Medieval Minstrels and Their Music: A Brief Overview

What was a minstrel? What role did they have in medieval society? What type of music did they play? Here is a brief overview.

The minstrel carvings in Beverley Minster are central to the plot in The Stonemason’s Secret. I’ve written about them before, but in this post I want to explore who the minstrels were and the music that they played.

Among the 76 figures playing instruments in Beverley Minster, there are 27 carvings along the north aisle that represent local minstrels. These carvings were completed in the second quarter of the 14th century and are the largest collection of three-dimensional representations of medieval instruments in the world. Though many of the carvings have been restored, they still provide valuable information about medieval instruments and playing techniques.

Medieval Minstrels in England

Minstrels were popular between approximately 1250 and 1500 and their main role was to provide musical entertainment.

Medieval carving of minstrel playing drums with drumsticks

Initially, they were mostly travelling musicians, without permanent address or means of income, relying on hand outs when they performed. Over time, nobles began employing them to provide music for their households. With that change, minstrels gained a steady income and a place to live.

By the late middle ages, the time period of the Beverley minstrel carvings, most minstrels in England were not employed by the monarch or nobility. Instead, they worked in feudal households or in towns as members of a civic band. The church also began to employ them in local churches, or in the households of various Church officials.

Minstrels Guild in Beverley

As with many crafts and trades of the time, minstrel guilds were formed to support and improve the lives of their members. Beverley was the headquarters for a guild of minstrels, and the prosperity of the guild attracted musicians to move there.

How prosperous were they? While they are no surviving records, the Minstrel Guild donated money in the 15th century to help renovated the nave piers in St. Mary’s Church. Their patronage was acknowledged with the Minstrel Pillar carved atop one pier.

Medieval Music

Medieval music was either sacred or secular. Sacred music included chants and other music used during the liturgy. Secular music was played in civic processions and celebrations and for entertainment during banquets and dances.

Music notation began during the medieval period, but little medieval music has survived in written form.

Medieval instruments were divided into two types – haut and bas. Haut are the loud, shrill instruments used to play outdoors. Haut is French for “high”, and here it means high in volume. Haut instruments were used by civic bands in processions and for celebrations. Examples include shawms, pipe and tabor, and bagpipes.

In contract, Bas instruments produce soft, low tones. Bas means low, again referring to the volume of sound they produced. Bas instruments were used indoors for liturgical services, mystery plays, banquets, and dances. Examples of bas instruments are woodwinds and strings.

Beverley Minster North Aisle Minstrel Carvings

The carvings in the Minster’s north aisle are not grouped by type of instrument, in some cases having haut and bas side-by-side. Therefore, they do not represent a group that would have performed together.

What they may represent is another instance of the Minstrel Guild donating money for the building of the nave. In recognition of a donation, the series was carved and placed along the north wall. While no records remain to verify this, it was the conclusion I came to when I researched the carvings for my Master’s degree.

Still, could there be something to the way the carvings are grouped? That is one of the questions Sarah Walker grapples with in The Stonemason’s Secret.  Do the figures she found the clues on form a sort of group. If so, what would it mean? How could it help her find the Cup of Jamshid? What she learns is…well, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

Want to know what medieval music sounded like? Have a listen to the Spotify playlist of secular medieval music I created.

To read more about medieval minstrels:

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