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THE STORY OF NORMAN ENGLAND began with a song. At about nine o’clock on the morning of Saturday 14 October 1066, the minstrel Taillefer rode out on his horse and began to juggle with his sword. As he juggled, he sang the Song of Roland.

He was at the foot of Senlac ridge, a few miles from Hastings. Above him on the ridge, stretching for nearly three-quarters of a mile and seven lines deep, was the entire army of Harold, King of England, in battle order. A solid wall of shields was punctuated only by bristling spears and great double-headed battleaxes.

Taillefer was the enemy. This was a gig to be remembered.

The minstrel was a Norman, part of Duke William of Normandy’s invading force. The rest of that force was behind him, a little over 100 yards from the Anglo-Saxons. The archers were in front, then the infantry, and at the back were the knights on their small stallions.

All through the summer Harold had been expecting the Normans to invade but by mid-September he had figured it was too late in the season and stood down his coastal defences. Then his kingdom was attacked in Yorkshire by Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and he had marched north to deal with the threat.

That was when the Normans made their crossing. They had landed at Pevensey on 28 September and since then they had been consolidating their hold on the area around Hastings. They had not expected to be challenged for quite a while yet, and were busy foraging and looting. When the Anglo-Saxon army arrived late the previous afternoon William was taken by surprise. Harold was supposed to be fully tied up in the North and perhaps even defeated. Instead, he had crushed Hardrada a full three days before William invaded, and he then made an astonishingly swift march south, first to London and then onwards to the Norman invasion site.

Harold’s arrival was most alarming for the Normans. They were not going to have as easy a time as they had supposed. William decided he had better not leave his troops with any time to think about what was happening, and spent the night gathering up his foraging parties and preparing them for battle. In the early dawn they began the six-mile march to meet the Anglo-Saxons.

When the Normans arrived at Senlac they were presented with a discouraging sight. They were geared up to face an army like their own, with archers in front, then the infantry, and perhaps cavalry behind. Instead they saw a long wall of wooden shields that would be impervious to their arrows. Even worse, there were no Anglo-Saxon archers to shoot back at them – Normans did not carry many arrows and relied on picking up their enemy’s spent ones after the first barrage.

Their infantry would have to attack with the undamaged enemy raining down deadly missiles from above them as they struggled up the slope. Then the knights would also have to launch themselves uphill, having to push their horses’ flesh against a solid and heavily spiked wall of shields.

It would be a suicide assault.

It appears that the Norman resolve to fight was somewhat uncertain. The Anglo-Saxons would not have helped matters by chanting their prebattle war cry: ‘Ut! Ut!’ (Out! Out!). Simple, and intimidating when shouted by 7000 or 8000 men armed with spears and axes.

It was at this uncertain point that William’s minstrel Taillefer asked for permission to give a little performance.*1

According to one account, he rode forward and juggled with his sword. A minstrel was a ‘jongleur’, a jester, a general entertainer, but if juggling was all Taillefer did it would have been very odd. Another chronicle, presumably based on an account by someone nearer the performance, describes him singing the Song of Roland.

The version we have runs to 291 verses, which is a little long for the event. Since it is clear from internal references that it dates from somewhat later than 1066, we can assume that Taillefer was working from an earlier and probably shorter version; and that even then, under the circumstances, he probably went for the edited highlights. The song he sang told a famous story, of battle against impossible odds and heroic death that would never be forgotten.

And then he attacked the Anglo-Saxon line, all by himself. And he was killed.

There have been other battles, even in recent years, when soldiers who were required to attack but were frightened to advance have watched a volunteer from their own ranks go forward to certain death. The result always seems to be the same. The death creates a moral certainty; the survival of the men watching seems not to matter to them any more. Now they will advance with absolute resolution, irrespective of the odds. They do this not to exact revenge or even because they feel hatred for the enemy – they advance because they are totally bonded to the man they saw die. In this moment they do not have homes or even lives to return to. This moment is all there is, and the spinning world revolves around what they must do.

This is why the battlefield can be a place of music, of song, of poetry. Taillefer’s death-song shaped the history of England, Europe and the whole world.

The Normans charged. The initial attack was indeed suicidal, but their determination to succeed was now unbreakable. The first assault was followed by another, and then another. The battle continued all day long until eventually, as it began to grow dark, the English defence crumbled, dissolved and disappeared. A new history of England had begun.

The Norman survivors did not see this wonderful tale as being all that heroic. The Bayeux tapestry, a strip-cartoon account of the high points of the conquest of England, leaves Taillefer out. The hint of cowardice, the leadership of a low-born entertainer – these do not seem to have been themes that attracted Odo, bishop of Bayeux, the man who commissioned the tapestry.


