Secular Musicians in Late Medieval England

medieval musician - Detail of a musician playing a viol, representing the second musical mode.  British LibrarySecular Musicians in Late Medieval England

By Richard Rastall

PhD Dissertation, Victoria University of Manchester, 1968

Abstract: The Introduction outlines the basic problems which face a musicologist studying the English secular music of the Middle Ages. It suggests that it is necessary to study the place of minstrelsy in medieval society before the surviving manuscripts can be understood: a statement is made of the part to be played by the present thesis in this task. Then follows a discussion of certain categories of source-material which are to be used.

Chapters I and II examine the place of minstrelsy in the secular life of the 14th and 15th centuries. The first chapter describes the methods by which land-owners and civic authorities attempted to control minstrelsy, and divides these methods into the categories of court-administration and gild-administration; a second section examines the office of Minstrel-King. Chapter II deals with those occasions on which the common man came into contact with organised minstrelsy. Chapter III examines the place of minstrelsy in the life of the Church, with special reference to the attitude of the clergy towards minstrelsy. The conclusion is reached that, although the relations between the two were generally good, only a very small range of instruments was used liturgically, and that rarely.


Against the background of the first three chapters, the next four make a more detailed study of minstrels and minstrelsy in the context of the secular household. Chapter IV deals with the royal minstrels, and Chapter V with the players of specific instruments, ending with a discussion of the instruments that seem to have been played in consort: Chapter VI examines the office of the Waferer. Minstrelsy in other households is discussed briefly in chapter VII: the findings are correlated with those of the previous three chapters, and features of special interest in each household are noted. Chapter VIII is a study of the civic minstrels, or town waits. An attempt is made to correct some misunderstandings about their origins, and to describe the social context in which they were established. A discussion of their early history leads to an assessment of their professional capabilities.

Excerpt: A permanent position at Court was perhaps the best post that a minstrel could hope for. It offered a reasonable wage and a certain amount of security should he be unable to work through illness or old age. It offered, too, plenty of opportunity for independent work, for the royal minstrels were not required to be in Court all the year round. For much of the time they were free to work as itinerant minstrels, with the advantage of wearing the royal livery. We should expect that the king’s minstrels were among the most highly-skilled members of their profession, and the little evidence that exists does support this assumption indirectly: payments and gifts to them were usually much more generous than those to other minstrels.


The royal household ordinances of 1318 made provision for two trumpeters and two other minstrels to be in constant attendence on the king, and to make their minstrelsy to him at his pleasure. A similar nucleus of four minstrels was specified in the ordinances of 1455, with another nine minstrels coming to Court at the principal feasts of the year. The Liber Niger of Edward IV’s reign required two minstrels to remain in Court at all times, with the addition of two string-minstrels if the king wished: the other minstrels were required to come to Court for the five principal feasts and to leave Court the day after each feast was finished.

Click here to read this thesis from The Waits Website