Saturday morning quotes 2.3: Robin Hood’s lute
Today, people’s idea of the lute and its music may be a bit more enlightened but, not so long ago, mere mention of the instrument conjured images of Robin Hood and his minstrel companion, Alan-a-Dale. These images are really the result of a melding of stories that were always fanciful to begin with but were further enhanced by the Hollywood myth machine.
Robin Hood, it turns out, may have been an actual character and was referenced fairly early on in sources such as the Scotichronicon, composed by John of Fordun circa 1384, and embellished by Walter Bower around 1440. Bower mentions Robin Hood in reference to Simon de Montfort and his unhappy campaign:
Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads.
Robin Hood, the noble Saxon who resisted the Norman invaders, is a myth from the 19th century, promulgated largely due to the efforts of Sir Walter Scott in his Ivanhoe (1819), where Richard the Lionhearted calls him the “King of Outlaws and prince of good fellows.” The film, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), with Errol Flynn as the dashing do-gooder, cemented this image and added the character with the funny-looking lute. While the minstrel Alan-a-Dale was attached to the legend as early as the 17th century, Walt Disney firmly imprinted the image in our minds in his 1973 animated version of Robin Hood, where Alan-a-dale is the narrator in the form of a folksy lute-playing rooster who sounded an awful lot like country singer Roger Miller.
Despite the manufactured myths, there is something to be gained from looking at actual references to music in surviving sources from the age of the real Robin Hood, whomever that was. In fact, probing some of the documentary evidence from the 12th century, such as Raimon Vidal’s Abril issia, we can learn a thing or two about the role of the musician in society, discovering that some aspects haven’t really changed.
Christopher Page in “Court and City in France, 1100 – 1300”, from the book, Antiquity and the Middle Ages : From ancient Greece to the 15th century (Edited by James McKinnon: Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice Hall, 1990):
In many social contexts during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a minstrel, being a paid entertainer, was the lowest in rank when he entered a room.
Raimon Vidal’s poem reveals that the first requirement was eloquence. Above all a joglar had to be a fluent speaker. Yet a mere facility with words was only the beginning; to make his conversation truly beguiling the minstrel needed wisdom (saber). On one level, this wisdom is the tact which makes a man able to secure his own advantage. Thus Raimon Vidal advises that a minstrel, with an eye to his eventual reward, should not praise himself nor overpraise others, nor must he preach to knights about knighthood; he must also make a point of appealing to the younger members in the company, ‘for the heart leads young men to be generous’, and at all times he should preserve a delicate balance between wit and raillery in his conversation. He must maintain a measure of professional decorum, never speaking ill of a troubador’s work nor disparaging another jongleur.
– Christopher Page, Antiquity and the Middle Ages / Court and City in France, 1100 – 1300, page 213.
One of the more interesting aspects of these early tidbits of performance practice is the reception of a performance. Apparently, the silence we expect at a modern concert performance was not necessarily all that common when the music was new. Again from Raimon Vidal’s Abril issia:
“…among the valiant and the worthy, there are those without any consideration who will speak to you aside and ask you to sing in front of everyone else; and they will not observe good manners nor time nor occasion, and at the third word of the song, whatever you are singing, they will begin to grumble …”
Page addresses the troubador and trouvere phenomenon, extrapolating and using the surviving evidence to paint a neat picture of what likely occurred before, during and after a courtly performance in the article, “Listening to the Trouvères” (Early Music, Vol. 25, No. 4, (Nov., 1997), pp. 638-659.)
“The civilization of the 12th and 13th centuries had no equivalent to the modern association between silence and a relief from the noise of machines, or between silence and a relief from music. Medieval references to silence frequently emphasize a commanded ceasing of human voices.” [p. 649]
Some things never change. We have all attended concerts where we’ve heard aggressive whispering, crinkling of candy wrappers, the (forgivable but distracting) fits of coughing, and the unforgivable intrusion of cell phones. Even though the music may be subtle and captivating in its intricacy, it makes no difference if the listener is distracted by extraneous noise. Then, as now, it’s really up to the performer to overcome such distractions as best we can with a powerful performance.