An eleventh-century jongleur was pretty low down in the social order. Taillefer was a ‘jongleur des gestes’, a man who entertained the mighty with the heroic epics that fired their blood. The emphasis was entirely on military virtues; women barely figure in the epics of the period. These poems were a validation of the military ethos, placing the listeners inside the world of heroic action and, in effect, inviting them to see their own warfare as participation in a cosmic drama of masculine sacrifice and loyalty.

The role of minstrels naturally developed further as the concept of chivalry became more elaborated; eventually they were expected to act as heralds, turning acts of bravery and prowess during battles and tournaments into songs – chansons de geste – that served as celebrations and scorecards. They became PR men and were paid by the hero whose bravery they celebrated. One of the first examples is the specially commissioned life in verse of William Marshal, ‘the flower of chivalry’ – paid for by his son in 1219, the year of William’s death.

The teller of this biographical chanson de geste was probably William’s squire. In this rough-and-ready military culture little distinction was made between those servants who could sing or recite poetry and those who could cook or do other chores. Jongleurs were expected to make themselves useful in all sorts of ways. They had instruments and loud voices? Fine, let them act as night watchmen, sounding the alarm in the case of attack or fire.

In 1306, a minstrel called Richard (the Prince of Wales’s watchman), raised the alarm at Windsor Castle when a fire started. Thanks to him, the castle was saved. Whether he used it as an opportunity to practise his own art, as a kind of singing telegram (‘Windsor Castle’s burning down/burning down/burning down/Windsor Castle’s burning down/My fair lady!’) is not recorded.

The jongleur who could blow a trumpet, play a fife or bang a drum had obvious uses in the cacophony of the battlefield – to rally the troops or cheer them on, and also to give signals.

The Taillefers of the eleventh century were the guardians and promoters of a culture based on simple piety and violent death, and they were treated exactly as such a culture demands. It cannot have been very rewarding to make a living by reciting poetry to philistines.

Yet out of this strange beginning emerged a literary culture that, by the end of the Middle Ages, was to be one of the greatest achievements of civilization. In most cultures literature is the refined interest of a very restricted group of people. The classical period had produced great epics, histories and the marvellous poetry of an educated and wealthy elite, but its popular culture was profoundly different – it was based around the enjoyment of violent death in the amphitheatre and horse-racing in the hippodrome. Oriental civilizations produced magnificent religious epics, histories, and the subtle poetry and drama of highly sophisticated court elites, while their popular culture tended to exist separately and far more traditionally, based around religious and community rituals. Medieval Europe, most surprisingly, developed forms of story-telling that reached right across the whole of society, with the wit and energy to appeal to an illiterate or semi-literate audience and, at the same time, the subtlety and complexity to satisfy the aesthetes of aristocratic and royal courts.

This was to be intimately bound up with the development of regional (ultimately national) languages which gave an entire society within a language-territory a shared culture. It was, in fact, the singers and story-tellers, the poets and minstrels, who ultimately shaped the history of Europe.


This is hardly what anyone looking at eleventh- and early twelfth-century minstrels would have expected. A lot of the output of those attached to lords and kings, and wearing their livery, consisted of jokes about farting and copulation, and drinking songs. They were turning into general entertainers rather than carriers of fame and memory. Wandering minstrels were rustic showmen, juggling, doing magic, tumbling and moving from door to door trying to scratch a living. The best seem to have been employed mainly to provide background music at feasts, ceremonies and religious rituals. The status of minstrels was low; the language of literacy was Latin but their performances were almost entirely vernacular, and they probably did not look like the cutting edge of European civilization.

The direction they were apparently heading in was well illustrated in 1212, when Randulf, Earl of Chester, was besieged by the Welsh in his castle of Rhuddlan in Flintshire. He sent an appeal for help to Roger de Lacy, justiciar and constable of Chester, affectionately known in the local dungeons as ‘Roger of Hell’.

Roger, casting around for the most effective, vicious and altogether intimidating relief force he could find, realized that Chester was full of jongleurs who had come for the annual fair. He gathered them up and marched them off under his son-in-law Dutton. The Welsh, seeing this fearsome body of determined musicians, singers and prestidigitators bearing down on them ready to launch into an immediate performance of their terrifying arts, fled.

Who but Roger of Hell would have been so ruthless? The event gave rise to the old English oath, now sadly forgotten but well worth reviving if someone would like to make a start: ‘Roger, and by all the fiddlers of Chester!’

This rag-tag army were wandering minstrels, not bound to a lord and wearing his livery. A minstrel without a livery was a bit like a band without a record contract. Livery indicated that a minstrel had both status and a regular income, and made it easier for him to be accepted in the right castles and earn a decent reward. But he still needed a full range of entertainment skills.

One thirteenth-century poem defines a true minstrel as one who can ‘speak and rhyme well, be witty, know the story of Troy, balance apples on the point of knives, juggle, jump through hoops, play the citole, mandora, harp, fiddle, and psaltery’. He is further advised, for good measure, to learn the arts of imitating birds, putting performing asses and dogs through their paces and operating marionettes.

