As the shelf of big red volumes in the series Records of Early English Drama continues to march down the bookshelf, there does seem to have been a collective, if unspoken, decision that the time has come to approach this huge mass of data from an interpretative point of view. Recognition that the Southwest of England has now been covered entirely by REED, for example, lies behind this year's issues of Early Theatre, which are concentrating entirely on the REED collections for this area.
Now, Elizabeth Baldwin has produced an interpretative discussion of the records of Cheshire in advance of the publication of the county REED volume, which she has edited with David Mills, and which will appear in due course. Baldwin has focussed her discussion, not on the dramatic records which are, of course, heavily dominated by the records of the city of Chester, and which have been considered in some detail, especially by Mills in his ancillary volumes to his edition of the plays (with R. M. Lumiansky, EETS Supplementary Series 3 and 9), but on the musical records of the county. Although a significant proportion of the surviving documents do concern the Chester city waits, documents relating to music are spread widely over the county.
Baldwin clarifies at the beginning of her study that one specific point she wishes to investigate is the extent to which the 1572 Statute on Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars was used to control 'travelling' musicians, and what effect it had on their lives. Wisely, she is a bit wary of the possible answers, since the surviving documents derive largely from run- ins performers had with the law under the statute, giving little evidence of performers without patrons may have spent a lifetime happily (if impecuniously) performing without interference from the law.
Chapter One, "Music in Context" surveys the evidence for the kinds of performance contexts available to musicians, dealing with such subjects as the boundary between 'professional' and 'non-professional' performers, attested venues for performance, and the rise through the later sixteenth century of Sabbatarianism and its effects on performance. She also takes up the problematic question of terminology in the records; what difference there is between a 'minstrel' and a 'musician' and how that balance changes from the fifteenth century on. I have a very strong feeling that this, like the 'professional/non- professional' question is not really capable of answer. There is no question that the word 'minstrel' underwent significant pejoration during the period from about 1450-1600 and that serious performers moved in the direction of calling themselves 'musician,' but it is unlikely that we can be clearer than this bare statement.
The second and third chapters, "Music in the City" and "Music in the County" present the evidence for musical life in Cheshire, summarizing the documentary materials which will appear in the Cheshire REED volume. The 'city' chapter, by David Mills, brings Mills' immense knowledge of the city to bear on the records, presenting clear outlines of the music of Chester's city churches, its city waits, civic patronage, and even--as far as the records allow--of 'impromptu' or 'recreational' music. Baldwin's chapter on the 'county' is far less clearly organized, though this is in large part due to the scattered nature of the material. Where there is adequate material, she presents summaries of specific areas, dealing with the musical life of towns like Nantwich and Malpas, and with the occasional musical family or group whose appearances in the records allows more than just a note of their existence.
The following chapter, "Music and the Gentry" deals with Cheshire's evidence for musical patronage, including a thorough discussion of the well-known Minstrel Court under the control for centuries of the Dutton family. Evidence for the sponsorship of professional musicians by Cheshire gentry is fleshed out by records of the gentry themselves as performers and of their provision of music teachers for their children. "The Musical Instruments" covers with admirable thoroughness the evidence for the existence and use of specific instruments in early Chester, though too much space is taken up with unnecessary organological descriptions. Far better a brief reference to the relevant entries in the New Grove, especially since a few of the present descriptions are drawn from out-of-date sources like David Munrow's 1976 book.
Given the spotty survival of records, it becomes clear through the book that the questions Baldwin posed at the beginning cannot really be answered, and she admits this candidly in her "Conclusion." This does not, however, mean that we are no further ahead at the end than at the beginning; it means that the questions Baldwin has been able to answer are smaller and less broadly applicable than she had initially hoped, but none the less valuable for that.
As Appendices, Baldwin prints a wealth of information: the probate inventories of four musicians, and a full list of the musicians named in the records, their locations and the dates of the records in which they appear. As further REED volumes appear, and as their contents are subjected to further scholarly scrutiny, I think it quite likely that it will be possible to refine the sorts of conclusions drawn from them. Also, it will become increasingly important to have local studies like Baldwin's, from which eventually a far wider synthesis can be drawn. Baldwin's study will allow us to compare the musical life of the west midlands not only with adjacent areas--rural Shropshire, urban Liverpool, and wild Wales--but also with more distant locales for which we have more extensive information (York, Norwich) where traditions may be similar or, as we find with the records of dramatic performance, vastly different.