurysummarises the broadside ballads, books and plays which praised Tarleton and used his persona after his premature death. In particular, a musical biography of Richard Tarleton, A pretie new ballad, intituled willie and peggie, has its words and music reunited after 400 years of separation in a featured video performance.
Coventry Carol sings the loss of slaughtered infants in a play depicting Herod’s massacre of the innocents. These mystery plays were religious community events, telling Bible stories in the vernacular with humour and pathos, from the creation right through to judgement day. They were performed annually by the local trade or craft guilds, a tradition that began in the middle ages. The mystery plays were threatened in 1548, along with the banning of the Feast of Corpus Christi that was the occasion of their performance, in a royal and ecclesiastical bid to rid England of all vestiges of Catholicism.
The play that carried Coventry Carol has only been preserved through acts of good timing and good luck, surviving the general loss of many period artefacts, royal suppression of its staging, and a devastating fire that destroyed the original document.
My first hearing of it was an act of theatre that changed my life. This was way back in 1984, but even now a shiver runs down my spine each time I think of it. The experience showed me the door to early music, a door which John Renbourn later opened; and it taught me what, at its best, a song can be.
This article was first published on 19th July 2015, now updated to include an interview with the author, Ian Pittaway, in an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music, and his performance of the song for the programme with Andy Casserley in the early music duo, The Night Watch. A video of the recording of the song for Soul Music is included in this article. The Coventry Carol edition of Soul Music was broadcast on Christmas Day 2019.
The 16th century song, Westron wynde, is an expression of longing to be with one’s love. It is just one verse and melody in a manuscript from the court of King Henry VIII. Much ink has been fancifully spilled over the meaning of its four lines. This article traces the history of its treatment through renaissance masses, folk music and 20th century pop music; attempts to elucidate its meaning without fancy; and presents an arrangement to renaissance musical principles on bray harp.
A mention of the violin today is likely to conjure up images of a classical, orchestral, or jazz musician, whereas the word fiddle is more likely to suggest a traditional or folk musician, even though they’re essentially the same instrument, set up differently to suit different styles of playing. This class-based relegation of the term fiddle was not always so. Centuries before the creation of the violin there was the medieval fiddle, also known by its French name, the vielle. This brief introduction demonstrates that the playing style and sound of the medieval fiddle had more in common with the hurdy gurdy and the crwth (bowed lyre) than the modern violin. Includes illustrations and video examples.
This is one of two editions of this article, being a short introduction to the vielle, intended for the general reader. There is a longer version, The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle, which has a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth.
The vielle or medieval fiddle was the most popular instrument in its heyday for secular song accompaniment. It first appeared in western Europe in the 11th century and continued to be played until the middle of the 16th century, flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries. There is a wealth of vielle iconography, which can tell us a great deal about the variety of its form and the context of its use. There is a medieval source for its tuning, Jerome of Moravia in the 13th century, who gives 3 tunings, leaving us with some puzzles as to what exactly they mean in practice, which this article attempts to resolve. Our only renaissance tuning source is Johannes Tinctoris in the 15th century, which isn’t entirely clear in its meaning.
This page provides a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth or bowed lyre, demonstrating that they were identical in style, having more in common with the hurdy gurdy family than modern bowed strings.
The rebec is a late medieval and renaissance gut-strung bowed instrument with 3 strings, its body carved from a solid piece of wood. Its sound has a nasal quality, unlike the more full-sounding modern violin, which shares some of the rebec’s characteristics: strings played with a bow, a fretless neck, a curved bridge to allow strings to be bowed singly, and a soundboard carved to have a gentle upward curve. Distinguishing the rebec from other medieval and renaissance bowed instruments, in particular the vielle (medieval fiddle), has been a matter of some contention until more recent scholarship re-evaluated the primary evidence.
Though the rebec has gained a reputation as a medieval instrument, it was still being played beyond the renaissance and to the end of the baroque period in western Europe, by now having fallen from grace from a regal courtly instrument to one of lowly street entertainment.
This article begins with a video of a rebec / gittern pairing, playing an early 15th century song.
The remarkable longevity of a 16th century song and tune
Greensleeves, composed anonymously in 1580, is a song which has been a magnet for fanciful claims. This article examines the claims that Henry VIII wrote it for Anne Boleyn; that Lady Greensleeves was a loose woman or a prostitute; and that the song has Irish origins. This is the first of three articles, looking at the song’s mythology; its true history; and video examples of its musical transformations.