Medieval Secular Music Terminology


Romi Mikulinsky


copyright 2005


Very little survived from the work of secular singers in medieval England. Not only were most of the vernacular songs written in French or Latin, but folksingers relied on an oral tradition of transmission and consequently most of the English songs are lost since they do not appear in medieval manuscripts. Despite the scarcity of written evidence, we can infer from the etymology of medieval performers’ terms that secular music “was a rich and varied facet of life in medieval England” (Lefferts and Rastall). Hence, the plethora of names for secular music performers in both OE and ME reflects the omnipresence of secular music in England’s court and countryside. Terms like OE gleeman and scop that were carried on to ME, and the ME minstrel, jongleur, and gestour capture the richness of the phenomena and the significant role music played in medieval England.


The two prominent terms in OE for vernacular artists are gleoman and scop. Both terms are used interchangeably in Beowulf to describe the multiple duties of the court-musician. Although its narrative is set in Scandinavia, Beowulf is the earliest work written in Anglo-Saxon and informs us about music’s centrality in court and the different words describing medieval musicians. The multiple references to the court-musician indicate that his role was not only to entertain the king’s guests but also to retell historical tales and to announce the heroic code (lines 867, 868-9, 871, 874, 876, 878, 882, 902, 914-5, 1065-6). The foregrounding of the scop and the merriment he produces is even presented as the reason for Grendel’s attack: “se þe in þystrum bad, þæt he dogora gehwam dream gehyrde hludne in healle; þær wæs hearpan sweg, swutol sang scopes” (86-90). Similarly to the Greek root of poet, poiein, meaning “to make, create, or produce” (OED), in Words and Music in the Middle Ages, John Stevens acknowledges the obscure origin of the word scop, suggesting it derives from either “OE scieppan ‘create’ or from the Icelandic skop ‘railing mocking’” (204). The OED also lists “sport, jest, derision” as possible interpretations for scop. Stevens’ etymological analysis can be read as synthesizing the two fundamental roles of the medieval performer: creating original poetry and music and entertaining his audience with jokes and trickery.


Another indication that the poet-musicians were an established phenomena even before the Norman Conquest is found in “Widsith,” the Old English epic-poem that dates back to the seventh century. Stevens writes in the second edition of The New Oxford History of Music that “Widsith” features an idealized portrait of a scop, distinguished from his lower-class peer, the gleomen; the scop is “an epic poet/performer of superior social standing, as contrasted with the gleomen, predecessor of the jongleur” (405). Consequently, “Widsith” discloses the hierarchy in the categorization of medieval secular musicians that is further intensified in the ME period.


While the scop is seen as a professional poet (MED), the second OE term, gleoman signifies, according to the Bosworth-Toller Dictionary, a “musician, minstrel, jester, player, buffoon.” The alteration of the two terms in Beowulf hints at the difficulty to differentiate between scop and gleoman, a topic discussed by both Rankin and Lefferts and Rastall. The OED definition of gleoman presents him as a “professional entertainer at social gatherings.” It appears that the sense of glee in OE and ME is chiefly poetic; according to the Bosworth-Toller the noun gleow, from which glee derives, means joy, music, musical accompaniment of a song, and mirth, but also jesting, or sport. The OE noun reveals the diverse role of the medieval poet-musician, which is further developed by Carter-Holland’s definition in his Dictionary of Middle English Musical Terms. Carter-Holland defines gleoman as “a wandering professional performer of low social standing; a juggler, acrobat, minstrel, singer, etc.” (172). Lefferts and Rastall add that the gleoman “was of a lower class an itinerant professional entertainer who was paid for individual performance” (516) and contrast him with the scop’s who was a “serious and respected member of the community, a maker and performer of poetry attached to the court” (516). The MED provides an additional example for the gleoman’s dubious status in a quote from The Dialogue on Vices and Virtues from 1225: “He ðe wuneliche lið on hordome, ne glewmen, ne gaueleres, ne wicchen, ne unriht domesmann” (121/21). The gleoman is as unwelcome as practitioners of witchcraft, money lending, and prostitution. It therefore seems that despite the interchanging of gleeman and scop in early Middle Ages manuscripts, the terms soon began to resonate different social standing, and produced a classification that was maintained in Post-Conquest terms.


The ME term minstrel, which is today considered as a general name for medieval secular musicians, is a loanword from Norman French that came into use in England after the conquest (1066). In his comprehensive historical account, The Story of British Music, Frederick J. Crowest, suggests it was the “great influx of the minstrel element that followed in the van of the army which William, Duke of Normandy, brought with him” (198); this event marked the beginning of a new phase in the British musical history. According to Carter-Holland, minstrel derives from Latin’s ‘minister,’ meaning a servant or attendant. This can be regarded as indicative of these entertainers’ professional status, retained in the service of nobility. Moreover, Gushee and Rastall note that by the Ninth century the Latin word had also come to mean craftsman or handworker (of the French métier from the Latin ministerium). The MED brings two quotations that exemplify the ministrels’ status as integral part of noble household: the fourteenth century Robert of Gloucester’s Chronicle notes that “After mete, as ri3t was, þe menestraus eode aboute, & kni3tes & swaines In karole gret route” (line 1217).


