Post-classical history

Merrie England

THE WEAK EFFORTS Henry had made to regain the lost provinces across the Channel had disturbed the even tenor of life in England scarcely at all. The long struggle with the barons took its toll in lives, in financial loss, in trade disturbances, but again the effects on the common people were relatively light. The country was prosperous in the main through the years of this long reign. The soil seemed to have grown in fertility. The painstaking Cistercians raised the standards of husbandry, and the value of English wool soared. The country became prosperous in a new sense, the cities grew larger, the villages around the castles teemed with active life.

In spite of poor government and the strife it produced, England was merrie.


There was a law that any yeoman with less than one hundred pence a year in land was obligated to have a bow and to practice regularly. This was no hardship, for one of the great pleasures of the common man was shooting at the butts. During the hours of leisure, sounds of loud laughter and approving cries of “Shorten!” would be heard from the archery grounds. The thud of arrows striking the clout squarely told the story of the skill English hands were developing with the mighty longbow, They came to the targetseagerly, these heavy-set men of the land, with their bows as tall as they were themselves, their arrows a yard long. They were not content to shoot at the marks which men of other countries used. They took willow wands instead, and rose garlands, and a very special target called a popinjay, an artificial parrot or pheasant. Every village produced its champions, and it was no wonder that in later days it was easy to recruit the expert bowmen who won the great victories of the Hundred Years’ War.

Boys, always eager to ape their elders, had bows of their own and would cover up their lack of skill by capering and singing:

“All in a row, a bendy bow:

Shoot at a pigeon and kill a crow,
Shoot at another and kill his brother.”

Younger children amused themselves on teeter-totters, although the name used then was merrytotter. They often played a game called Nine Men’s Morris, which required a whole field.

The English, in fact, were great lovers of sport. In winter they fastened the bones of animals to their feet and skated on frozen ponds and streams. Those who could afford such luxuries had a kind of skate with a metal edge, but they did not call them skates; they were termed scrick-shoes. A very popular game was known as bandy-ball, in which a crooked stick was used to clout a ball about a field. This form of amusement sired two quite different types of game, goff and shinny. Men bowled on the green and also played kayles or closh, a form of ninepins. They differed from most people in preferring games in which they could participate. Whole villages would turn to kick a ball or frisk around a Maypole.

At the same time they were avid followers of less healthy forms of sport in which they played the part of spectators—bear-baiting, bull-running, badger-baiting, and cockfighting.

The recreations of the nobility were somewhat more dignified. The tournament was the great amusement of the age and it drew all classes of people. Between joustings the brave knights kept the eye in for the next splintering of lances by practicing at the quintain, a special type of target Sometimes live quintains were used, men who covered themselves with a shield and defied the champions to bowl them over.

Hunting and hawking engaged most of the waking time of the nobility. Ladies of gentle blood took an active interest in both. Their participation sometimes took the form of sitting in an enclosure and shooting arrows at game driven past them. This, needless to state, did not suffice for the bolder ones who preferred to go into the field with their own harehounds. Ladies became expert hawkers and were seldom seen in the saddle without a hooded marlyon on wrist. The love of hawking, in fact, was universal. The poor man with his tercel and the yeoman with his goshawk (a certain type of hawk was designated for each class) were seen as often as the earl with his falcon and the knight with his sacret.

The indoor amusements of the nobility included chess and an early form of backgammon. After supper in the great hall the minstrels would fill the hours with their ballades while the well-stuffed guests drank their wine. Minstrels were often well paid for their efforts, it being a not uncommon thing for the host to reward a particularly good performance with a gift of the cloak he was wearing or a drinking cup from the table.


When people are happy they turn to music, and so it is not surprising that during the years of this remarkable century there was a great revival of minstrelsy. The bardy-coats (so called because of the shortened garments they wore) went up and down the land, singing the songs of Assanduan and Hastings, the ballades of Richard the Lion-Heart and Henry and the Fair Rosamonde. They were a race apart, these itinerant musicians, capable of playing on harp or vielle (which the common people called a fydel, or fiddle), with the use of an arched bow which produced a long-drawn-out accompaniment called a “drone bass.” Sometimes the vielle was operated by the turning of a handle, which made it the distant ancestor of the modern hurdy-gurdy. Sometimes the bardy-coats would lay their instruments aside and tell losel tales instead; and then the villagers would roar with laughter and slap their muscular thighs over anecdotes of scolds and cuckolds and fustian adventure. Sometimes a party of entertainers would roam up and down the land, consisting of jugglers and tumblers as well as minstrels, and even girls who danced on the shoulders of the gleemen.