A certain robustness was needed to survive in an environment where good manners was often just a question of not picking your nose in public. A medieval guide to etiquette warns: don’t scratch yourself or look for fleas in your breeches or on your chest; don’t snap your fingers; don’t comb your hair, clean your nails or take your shoes off in the presence of lords and ladies. Messengers arriving at a house removed their weapons, gloves and caps before entering – though they were permitted to keep their caps on if they were bald. The guide also recommends not urinating in the hall – unless you happen to be the head of the household. Which minstrels were not.

The guide also goes into the details about the polite ways to belch, fart and – interestingly enough – defecate.

And the entertainment demanded by early medieval monarchs was reassuringly downmarket. For example, Henry II’s favourite minstrel was Roland Le Pettour. The king rewarded him with 30 acres of land for his masterwork, described as ‘a leap, a whistle and a fart’. Roland’s great musical talent, it seems, was that he could fart tunes. The land was solemnly passed down from father to son for many generations, on the condition that the incumbent turn up at court each Christmas Day to perform the leap, the whistle and the fart!

Another act that was apparently popular with English royalty was a version of putting your head in a lion’s mouth, although this one involved a minstrel who spread honey on his member and then brought in a performing bear. What happened next isn’t actually explained, but whatever it was probably doesn’t figure in Winnie-the-Pooh.

Not everyone approved. John of Salisbury, bishop of Chartres, a historian and elegant Latin stylist of the twelfth century, thought jongleurs were quite simply appalling:

Even they whose exposures are so indecent they make a cynic blush are not debarred from distinguished houses . . . they are not even turned out when with more hellish tumult they defile the air and more shamelessly disclose that which in shame they had concealed. Does he appear a man of wisdom who has eye or ear for such as these?



There were, of course, many different kinds of minstrels and entertainers, some of whom the Church had no problem with – after all, there were said to be minstrels in heaven. Other performers, though, who encouraged dancing and ribaldry, were plainly servants of the devil. And some minstrels evidently had career paths that led to higher things, the most famous of these being one Rahere.

According to his own account,*2 Rahere was a low-born character who managed to infiltrate himself into the court of Henry I on the basis of his entertainment value. While it is not clear what this means, and it has been suggested that he may have held a clerical position, the language he uses suggests that he performed as a jongleur or jester. He evidently made a significant sum of money – given the rewards available some years later for a leap, a whistle and a fart, it is likely that minstrelsy was the best way for a poor boy to do this. But there was obviously more to him than that; a ‘Rahere’ is listed at the time as a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral.

For some reason he made a penance-pilgrimage to Rome where he fell seriously ill, and vowed that if he recovered he would build a hospital for the poor. On his return journey he had a delirious vision of hell, then one of St Bartholomew who instructed him to build a church in the London suburb of Smooth Field (Smithfield), where there were horse and cattle markets.

Henry I gave Rahere a licence to build a church and hospital on land to the east of the market; most of it was marsh but there was a firmer piece of rising ground used for public executions, and Rahere had the gallows moved so that he could construct a large priory and, nearby, a hospital. A charter of 1147 defines the purpose of St Bartholomew’s Hospital as to provide shelter and care for the poor, the sick, the homeless and orphans.

The site was consecrated by the end of 1129 and Rahere became the first prior. Crowds of pilgrims, the sick and people who had been cured in the hospital gathered at the church on St Bartholomew’s feast day, and in 1133 Rahere was given a royal charter which licensed a three-day St Bartholomew’s Fair, one curious feature of which was that no outlaw or criminal could be arrested while attending it. The hospital and fair became enduring features of London life, and the choir of the priory is one of the few medieval structures still standing in London. Rahere himself, like Dick Whittington, became a mythologized figure of poor-boy-made-good.


The fortunes of English minstrels probably reached their zenith during the reign of Edward II, who was a minstrel fanatic. His father was away a lot and the nurse who brought him up was a minstrel, which may explain why he was so fond of them. So fond, in fact, that the treasury rolls showing the expenditure for his coronation list 154 musicians. They also show that on the anniversary of the death of his lover, Piers Gaveston, Edward cheered himself up by travelling to France and being entertained by Bernard the Fool and 54 naked dancers.

Edward seems to have been in the habit of throwing money at anyone who made him laugh – and it evidently didn’t take much to make him laugh. Jack of St Albans was paid 50 shillings because ‘he danced before the king on a table and made him laugh very greatly’. And he awarded the princely sum of 20 shillings to one of his cooks ‘because he rode before the King . . . and often fell from his horse, at which the King laughed very greatly’.

