Minstrels, or traveling thespians, thrived throughout Europe in medieval times. The term minstrel referred to a professional entertainer of any kind from the 12th century to the 17th century. Minstrels were instrumentalists but were also often jugglers, acrobats, and storytellers.
Although minstrels no longer exist, they played an important role in medieval history and, at one time, could be found, in one form or another, throughout the entire continent of Europe.
Different countries had different names for minstrels. In Germany, they were called minnesingers. In France, they were known as troubadours and jongleurs. The Scandinavian minstrels were called skalds. The Irish called their minstrels bards, while the English minstrels were referred to as scops. Minstrels were primarily singers and musicians.
These wandering performers were also storytellers, jugglers, clowns, and tumblers. Often minstrels were an important part of prominent households providing entertainment for the upper class of society. Those minstrels, who were not part of a noble’s homestead, traveled from town to town providing entertainment not only to noble classes but also to common village folk as well.
There were not many forms of entertainment, nor was there a means for people to learn about news events. There was no television or radio in medieval times. Even books were very scarce. Minstrels served to entertain the public. They made up songs, stories, and repeated ballads and folk tales popular during this time. Traveling from town to town minstrels were also a source of news.
This would share information with the townspeople of the village. The townspeople would share this news with the minstrels who would then share this news with the townspeople in the next village in which they performed. Each country in medieval Europe had its own type of minstrel. Each, while similar in their general role of entertainer, they were different in many ways. Troubadour’s, French minstrels, flourished from the 11th century through the 13th century.
Troubadours were found in the southern part of France. The troubadours were among the first minstrels to use their native tongue rather than Latin. The Latin language was considered the literary language of the middle ages. There were approximately 400 troubadours who were known to have lived. The majority of them were nobles and some were even kings (Microsoft Encarta 96 Encyclopedia.)
Originally troubadours sang their poems, later they were accompanied by jongleurs who played musical instruments. The musical instruments the jongleurs played were the fiddle and the lute. The subject of their songs was based on topics such as love, politics, religion, war, and death. Approximately 400 melodies and 4000 poems have been preserved from medieval troubadours (Microsoft Encarta 96 Encyclopedia.)
The German version of the Troubadour was the meistersinger.
The meaning of meistersinger is a master singer. The meistersingers were a group of poet musicians and were given the status of tradesmen. The first German minstrels were called minnesingers. These were primarily wandering poet-musicians. The word minnesinger means love singer. The meistersingers began in the late middle ages, attempting to revive the older minstrel art of the minnesingers.
From 1200 to 1400 the meistersingers began to develop rules for the composition of songs and even had schools to teach the art of being a meistersinger. Like music schools today, meistersingers had to study and pass exams before being considered a meistersinger. The Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales also had their minstrels called bards.
Bards were professional poets who sang about heroic accomplishments and national pride. They accompanied themselves with harps. Their chief form of expression was poetic alliteration or rhyme. By the 1700s the bards were no longer popular.
A famous playwright, William Shakespeare, is often called the Bard of Avon (World Book Encyclopedia pp. 109.) Today bards are often seen and heard at folk festivals.
The decline of minstrels was due to modernization. The printing press created newspapers, books, and other media, so the need for minstrels simply depleted. Now folktales could be written down, books and songs published, etc. There was just no more need for minstrels. Minstrels were the beatniks of medieval Europe.
They were a huge part of European culture until modernization brought on their demise. Poetry was, and continues to be a huge part of every society’s culture, so it would not be 100 percent accurate to say they were completely wiped out. Although minstrels no longer exist, they played an important role in medieval history and, at one time, could be found, in one form or another, throughout the entire continent of Europe.