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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

I. The Origins of English Drama

§ 3. The Normans and their Minstrels

The Norman conquest brought into England a foreign baronage; the high places in church and state were now filled by foreign occupants; at the altars of many of the churches of the land knelt foreign priests; in the cloisters of most of its convents walked foreign monks. But it also provided with an English “establishment” many a French or Flemish adventurer of lowly origin or doubtful past. Moreover, these very Normans, who had been the hero-adventurers of the western world, who were the combatant sons of the church, and some of whose most signal successes were even now only in process of achievement, had begun to enter into a phase of chivalry in which doughty deeds are done, and difficult enterprises are carried on, with one eye to a crown of glory and the other to material profit. Thus, the influence of the Norman conquest upon English life, where it was something more than the pressure exercised by overbearing masters, was by no means altogether ennobling or elevating. The diversions, too, of what was now the ruling class in England were so mixed in character that the very names of their purveyors cannot be kept asunder with precision. The trouvères of Normandy and northern France, “inventors” of romances about deeds of prowess which they sang to their own accompaniment on harp or lute or viol, were frequently called jongleurs (joculatores)—a term so comprehensive that it may appropriately be translated by “entertainers.” The third designation, ménestrels or minstrels, which became the usual term in England, is, of course, only another form of the Latin ministeriales, servants of the house, implying the attachment of those who bore it to a particular household, whence, however, they might set forth to exhibit their skill abroad. The fourth term, gestours (singers of chansons de geste), whom Chaucer couples with “minestrales” as telling tales

  • Of romaunces that ben reales
  • Of popes and of cardinales,
  • And eke of love-longing,
  • is, in its original significance, the exact equivalent of trouvères. It will be shown in the next chapter how, with these “singers” and “entertainers” came to be mixed up already in France and in Normandy, and with them were by the Conquest transplanted to England, those humbler strollers to whom reference has already been made, and of whose survival from the days of the Roman Cæsars into those of the Carolings sufficient evidence remains. There has at all times been a familiarity amounting to a kind of freemasonry between all branches of the “profession”; and Activa Vita’s contemptuous summary in Piers Plowman of the minstrel’s accepted accomplishments includes the widest “variety” possible of resources open to those who “live to please.”

    Upon the whole, it may safely be asserted that the influence of these minstrels (using the term in the widest sense permissible) was not great upon the beginnings of English drama and was very far from being one of its main sources. On the other hand, some dramatic touches, reminiscences, traditions—call it what you will, for of all crafts this is the most tenacious of what appertains to its “business”—must have lingered on in the performances of that lower or more popular species of ministrels who cannot but have retained some sort of contact with the higher and more refined as well as more creative class. Thus, though invisible to the eye of the closest student, some slender thread of continuity may connect the end of the ancient with the beginnings of the modern, including the English, stage. It was the theatre which, towards the close of the fifteenth century, in all but the lowest spheres of their activity, cut the ground from under the feet of the “last minstrels”; yet this very theatre may owe them a debt of the kind which it is never possible to recover. In England, the performances of the minstrels cannot be shown to connect themselves with the beginnings of any particular dramatic species (as the jeux of their French confrères connect themselves with the beginnings of farce, and thus, indirectly with those of comedy); but the wandering minstrels with the tread of whose feet the roads of England were familiar certainly sped the early efforts of English drama if they did not contribute to them, and, what is more, they helped to secure its vitality by making and keeping it popular. In the nomad life of medieval England, of which we owe an incomparable picture to the genius of Jusserand, the minstrels were alike omnipresent and indispensable—as news-bearers, as story-tellers, as makers of mirth; and the rewards showered upon them, even if they were “king’s minstrels” by no better right than that by which obscure “provincial” playhouses call themselves “Theatres Royal,” probably exhausted the kindly and charitable impulses of no small a proportion of the community. As Normans and Englishmen were more and more those of the people, although the latter might be less exacting as to the quality of the performances produced by the minstrels for their entertainment. Attempts at suppression as well as at restriction in the interests of the “party of order” followed, and were met, in the Plantagenet period, by satire, by what might almost be called “nationalist” ballads, and by “merry tales” discreditable to the church—in all of which we shall not err in recognising the irrepressible voice of the minstrels. But neither their vitality nor their decay can occupy us in this place; and all that the student will here be asked to concede is that the vigorous and long-lived growth of minstrelsy, which undoubtedly derived its origin in part from the remnants of the ancient theatre, in its turn effectively helped to prepare the soil for the advent of the modern drama, in England as elsewhere, and to foster the growth which gradually sprang up from the seed cast into it. The question still remains: whence did that seed come?