The barons tried to restrict Edward’s extravagant entertainment budget by creating exact job descriptions for every member of the household. This meant an end to multitasking minstrels – now they had to be either jugglers or flute players or whatever, and their numbers were to be strictly limited: ‘There shall be trumpeters and 2 other minstrels, and sometimes more and sometimes less, who shall play before the king and it shall please him.’

The barons were not the only people who were trying to limit the number of minstrels. The minstrels themselves were trying to protect their profession and to make it more exclusive. Fraternities or guilds of musicians seem to have been formed in London at least as early as 1350. One of their main objectives was the exclusion of ‘foreign’ musicians (those who were not Londoners). Another was to stop amateurs from performing in taverns, inns and at weddings. The route to minstrelsy was now through apprenticeship, and the guilds in London, York, Beverley and Canterbury were careful to restrict the number of trainees.

If this seems to be an industry under threat attempting to protect itself, that is about right. The English music and story-telling business was taking a new turn, evidenced by the appearance in the fourteenth century of a new vernacular literature in the form of romantic poetry. The poems were mostly translations of French romances.


In France (and to some extent Italy and Germany) a change had been taking place in the content of chansons de geste since the middle of the twelfth century. Like the earlier ones, they were still usually stories of conflict between Christians and Saracens; but magical and romantic themes had begun to take over, with evil knights, the rescue of ladies and the frequent appearance of magic rings, belts and swords. A heroic tradition is converted into a romantic one. There is an emphasis on describing Islam as idolatrous, and Muslims as superstitious, treacherous and polygamous; the Saracen world is as exotic as it is dangerous, and Muslim women are presented as lascivious and seductive, irresistibly attracted to Christian knights and, after willing conversion, faithful only to them. Some historians of the literature have suggested that a little wishful thinking might have been involved, but this seems mean-minded. All adventure stories involve wishful thinking; the interesting question is the nature of the wish.

One of the most significant examples of the new mood in European poetry is Le Roman d’Eneas, a French version of Virgil’s Aeneid which appeared anonymously in about 1160. The emphasis is on story elements that were new to Virgil as well as to French poetry – the feelings of two women, Dido and Lavinia, who are in love with Aeneas. A new literary principle had appeared: the principle of overpowering love.

This, of course, indicates that the whole world of performance must have changed. The audience and the location for the entertainment are different. This is not material for the battlefield or for a hall of warriors. And it assumes a new kind of performer.

This new performer had first appeared in southern France in the twelfth century. He was called a troubadour.


The pioneer of the new style of poetry was not a professional musician but an aristocrat – the gloriously randy Duke William IX of Aquitaine, whose court was in Poitiers. According to his thirteenth-century Provençal biographer:

The Count of Poitiers was one of the most courtly men in the world and one of the greatest deceivers of women. He was a fine knight at arms, liberal in his attentions to ladies, and an accomplished composer and singer of songs. For a long time he roved the world, bent on the deception of ladies.

According to the chronicler William of Malmesbury, after a disastrous crusade of his own devising in 1101, Duke William plunged enthusiastically into a life of sexual entertainment and frivolous versifying to amuse his companions. He was obviously strongly influenced by his travels; half his surviving songs draw on a particular form of Arab mystical poetry (the zajel) for their detailed metrical structure and conventional expressions.

The word ‘troubadour’ meant an author or composer who discovered something new – literally the ‘finder’ of something that had not been known before. Duke William was playing with novelty, and demonstrating that poetry and song could be about absolutely anything – or about nothing at all.

I made this verse on sweet F.A.

There is no person to portray

No talk of love or youth at play

Nothing, of course.

Composed while sleeping yesterday

Sat on my horse

Duke William was without doubt a true original. He was excommunicated twice. On the first occasion, in 1114, when the bishop of Poitiers imposed the penalty for some unknown offence, he held the bishop at sword point in the cathedral and demanded absolution. He didn’t get it, which says something for the bishop’s courage and possibly explains why the duke’s crusade hadn’t achieved anything. The second excommunication was caused by William’s affair with the Viscountess of Chatellerault, alarmingly known as Dangerosa. It was said he kidnapped this mother of three and installed her in a tower in his palace at Poitiers. William of Malmesbury says he even had her portrait painted on his shield, so ‘I could bear her into battle as she had borne me into bed’. The duke’s wife was not happy at all about this.

William also fantasized about establishing a convent of prostitutes, and his verse includes a great deal of crude sexual joking, with women portrayed as fine horses to be mounted, or as captives, and he jokingly records his seduction by two ladies whose only concern was to avoid disclosure.

But he also wrote some verses that conveyed a much more reverent attitude to women, which would become the basis of what is called ‘courtly love’. In these poems his lady is a married woman, and is as aloof as she is desirable. There is a frequent theme that the lover must be patient and, as he waits for the lady’s favours, behave with courtesy to all about him. For the courtly lover, the lady alone has the power to kill or cure; in her hands alone lies his salvation.

