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of the ancient British, differed little from the early manners of other nations. The South Americans were found by the Spaniards to be passionately fond of music, they were constantly in the custom of assembling together to dance, an amusement in which the softer sex were never allowed to participate. Their songs were chiefly of a martial kind, for women were considered as mere slaves, and treated with something like contempt. In an old writer quoted by Ritson, we find that the natives of Hispaniola, had “
certayne rymes or balletes they call Areitos. And as our Mynstrelles are accustomed to syng to the harp or lute, so do they in lyke maner syng these songes, and daunce to the same, playing on timbrels made of shells of certayne fishes. They have also songes and ballettes of loue, and other of lamentations and mournyng, some also to encourage them to the warres, with euery of them theyr tunes agreeable to the matter."* The inhabitants of America were not ignorant, we are told by Dr. Robertson,t of strong liquors, in which they rioted to excess, till scenes of bloodshed closed these unnatural festivals ; whether 'when the wine cup shined in light,' those rude people chaunted songs in praise of what they much loved, we must leave to the imagination to settle.
In the early history of Britain, we find a class of
* Hist. Essay on National Song, p. 3.
sacred poets existing, denominated Bards, who are represented as singing verses to the harp, recording the deeds of heroes and heroines. The persons of these Bards were held sacred, and their skill was reckoned divine ; but as civilization and literature advanced, and poetry no longer remained a separate science, this oice with its numerous religious ceremonies, gave place to a new rank of poets called Gleemen or Harpers, of whom the English Minstrels are reckoned as the genuine successors.*
THE MINSTRELS were an order of men who flourished during the middle ages in the courts of our princes and the halls of our nobility, subsisting by the art of poetry and music, and singing to the harp verses composed by themselves or others, at the same time adorning their recitations with mimicry and action. Before the invention of printing, our ancestors, who according to Sir Walter Scott, had little conversational powers, encouraged the two most delightful arts, to drown care and afford amusement. The ancient Bards or Scalds, merely sang in praise of heroes, but the Minstrels on the introduction of Metrical Romance-writing into Europe, whether from Arabia or Scandinavia, related the marvellous
* See Percy, Warton, Ellis, Ritson, Scott, to whose valuable Essays on Ancient Minstrelsy, these pages are much indebted.
+ Such is the definition Percy at last gave, “ which," Sir W. Scott says, “ no unprejudiced reader can have any hesitation in adopting." Intr. to Min. of Scot. Border. Ritson argued that Minstrel meant no more than Musician, which Scott justly laughs at.
deeds of some wondrous champion who undertook and accomplished the destruction of a fiery dragon, that had infested forest or field for years without number, in order to attain the hand of a beauteous Blancheflour. Many of those old romances, which the Minstrels chanted, and which Chaucer alludes to, still exist, shewing a vein of fancy and an elegance of description, for the period in which they were composed truly wonderful,--have re-appeared within these few years delighting, and even enchanting another course of readers and listeners. Whether our Minstrels * were indebted to their own imagination for the birth of such wild effusions, or borrowed from the neighbouring countries, has been a point on which our antiquaries have expended much learning and ingenuity. It seems probable, that Sir Tristrem, Hyndhorn, and Havelok the Dane, are productions of the British soil, but even of these there exist copies in French and German, with the story a little varied, apparently about the same age; indeed, there are few or none of our romances but exist in other languages with variations. To settle, then, to the fancy and ingenuity, of what nation we owe these “
sedgeying tales,” will ever be a matter of doubt and dispute ; it appears at least, likely, that
* Ritson with his characteristic arrogance asserts that, “ there is not one single metrical romance in English, known to exist, which appears to have been written by a Minstrel.” (Intr. to Met. Roman. p. cvii.) That sagacious Editor attributes them to the monks.
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 sunsbine 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 ex. amined. 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 matter 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.com
When meete and drynke is great plentye
And sit and solace [b]lythe
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.