Parallel to the emergence of ministrel as a term describing court or noble household’s musician, a general term has evolved for lower classes entertainers: jongleurs. David Fallows categorizes jongleurs as medieval entertainers; he asserts that the word was extremely rare before 1500 and results from the conflation of two separate Old French words, joglëor and janglëor (which literally meant ‘liar’, ‘gossip’ or ‘prattler’). Joglëor derives from the Latin joculator, as do the cognate Old Provençal joglar and the modern English ‘juggler’.


Willkins argues that jongleurs chanted or recited ancient epics or songs (“chansons de geste”) and performed songs at Christmas and Easter (126). However, Lefferts and Rastall signal the introduction of the term gestour to describe performers of epic stories, who accompany their tale with music. The MED defines gestour as “one who recites metrical romances or tells stories, a minstrel; also, an entertainer, jester, mimic.” A quotation brought by the MED is taken from John Trevisa’s Higden's Polychronicon where gestours are coupled with poets for their creation of literary compositions: “poetes and gestoures [Higd.(2): makers of dites; L carminatores] uppon a pulpet rehersede poysees, gestes, and songes.” This quotation suggests a possible esteem attached to the gestour thanks to his literary occupation, as opposed to the jongleurs who were more of clowns or magicians.


The MED brings the various meaning of the word jongleur; in addition to his relation to music, dance and trickery, the term also had the sense of a parasite, deceiver, or a rascal. The fifteenth century manuscript Medulla Grammatice explicitly connects the jongleur to mischief “Parasitaster: a iogolour” (47b/b) and so is the earlier Ayenbite of Inwyt: “ Þe blefþ na3t bleþeliche in his house, uor he ne heþ no worse hous þanne his o3en” (172/31). Regardless of the bad reputation the Jongleurs acquired, Quinn and Hall, in their book Jongleur, highlight the important role these performers held in creating a basis for the oral improvisation and transmission of epic and romantic literature. Quinn and Hall retrace the etymology of their title to the Latin iaculator, meaning “joker or jester”, in addition to its association to the more modern derivative juggler. It seems therefore that in order to attract the illiterate lower-class audience’s attention the folksingers had to interweave their skills as entertainers, illusionists and clowns with their talent as story-tellers.


Overall, the plethora of terms for these poet-musicians displays their significance for Middle Ages culture. Despite being often considered as interchangeable, these terms indicate the social classification of these performers and inform us of the intense musical activity spread across medieval England. These secular poets were not only a source for entertainment but also had an important role in the transmission of literarture to the illiterate society, as well as in the development of specifically instrumental styles.


For Further Reading


Linguistic Resources:


An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary based on the manuscript collections of the late Joseph Bosworth. Ed. T. Northcote Toller. The Online edition. 15 December 2004. <>


Carter, Henry Holland. A Dictionary of Middle English Musical Terms. Indiana University Press, 1961.


The Oxford English Dictionary =[OED]. Oxford University Press, 2004. Oxford  Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Toronto Libraries. 18 December 2004.



Musical Resources:


Butterfield, Ardis. Karp, Theodore: “Troubadours,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. 18 December 2004.



Caldwell, John. The Oxford History of English Music. Volume 1: From the Beginnings to c. 1715. Clarendon Press, 1991.


Crowest, Frederick J. The Story of British Music from the Earliest Times to the TudorPeriod. R. Bentley, 1896.


Fallows, David. “Jongleurs,” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. 18 December 2004.



Gushee, Lawrence. Rastall, Richard: “Minstrels.” Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy. 18 December 2004



Harman, Alec. Mediaeval and Early Renaissance Music (up to c. 1525). Essential Books, 1958.


Opland, Jeff. Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry: a Study of Traditions. New Haven, 1980.


Padelford, Frederick Morgan. Old English Musical Terms. Longwood Press, 1976.


Quinn, William A., Hall, Audley S. Jongleur: a Modified Theory of Oral Improvisation and Its Effects on the Performance and Transmission of Middle English Romance. University Press of America, 1982.


Stevens, John. “Medieval Song,” The New Oxford history of Music (Second Edition). Volume 2: The Early Middle Ages to 1300. Oxford University Press, 1990.

---. Music and Poetry in the Early Tudor Court. Methuen, 1961

---. Words and Music in the Middle Ages: Song, Narrative, Dance and Drama, 1050-1350. Cambridge University Press, 1986.


Wilkins, Nigel. Music in the Age of Chaucer. D. R. Brewer, 1995.



Medieval Encyclopaedias:


Coredon, Christopher. Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases. D.S. Brewer, 2004


Leffers, Peter M., Rastall, Richard. “Minstrels and Minstrelsy.” Medieval England: an Encyclopaedia. Ed: Szarmach, Paul E. Garland Pub., 1998.


Rankin, Susan. “Music.” Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Ed: Lapidge, Michael. Blackwell, 1999.