The language of Duke William’s compositions was the southern French vernacular, Occitan. This was itself a radical move, as up to this time the language of all intellectual life had been Latin. But it was no more revolutionary than the idea of a lover addressing his love song to a married woman. This was conventionally liable to bring the death penalty and was regarded as the equivalent of casting a spell on her.

This courtly romanticism flourished under William’s son, and then his granddaughter, the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine. She established her own court in Poitiers, which was dominated by the idea of courtly love and, supposedly at least, run by its rules. The court culture there was in the vernacular tongue, and the old, heroic warrior entertainments were deeply out of date.

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Shortly before Christmas 1182 the Limousin troubadour Bertran de Born spent time at Henry II’s court at Argentan in Normandy, and complained about the boorishness of the old warrior culture: ‘A court where no one laughs or jokes is never complete; a court without gifts is just a paddock-full of barons. The boredom and vulgarity of Argentan nearly killed me.’

Troubadours were often great lords themselves, but less boorish than those of Argentan. They performed their own songs and employed jongleurs or minstrels as their accompanists. Aristocratic troubadours even took part in singing competitions.

Not that these men weren’t warriors. Eleanor’s sons Richard I and King John were both tough and violent. But Richard ‘the Lionheart’, whose idea of a satisfying life involved the use of extreme force on a face-to-face, or even a nose-to-nose basis, was also a man who had been raised in a troubadour culture. He wrote and performed elegant songs, both at court and while on campaign. Two of his poems have survived, one with the music.


It was because of Richard’s poetic inclinations that the story of his rescue by his minstrel, Blondel, had such wide currency. In 1192 Richard was captured by Leopold of Austria while returning from the Third Crusade. (He was alone and in disguise – typical of Richard, no other English king would have created such an adventure.) He simply vanished, and it was said that Blondel set out to find him. The minstrel wandered from castle to castle, and outside each he sang part of a song they had composed together. At the castle of Durnstein he heard Richard answer his song by completing it. The king, having been found, could now be ransomed.

This is a good poetic tale in itself, but probably apocryphal. Blondel de Nesle was certainly a well-known troubadour, the composer of many love songs. But he was not Richard’s minstrel, a supporter of the English; he was actually from northern France and wrote in the Picardy dialect. The tale is probably a minstrel’s invention – the minstrel in question being the unknown author of Récits d’un ménestrel de Reims, which appeared in about 1260. Presumably he wanted to convey a clear moral: ‘Look after your minstrel and he’ll look after you.’

The career of Blondel de Nesle is an illustration of the way in which the troubadour influence had spread north to the Loire and beyond, out of the Langue-d’oc. (Dante distinguished three cultural regions that were defined by their word for ‘yes’: si in the south,oc in the middle and oïl in the north.)

Although the romanticization of song and poetry spread into northern France, where the poets were called ‘trouvères’, troubadour poetry was uniquely linked to the culture of Provence, shaped by the experiences of Provençal crusaders in the Middle East. It was within this framework that the world of courtly love flourished, chivalry became concerned with courtesy and the adoration of noblewomen, and a new kind of literature arose: the poetic, epic romances of heroes like Arthur and his knights.


At the same time, Provençal religious beliefs were changing significantly. Hostility to the worldliness and greed of the Church was widespread throughout Europe, but in Provence the belief that it was a fraudulent and pompous organization that had misunderstood Christianity mutated into a new form: Catharism. The Cathars believed the world was seized in a combat between two divinities, God and the devil, and that the material world was the territory of evil and the devil. They understood the Bible not as a historical document but as an allegory, and saw Jesus not as a man but as an angel.

They maintained that humans could free themselves from the evil world by being good. The perfecti, ‘pure ones’, were idealistic, pacifist vegetarians. Many members of the Languedoc nobility supported and were sympathetic to the Cathars.

There was an obvious contradiction between the earthy enthusiasm of Duke William’s poetry and the flesh-denying asceticism of the Cathars. To some extent this was moderated as Catharism came to dominate Provençal courts. Troubadour music and poetry became more high-flown, rhetorical and allegorical. Just as some of the music of the 1960s was the voice of protest and hippy idealism, some of the troubadours of the thirteenth century were the voice of Cathar protest. Even the use of their own language rather than Latin had an anti-Rome flavour to it.

Pope Innocent III was deeply hostile to the movement. Recognizing that its appeal was largely a reaction against the venality and corruption of his Church (a criticism with which he thoroughly agreed), he tried to win people back by sending poor preaching friars into the region, including a group led by St Dominic in 1205. They failed to attract Cathars back to the fold.

