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those romances, the scenes of which are laid in Britain, are the compositions of native Minstrels.*
It will scarcely be foreign here to enter a little into the discussion about the precise rank the minstrels, the songsters of old, in their days of sunshine held. A writer of taste and learning-Bishop Percy, was the first to revive an interest in their strains, and to publish a curious and instructive history of the minstrel race; but the Bishop's poetic feeling induced him to heighten a little their situation, which the plodding industry of Ritson exposed, but exposed only to err himself as far on the other side. Ritson represents the English Minstrels, as little better than a despicable race; and that at no time, he writes, were they the favourite solacers of the leisure hours of princes, as Percy has described them. That the Norman Minstrels were better than beggars, the common story of Blondel and King Richard the First, is sufficient proof; but on what authority can it be said that they were beggars at all times ? Sir Walter Scott has remarked, that True Thomas, or Thomas of Ercildoune, the Minstrel
* “ The courts of our Norman Kings,” says Mr. George Ellis, “ produced the birth of romance literature.” Ritson gives it as his opinion that " the art of romance writing, the English acquired from the French," the English romances being merely translations from the French. [Met. Rom. p. c.] See Ellis' Met. Roman. Intro.,- where the various hypotheses of Percy, Warton, Leyden, &c. are ably examined. Mr. Ellis' hypothesis seems founded on a good base, for the French language was spoken in the courts of England as well as in those of France. But in what country romance writing had its origin will always be a tter of dispute.
Author of Sir Tristrem, was “ the companion of nobles, and himself a man of landed property ;” and the constant starting note of old ballads, “ Lythe and listen lordins free,” proves that they were not constantly in the habit of addressing a class of men humble like themselves. Fortunately for this theory, as objections have been made to the word “ lordins," meaning " lords ;” Percy has printed in his collection, the fragment of the ancient romance of Guy and Colbronde, which we wish he had brought forward to support his position, for Ritson could not have quietly passed it over : it begins thus
When meete and drynke is great plentye
And sit and solace [b]lythe
&c. &c. &c.
If “ lordins” is a diminutive expression, there can surely be no objections to the certainly clear enough defined words “ lords and ladies.” But despicability surely can never be applied to a class of men, one of whom, the joculator or minstrel of William the Conqueror, had lands allotted to him in Gloucestershire. + While one of the same individuals was a camp attendant of Edward the
* Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. + See Ellis's Intr. to Met. Rom.
Second to the field of Bannockburn. These at least are good authorities for a contradiction of Ritson's assertions.
The genuine minstrel ballads which time has spared to us, Ritson supposes, not willingly, for he had no regard for Percy or his book, to be, 1. The ancient Ballad of Chevy Chace; 2. Battle of Otterbourne; 3. John Dory; 4. Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard ; 5. Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor, and 6. Fair Margaret and Sweet William :
to which," the same scrupulous editor has said
we may possibly add, John Armstrong and Captain Care," * These ballads are well known through the numerous publications of Ancient Minstrelsy poured upon us during the last fifty years.
As soon as printing had diffused literature through the land, the place of the minstrels was supplied, and gradually that poetic race sank into neglect and obscurity, frequenting taverns, and accepting the poor man's groat, instead of feasting with the rich and being rewarded with gold. Talent then left their ranks and made its fame known by the printer's type, and blind hårpers and indifferent crowders chanted with rude voices songs and ballads still affording pleasure to the public ear. In the early part of Queen Elizabeth's reign, we learn from Puttenham's Art of English Poesie, the Minstrels had totally lost favour, so that in 1596, an Act of Parliament was passed, classing them with “sturdy beggars, rogues and vagabonds,” and adjudging them to be punished as such. The ill-favour into which they had fallen, made Dr. Bull, a satirist of that time, speak of them as
* Intr. to Met. Rom. p. ccxviii.
Beggars by one consent,
And Stubb's, in his Anatomie of Abuse, published in 1583, quoted by Ritson, has described them as “drunken sockets and bawdy parasites, that sing unclean songs in ale-houses, innes and other public assemblies.” Thus the race of Minstrels became extinct. *
* Judging from the lengthy Romances and Ballads which the Minstrels treated our forefathers with, their patience must not have been small. When we would now a-days fly to books for amusement, our ancestors called for the harp and the Minstrel's talent, when strains or tales similar to many of Chaucer's were chanted. Troilus and Cressida, the poet directs to be,
-redde where so thou be or ellis songe.
B. v. verse 1796.
The tale it is highly probable was divided into parts or fyttes, for different nights, as Scott has imitated in his Lay of the Last Minstrel. One of the concluding lines of a romance printed by Mr. George Ellis, runs :
And of Ipomydon here is a fytte.
The chief musical instruments in the days of Chaucer were the harp, which the wanton Frere could play on--and the wife of Bath had oft danced to. The santrie or psaltery on which hendy Nicholas could sweetly play. The rote, the violin, or hurdy gurdy now in use. The citole or cistole, supposed to be the dulcimer. The ribible, probably the rebec or fiddle-a the giterne, the cittern, or guitar. The lute, the cymbal, the tabour, the symphonie. The bagpipe, the hornpipe, with “ flutes and litlyng hornes," also :
The earliest English song,
" with or without musical notes,” is preserved among the Harleian MSS. [No. 978] it is written in praise of the cuckoo; Ritson refers it to about the year 1250, while Sir John Hawkins gives it to the middle of the fifteenth century. In examining the manuscript, the former date seems to come nearest the antiquity of the old illuminated parchment :
Sumer is icumen in.
Lhude sing cuccu.
Awe bleteth after lomb.
Lhouth after calue cu.
Wel singes thu cuccu
Ne swik yu nauer nu.
Sing cuccu. sing cuccu nu.
From another MS. in the Harleian Library [No. 2253], Ritson* has printed a song "in praise of the
Pipes, trompes, nakeres and clarionnes
That in the bataille blowen blody sounes. See Hawkins's History of Music,-Burney's Ditto, and Ritson's Ancient Songs.
* It is but justice to state that Thomas Warton was the first to pub lish these songs of the olden time in his History of English Poetry.