The songs, musical instruments and performers who entertained all classes of society, from drinkers in alehouses, through to aristocracy in the royal courts.
In an age long before radio and TV, music was one of the most popular entertainments. Medieval people enjoyed listening or taking part in music, from the bawdy songs sung in medieval ale houses, to the sophisticated performances enjoyed by members of the King’s court.
The Medieval Musician
A medieval musician who worked for wealthy households was a prized member of society, and someone who could expect to be handsomely rewarded. Only the very richest households could afford to keep permanent musicians. Most musicians were hired as and when they were needed. Records for English courts in the fourteenth century show regular payments were made to male musicians, particularly during the reign of Edward II, for performances at feasts and at court. Such payments were single instances, and were probably made to travelling musicians, who made their living moving from place to place.
Musical Instruments of the Middle Ages
The type of musical instrument used at an event depended on the resources of the person hiring the musicians and also on them musicians themselves. Most single travelling musicians would carry only the lightest of instruments, such as a fiddle, or flute, suitable for transporting on the road in all weathers.
Musicians who were employed at a royal court would have access to lutes, tabors, clarions and even bagpipes. Many wind instruments, such as clarions and trumpets, also did duty as a means of sounding an alarm or heralding the arrival of an important visitor.
Musical Entertainment in Medieval Times
At the top end of the social scale, a lord’s feast would be enjoyed to the accompaniment of a group of musicians, who played according to the lord’s wishes. In a less formal setting, people might gather in a village square to watch a performance by travelling minstrels, tossing coins into a hat at the end of the performance.
In an alehouse or barn, celebrations which often accompanied seasonal festivals such as harvest, Yuletide or Halloween would include music or dancing, using whatever resources were available. Bells, hurdy-gurdys (a stringed instrument driven by a wheel) and drums could all be taken out of storage for feast days and used to provide entertainment.
In the Middle Ages, many well-known songs centred around the themes of courtly love and romance. The ideal of chivalry was popular across all levels of society, and many travelling minstrels and troubadors had visited the Near East and bringing Arab influences and ideals back through Europe with them.