In 1208, after the murder of a papal legate, Innocent III changed tack and invited the chivalry of Europe to stop killing Saracens and start killing Cathars – a worthy deed for which they would be granted absolution from sin. This holy war, the first crusade deliberately launched against Christian ‘heretics’, lasted until 1229 and decimated the Languedoc. It was called the Albigensian Crusade as the Cathars were identified with the town of Albi and known by the northern French as Albigensians.

It was ruthlessly savage. Arnold Aimery, the papal legate at the siege of Béziers, ordered his men: ‘Show mercy neither to order, nor to age, nor to sex . . . Cathar or Catholic, Kill them all . . . God will know his own.’ The attackers were Anglo-French Normans eager to seize property in the Dordogne (nice farmhouse, needs some repairs . . .) This was how Simon de Montfort was granted control of the area encompassing Carcassonne, Albi and Béziers.

The troubadours had to flee or be killed. They sought refuge in northern Italy, the Iberian Peninsula and the north, producing new musical movements across Europe. In fact, the only real survivor of the slaughter was the troubadour sensibility; an outflow of poetic refugees had an impact on the rest of Europe comparable to the flight of intellectuals from Nazi Germany. The comparison is not far-fetched. The Albigensian Crusade was truly genocidal in intent, and it has been estimated that a million people were slaughtered.


One example of the troubadour influence is in the work of Wolfram von Eschenbach, a Bavarian who is remembered as the most brilliant of Germany’s narrative poets and who wrote the epic Parzival, which was clearly based on Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian romance, Perceval. Wolfram said he used extra material given him at the time of the Albigensian Crusade by one Kyot of Provence; apparently Kyot had taken refuge in Spain, like many Provençal troubadours, before going to Germany.

The legacy of the troubadours far outlasted their own shattered culture. The impact on writers in other lands was profound, even when they had no sympathy for the ideology of Catharism. The most important and influential of these admirers was the Italian Dante Alighieri, who at the very beginning of the fourteenth century wrote a Latin essay, ‘De Vulgari Eloquentia’ (On Vernacular Language), in which he extolled spoken language (as opposed to Latin) as a suitable vehicle for literature. He identified as exemplars three great troubadours, one of whom, Arnaut Daniel, he quoted in Occitan and immortalized in his Divine Comedy.

Arnaut’s poetry is quite astonishing. He writes with an unforced lightness of touch, constructing rhyme-schemes and scansion that are beautifully calculated and precise. The more you recite his verses the more complexity is revealed beneath a surface that is entirely natural and open, one human being speaking to another. It feels as though the language has been borne along with the poem. This makes it quite untranslatable; it is impossible to mimic the rhyme, scansion and spirit while translating the meaning into another tongue. The joy of the poetry and the language that expresses it are inseparable.

No vuelh de Roma l’emperi

I don’t want the Empire of Rome

ni qu’om m’en fassa postoli

or for someone to make me the Pope

qu’en lieis non aia revert

if I can’t find a place by her

per cui m’art lo cors e’m rima;

by whom my heart is burned and scorched

e si’l maltrait no’m restaura

and if she does not cure this injury

ab un baizar anz d’annueu,

with a kiss within a year

mi auci e si enferna.

I die and to hell with her

A great deal of effort went into making troubadour verse seem respectable, and collections of poems were produced with biographies of the poets attached to the verses attributed to them. (Usually no-one was quite sure who had written what, and the biographies were to some extent derived from the content of whatever poems were attributed to the troubadours by the collator.)

The new emphasis on the validity and importance of vernacular language began to impact on the courts and even the politics of western Europe. It became important for monarchs to stake out their intellectual territory as clearly as they did the geographical boundaries of their power. So to this end they started employing intellectuals as court poets and writers.

These new poets were decidedly sniffy about the old minstrels. In France, Eustache Deschamps said, ‘The artificial music of the minstrels could be learnt by “le plus rude homme du monde” (the most uncouth man in the world).’ Deschamps was a gentleman-usher to Charles V of France in the 1370s, and rose and fell as a courtier while producing a quantity of poetry which could hardly have been learnt by the most couth and studious man in the world – some 82,000 verses – virtually a courtly poetic diary.

The danger faced by a court poet was not the risk faced by Taillefer, of death on a battlefield, or by a crude jongleur, of dying of penury and cold in a ditch, but the danger of his verse being seen as subversive or dangerous. Deschamps could not resist satirizing those he despised, including members of the nobility, the government and the Church, and financiers, lawyers and even women.

His parody of a pert young lady demanding attention seems, at a distance, entertaining and nicely ironic:

I would say that in my view

I have good looks, a sweet face too

And my mouth red like a rose.

Tell me if I am fair

My smile is sweet, my eyes like dew

A lovely nose, hair blonde right through,

Nice chin, my white throat shows

Am I, am I, am I fair? . . .

Both courteous and kind, that’s who

If strong and bold and handsome, too

Will win this prize so rare.

