A Common Minstrel?

Man with Cithern, by Richard Gaywood, Francis Barlow [Public domain or CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Man playing a cithern (1666), by Richard Gaywood, Francis Barlow [Public domain or CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Today’s pop stars are often notorious for their sexual affairs, played out in the pages of the tabloids. Similarly, in the sixteenth century it appears that musicians were often viewed as being of ill-repute as far as relationships went. The latest finding from the Records of Early English Drama North East project features a court case that, unexpectedly, reveals more about historic attitudes towards this profession.

As is explored by Professor Ted McGee, on October 30, 1563, in Headingley (West Riding), young Anne Hobson had to tell her parents about her contract of marriage to Edward Walker, which she had apparently entered into without their permission. When Walker was taken to court by her family, in an attempt to stop the match, lawyers tried to discredit his key witnesses. One of these, William Smith, was alleged to be little better than “a common minstrel,” and thus not to be trusted. The term minstrel appears often to have been used pejoratively at the time, a kind of synonym for a rogue.

However, other witnesses came forward to support Smith’s credibility, noting that he did not “resorte to marriages ffaires or suche like notable assemblies or comon ale houses as common mynstrelles do.” Smith apparently rose above the norm of his fellow performers.

The findings show how varied attitudes towards minstrels were during this period, and as Professor McGee shows, deeper study of William Smith suggests that the reality of who minstrels were, and the role they played in a community, did not always match the negative stereotypes many had towards them. For the fuller story, head over to the REED North East blog.

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