“the verray develes officeres”: minstrels and the medieval church

In the middle ages, minstrels were regularly accused by church commentators of vanity, idleness, inflaming carnal desire, lechery, and leading others into vice. In the 12th century, Bishop of Chartres John of Salisbury expressed the view that all minstrels should be exterminated. Because of this reputation, the church wanted to ensure that its most sacred music was different in kind to minstrel music, and restated several times that only the voice and organ were allowed in the liturgy, not instruments of minstrelsy. Still some writers complained bitterly of secular styles of music corrupting singers’ voices in sacred chant.

How can we account for the contradiction between clergy’s invectives against minstrels and the innumerable quantity of medieval and renaissance paintings in which gitterns, shawms, harps, fiddles, lutes – the instruments of minstrels – are shown in worship of the Virgin Mary and in praise of the infant Jesus? How can we reconcile the critiques of clerics against minstrels with their regular appearance in religious manuscripts, their likenesses carved in churches, and their employment by the church? This article seeks answers through the evidence of medieval Christian moralists; Church Councils; music treatises; religious paintings; records of church ceremonies; and the relationship of the church with organised minstrelsy.

Images from the Luttrell Psalter, 1325-1340 (BL Add MS 42130). Top row, left to right: church singers (f. 171v); bishop (f. 31r); pilgrim (f. 32r); nun (f. 51v). This row, left to right, players of: harp (f. 174v); pipe and tabor (f. 164v); organistrum, also called the symphony (f. 176r); portative organ (f. 176r).

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The rebec: a short history from court to street

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.

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