Tell me if I am fair . . .

Now discuss it between you

Think of what I’ve told you true

So ends my little song.

Am I, am I, am I fair?

Of course, such a poem might be satirizing some silly little girl. But it might equally well be read as an allegory in which the fair young girl is a satirical image of a nobleman fluttering his eyelashes at potential co-conspirators. Or such a nobleman, sensitized to the new delicacy of vernacular poetry, might interpret it that way.

Deschamps ended up losing all his positions and his income.


The new, courtly vernacular came rather later to England than to the rest of Europe. This was because, until the mid-fourteenth century, England’s aristocracy had its own vernacular, which was different from that of the common people. This tongue, Norman French, was a survival of the Conquest. Although it became increasingly anglicized from the early thirteenth century, the linguistic division between nobility and commoners remained a real divide until about 1360. It was not until 1362, when the Statute of Pleading was passed, that English became the language of the law courts. But then the old Anglo-Norman French seems to have faded away quite rapidly.

The English court in 1350 had been happy to listen to vernacular poetry but it did not regard any particular regional language as its own. In that year Edward III decided to deal once and for all with the piratical depredations of a well-connected Spanish freebooter, Don Carlos de la Cerda, who had been busy loading treasure, supplies and loot at Sluis in Flanders to be shipped back to the Basque coast. Edward obviously felt that the very survival of his kingdom depended on asserting control over the English Channel, and decided on a do-or-die challenge to Don Carlos.

He assembled his fleet at Winchelsea, with himself on one flagship, the Thomas, and the Black Prince on another. The entire royal lineage was there, even the king’s younger son, the ten-year-old John of Gaunt. The royal ladies were lodged in a convent, from which they would be able to watch the battle.

Waiting for the encounter, Edward prepared himself and his troops by watching his minstrels perform a German dance, and listening to a knight, Sir John Chandos, singing in French with his minstrels.*3 They were entering as full participants into the world of heroic epic battle, but this King did not see himself as particularly English.

The battle was indeed heroic. The Thomas went to the bottom, as did the Black Prince’s ship, but the heroes survived and the Spanish lost 14 of their 40 ships. This was, in fact, a more dramatic and bloody victory than the better-known struggle of 1588 against the Spanish Armada. But the poem that recorded what had happened was not in German or French. It was in strikingly powerful English:

I shall not hold back from telling, and hope to succeed in the task,

Of men who were brave with weapons and admirable in armour

That now are driven to the grave, and dead despite all their deeds

They sail on the sea bed, fishes to feed

Many fishes they feed, for all their great vaunting

They came at the waning of the moon . . . *4

A new literature was emerging in England, in which the English language was being used in innovative ways, and which bridged the gap between the court and the general population in the most extraordinary way. William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman, a huge allegorical work on the Christian concept of a good life, which first appeared around 1360, was copied and recopied endlessly and was evidently well known by all classes of people – lines from it were used as slogans and signals in the so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ of 1381. Poetry was alive and dangerous.

Something similar was happening in Wales, where at the beginning of the fifteenth century there was a decree that said: ‘. . .  no rimers, minstrels or vagabonds, be maintained in Wales whom by their divinations, lies and exhortations are partly cause for insurrection and rebellion now in Wales.’

But the Welsh bardic ‘rimers’ were reaching back into old heroic tradition, finding subversive nationalistic matter in the Welsh versions of Arthurian legends, and using them as sustenance for the national rebellion led by Owen Glendower. In England, the dangerous poets were new men creating a new literature in their own tongue. The old minstrels looked shabby and outdated. The situation was rather like that of the mid-twentieth century, when the old vaudeville comedians – with their distinctive repertoire of hand-me-down material culled from many years of touring music halls – found themselves displaced by the university-educated satirists of the television age who wrote their own fresh material every week.


Towards the end of the fourteenth century Richard II clearly saw literature as territory to be occupied by the crown as firmly as any physical territory and, having inherited a court poet from his grandfather, gave him every assistance and encouragement. His name was Geoffrey Chaucer, and he was destined to become one of the major figures in English literature – second only to Shakespeare.

Richard’s court, like that of Charles V in France, tolerated a relaxed easy-going intellectual atmosphere in which satire and lampoons were allowed to flourish. Chaucer took advantage of this to satirize the way the Church had become corrupted and commercialized. For example, he told the tale of a friar who was taken down to hell by an angel and happily observed that he couldn’t see any friars there. He assumed this meant they were all in heaven. Oh no, said the angel, there are plenty of friars down here; and he accosts Satan.

‘Hold up thy tail thy Satanas’ said he

‘Show forth thine arse and let the friar see

Where is the nest of friars in this place!’

And ere that half a furlong way of space

Right so as bees come swarming from the hive,

Out of the devil’s arse began to drive

Twenty thousand friars in a route.