The better class of minstrel found employment in the household of a nobleman. He then wore a distinctive dress, a red jacket over a parti-colored tunic and a yellow hood, the costume later used by court jesters. Even these musicians of a relatively lordly stature were under the ban of the Church, however, being forbidden the sacraments; which placed them in the company of excommunicates, sorcerers, prostitutes, and epileptics.

Music up to this time had been largely liturgical, the one-voiced Gregorian plain song which had the sanction of the Church. Now folk music, which went back some centuries and was polyphonic, began to come into its own at last In England folk singing in the form of the motet can be traced back centuries before the Conquest. The first records of actual music for more than one voice are found, therefore, in the island kingdom. The motet sounds very confusing to the modern ear. It has three parts, each with a different number of syllables to the measure and each with different words. There can be no doubt that dramatic intensity was achieved by this method, and by the end of the thirteenth century it had come into steady use, even in the secular church. The center had shifted from England to France, where in the cathedral later known as Notre Dame there was a quite fabulous musical school under the direction of the great Magister Perotinus Magnus.

The Church did not accept these innovations with any gladness. In fact, there was much opposition and much thundering of threats against those who composed these disorganizing songs and those who sang them. The refusal to admit minstrels to the sacraments was part of the effort to maintain plain song as the one form of musical expression. This had no effect: let churchmen inveigh as much as they liked, the love for polyphonic music grew. Wherever men and women gathered and the opportunity arose for song, on communal green, on the roads where groups plodded along together, the new music would be heard, voices blending in motet and hocket.

The Church was particularly opposed to a class of singers who became known as goliards. These wandering minstrels were sometimes renegades from clerical life, sometimes students who had failed to achieve anything at the university and had taken to a vagrant life, wining, wenching, dicing, singing. They seldom attempted to do more than entertain peasants at village inns, knowing how darkly the eye of authority turned on them. They lived and died, therefore, in obscurity, and this is unfortunate because many of them were brilliant fellows, capable of composing music of a delightfully melodious turn and of writing words to match. Collections have been made of such of their songs as have survived, and these make it clear that they produced love lyrics and nature songs of rare artistry. For the most part, of course, they specialized on different fare, knowing the tastes of the people on whom they depended for a living. Their drinking and gambling songs were bawdy in the extreme. They even indulged in obscene and sacrilegious parodies of the church litanies.

England produced her full share of goliards. They went from tavern to tavern, cutting their capers, singing their rowdy songs with much drollery, getting an occasional penny and free meal, couching a hogshead (sleeping in a barrel) when in town, curling up under a hedge when in the country. It was a short life and a merry one for the goliard. He died in a brawl or at the end of an official rope for thievery, his François Villon type of life seldom bringing him a moment of peace in life or an orderly departing therefrom. He helped considerably in making life more bearable for the common man, so peace to his memory.

The people of the century had many instruments on which to express their love of music. There were organs in the churches, of course, and a portable variety which had as many as seven or eight notes. The keyboard had not yet been invented, and so the music was produced by striking the strings with clenched fist or elbow. Then there was the guitar, which was called a gittern in England; the fydel, already mentioned; small portable harps with a limited number of strings, which were much favored for the singing of ballades; the psaltery, a wooden box with strings stretched across it; flutes, double-whistles, bagpipes; the shawm, a kind of oboe with a double reed which the watchmen in London began to use on their rounds at some stage of the long reign of Henry III; finally, the trumpets, cornets, and bugles used in battle and for the announcements of the heralds.


The people of the thirteenth century danced long and feasted heartily at weddings. They went regularly to fairs and spent their few farthings on ribbons for their wives and sweethearts, and often enough were hauled up before the Pie Powder Courts for infractions of the peace. They danced around the Maypole with an abandon which told of a complete lack of concern for the morrow. They worked hard but they laughed loud.

They seem to have had an instinctive good taste and a well-developed sense of order. The tillers of the soil kept their hedges well trimmed and their furrows as straight as the flight of an arrow. The artisans in the towns produced the finest of cloth, neat-fitting garments, and the cockiest of hats.

Norman castles still frowned down on them from hillsides and strategic fords, and the distinction between the two races in the land had not yet been obliterated. The nobleman still spoke Norman French; the workman kept alive the more virile tongue called English. The tillers of the soil still whispered of the days of Edward the Confessor and great King Alfred, but the memory was growing dim. A national solidarity was forming which would be completed in the following reign.

In the meantime England was merrie enough, much more carefree in mood than France, where the iron bonds of feudalism still weighed heavily on the common people. Men remembered the Great Charter, and there was a feeling in slum and toft that the calling of commoners to Parliament would lead to real emancipation. On the whole, the artisan and the yeoman had reason to be merrie.

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