Ancient Manuscript Offers Rare Glimpse of Minstrel Show

A preacher gives a sermon on the virtues of heavy drinking. A group of kings feast until their stomachs burst and out come two dozen murderous oxen. Such is the stuff of medieval comedy shows, revealed through the pages of a rare, 15th-century manuscript held in the National Library of Scotland. Minstrels or traveling entertainers were popular throughout medieval England, but little is known about their acts as most were illiterate. A new analysis of the Heege manuscript, however, “provides, perhaps for the first time, a direct glimpse into the long-forgotten oral tradition of English minstrel acts,” per the Washington Post. Written by a scribe who attended a minstrel’s performances, it allows modern audiences to effectively sit in on the show.

“A surprising conclusion is that medieval minstrels were offering comic performances, rather than the kinds of material we usually associate with medieval minstrelsy, such as Robin Hood ballads, tales of chivalry and accounts of great battles,” says James Wade of Cambridge University, lead author of a study of the text published Wednesday in the Review of English Studies, per Salon. “This minstrel is not only very funny, but also capable of performing good poetry and crafting clever and rhetorically sophisticated stories,” he continues. “They serve up everything from the satirical, ironic, and nonsensical to the topical, interactive and meta-comedic,” and “poke fun at everyone, high and low,” Wade adds in a release. “It’s a comedy feast.”

Researchers discovered the manuscript was transcribed by tutor Richard Heege in England’s Midlands region around 1480. Wade believes Hegge copied the acts from a memory-aid used by the minstrel who performed near the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border, as certain sequences, including an alliterative nonsense verse, would have been nearly impossible to recall. “Manuscripts often preserve relics of high art. This is something else. It’s mad and offensive, but just as valuable,” says Wade. “Here we have a self-made entertainer with very little education creating really original, ironic material.” He notes the act centered on feasting kings contains the earliest recorded use of the term “red herring” to signify a diversion, as part of a jibe at the kings’ gluttony. (Read more Middle Ages stories.)



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