And throughout hell they swarmed all about

And came again as fast as they may gone

And in his arse they crept in every John!

The Summoner’s Prologue

To offer satire at court is a dangerous game, especially when one year’s patron is the next year’s outcast. Richard II was violently overthrown. His usurper, who became Henry IV, was helped to the throne by Thomas Arundel, an archbishop of Canterbury who had been exiled by Richard, and who was determined to stamp out any criticism of the Church, especially criticisms in English, which any Tom, Dick or Harriet could read and understand. Within a year, Arundel began burning ‘heretics’ at the stake, and even banned the use of English to discuss religion. Chaucer’s writing, filled as it is with criticism of the Church in the vernacular, was exactly the sort of thing that was being stamped out.

Which may be the explanation for one of the unnoticed mysteries of history. Chaucer, the father of English literature, disappeared without trace at about the same time that Arundel was trying to limit the use of English in literature.

Chaucer was probably the most famous commoner in the kingdom, yet there is no record of his death, he did not leave a will and we do not even know when he died. All we have is an illegible inscription on a tomb, erected a century and a half after he disappeared, which does not mark the site of his burial and as far as we know never even contained his remains. He undoubtedly vanished quite mysteriously. It may be that he was deliberately removed.


There was no possibility of undoing the changes that had begun. Traditional minstrels, the old jongleurs, were out of fashion. They went downmarket and became itinerant entertainers performing at fairs and on street corners. Unemployed, they were outside the control of rich patrons and could pretend to belong to whomever they wanted – even the king.

It got so bad that Henry VI instigated an investigation board to clamp down on them. Any minstrel convicted of falsely claiming to have royal patronage would be fined and forced to pray for the king’s soul.

The luckier minstrels were hired as civil servants by towns, to bolster citizens’ self-importance in civic ceremonies. In the fourteenth century towns had given short-term contracts to minstrels in the service of aristocrats when they needed a performance on a feast day or for an armed muster, but by the fifteenth it seemed the supply was drying up. For example, York Corporation had a trio – the ‘city waits’ – on retainer from the time of Henry VI. They were provided with uniforms each Christmas and performed at Easter, Corpus Christi, Christmas and on a couple of saint’s days.

There were still court musicians, but few of them were minstrels in the old sense of being general entertainers. And in courts where sovereigns increasingly wrote poetry and performed their own songs, musicians were accepted into very polite company. This was obviously the case with a young dancer and harpsichord player, Mark Smeaton, minstrel to Henry VIII and his queen, Anne Boleyn. One spring day in 1536 he was invited to the home of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief minister. There, almost certainly under torture and with a promise of immunity, he ‘made revelations’ about the queen, confessing to being her lover. It can be deduced from the general incredulity at the confession (‘How could she stoop so low?’) that Smeaton did not come from a noble family.

He named several other men, including Anne’s brother George, Sir Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston and Sir Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt, a poet and songwriter whose work is as fresh today as it was 500 years ago, had told Henry before the marriage that he had been Anne’s lover.

Blame not my Lute!

Farewell! unknown; for though thou break

My strings in spite with great disdain,

Yet have I found out for thy sake,

Strings for to string my Lute again:

And if, perchance, this sely rhyme

Do make thee blush, at any time,

Blame not my Lute!

The men named were arrested, providing the pretext that allowed Henry to dispose of Anne Boleyn and replace her with Jane Seymour. Wyatt was released; it may be that Henry had a soft spot for songwriters. He was one himself, and wrote a new arrangement and lyrics for an old tune, which he called ‘Greensleeves’.

Alas, my love, you do me wrong,

To cast me off discourteously.

For I have loved you well and long,

Delighting in your company.

Any affection Henry might have felt for fellow-performers did not extend to Smeaton, who was tried for treason on 12 May 1536. He was not allowed to defend himself. He was hanged, cut down while still alive, his stomach was cut open and his intestines were pulled out in front of his still-conscious eyes. Then his body was butchered.

The revels were ended, the Middle Ages had given way to the ruthless cruelty of Renaissance power.

And what was left of the minstrels? Quite a lot; they had vanished as a class, but mutated into something far broader. The literature, poetry and drama of England now embraced and entertained the whole nation; and could weave together the most sublime and powerful emotions and delicate language, with the lowest comedy, to create a single, extraordinary experience. This was made evident later in the century, when Shakespeare’s work appeared. His colleagues in the high-minded enterprise of presenting high tragedy and sophisticated comedy included Will Kemp, a fellow-shareholder in the Globe Theatre – clown, dancer, singer, instrumentalist and a man who fully appreciated the audience appeal of a leap, a whistle and a fart.

And the queen under whose rule they flourished, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, was said (very quietly) to bear more than a passing resemblance to Mark Smeaton.

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