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13.03.11, Taylor, The Songs and Travels of Tudor Minstrel

13.03.11, Taylor, The Songs and Travels of Tudor Minstrel

Richard Sheale of Tamworth was a working musician in mid-sixteenth century England. Andrew Taylor's book-length account of Sheale's life, audiences, known works, and wider contexts revises notions that minstrels belonged exclusively to the medieval period, made extinct by the rise of print. While sometimes getting bogged down in details like handwriting analysis and the tedium of reporting on a substantial archive of evidence, The Songs and Travels of a Tudor Minstrel offers important revisions to our understanding of the sixteenth century musician and his relationship to the various communities he served.

The six-chapter book is divided into two larger parts. The first part, containing an introduction and the first three chapters, centers on Sheale himself, the "minstrel, harper, and mediocre poet" who seems to have been both a London ballad-monger and a traditional praise-singer for the aristocratic Stanley family in the North (1). Using an impressive array of archival evidence, Taylor attempts to locate Sheale in both contexts, and details the contents of crucial evidence. The second part, chapters four through six, turns to The Hunting of the Cheviot, a ballad about the 1388 battle of Otterburn that is the best-known song in Sheale's repertoire. Taylor explores why Sheale's songs and stories were so popular, interrogating the emotional force of Sheale's specific repertoire as well as the wider world of balladry in both performance and print.

The introduction, subtitled "The Minstrel Rides Out," begins with Sheale's misfortunes of 1556. Apparently, the minstrel packed up goods to sell and all of his and his wife's savings and rode from his home- town of Tamworth, in Shropshire, towards London. The robbers he soon encountered took him for every penny and forced him back home, where he composed a brief lament recounting his story. He sung this ballad, which survives in MS Ashmole 48, at an ale, that is, a beer party in which he raised funds to help cover his loss. After recounting this entertaining story, the introduction widens to generally consider the figure of the riding minstrel, who is both romanticized and villainized for his errancy and for his candid, irreverent wordplay and song. Sheale, Taylor proposes, revises currently held beliefs about the "monolithic declines in minstrelsy and the myth of the freely wandering minstrel" (10). Sheale's case demonstrates that minstrelsy thrived long into the sixteenth century; that the minstrel could cut across social levels by singing for ales and great households both; and that the older oral tradition of the feudal minstrel could mix with the newer print-centered tradition of the ballad singer.

Chapter 1, "The Minstrel of Tamworth and his Audiences," uses archival evidence mentioning Sheale himself as well as other contemporary minstrels to describe the routes, repertoire, and social position of mid-sixteenth century entertainers. While the tradition of the sham peddler--ripping off his clients like Shakespeare's Autolycus or a modern-day used car salesman--remains popular, Taylor points out that peddlers like Taylor prospered when they followed regular routes and established trust with life-long contacts. Sheale and other successful peddlers were thus less free-spirited rogues and more vital community visitors, bringing merchandise and musical entertainment to the common folk of disparate places. When he sang at ales and taverns, Sheale was at the lowest end of the social spectrum that made up his audience. At the other end of this spectrum were (perhaps) the Stanleys and other established country families. Circumstantial evidence links Sheale to the "harpers" indicated in the records of the Stanley household. And if he regularly sang at their house in Lathom, he likely traveled to a network of country houses in that Northern region. Amidst this chapter's many speculative syntactical constructions (there are lots of "if's" and "would have's"), Taylor presents compelling historical sketches of the life of a sixteenth-century entertainer in both taverns and aristocratic households.

The second chapter details the late medieval and early modern history of the Stanley family, who was one of the two great families of the North, along with the Percys. The ancestors of Edward Stanley, third early of Derby, were commemorated in ballads about two major events: Henry Tudor's 1485 triumph at Bodsworth, and the defeat of the Scots at the 1513 battle of Flodden. The ballads contain grains of historical truth, mixed in with congratulatory propaganda and commonplaces of the genre. Taylor demonstrates that the medieval musicians, or gestours, who sang songs of great men to foster a knight's reputation did not die out in the Middle Ages, but rather they morphed into a new kind of entertainer who merged older traditions of the merry jester with the reverential gestours. The rest of Chapter Two analyzes The Stanley Poem, a 1300-line poem praising the valor of several generations of Stanleys, and makes a case for Sheale's authorship based on stylistic analysis and circumstantial evidence. The chapter gets weighed down in detail, but makes interesting cases for the survival of both feudal culture and Northern family alliances in the sixteenth century, and for the combination of profanity and veneration common to this period's professional musical repertoire.

Chapter 3, "Ashmole 48 and Its History," borders on the tedious as it describes the manuscript containing seventy-six poems including The Hunting of the Cheviot and other works linked to Sheale. While Taylor's impressive skills with paleography, codicology, and dialect analysis are on full display, he ultimate concludes that there are more questions than answers about the assembly and provenance of Ashmole 48. His analysis gets more compelling when he considers the poems that explicitly mention Sheale and argues that they are parts of actual songbooks that the balladeer used for performance. By the end, Taylor makes it clear that Ashmole 48, "whether copied by Sheale or by a colleague...stands at the confluence of two traditions," like Sheale himself (107).

Chapter 4, the first in the book's second part, focuses in on The Hunting of the Cheviot as well as the Battle of Otterburn, which that ballad commemorates. Because this historical event and subsequent retellings are so well documented, Taylor is able to trace the "various stages of ballad transmission from battle to broadside" (118). The historical 1388 battle in fact was far less ferocious than subsequent ballads claimed, thus demonstrating the way oral tradition immediately exaggerates real events. Within a decade of the battle, one particular capture had been singled out and made the focal point of a heroic epic. A series of later ballads transform the historical situation almost unrecognizably, and The Hunting of the Cheviot is one of those ballads. It was hugely popular in the sixteenth century with everyone from the Stanley family on down. Taylor explains that while modern-day songs and stories belong to the teller, in the sixteenth century, ballad histories were "heavily dependent on and circumscribed by communal memory" (133). The minstrel depended on the social continuity of the audience, an audience that allowed the minstrel to sing only fragments of the wider epic because they knew the wider tradition from which it came. This explanation of Sheale's dependence on his listeners (for which Taylor offers compelling evidence including a passage where the minstrel implores his audience to fill in details and correct his errors) is one of the book's most interesting arguments, and contributes to a wider scholarly conversation about what historical audiences know and how they variously interpret performance.

Chapter Five explores Tudor responses to The Hunting and other Cheviot ballads, which includes Sir Philip Sidney's defense of the ballad and its wider tradition. Considering, too, George Puttenham's contempt for rhyming entertainers like balladeers, this chapter thus engages the early modern conversation about the role and uses of poetry. The chapter also considers sixteenth-century nostalgia for a "true chivalry" of days gone by, which Taylor chalks up to the dislocation and traumas of the sixteenth century. The fact, then, that a ballad like The Hunting of the Cheviot was seen as part of the past was exactly what made it valuable; it was a bridge to the time of true chivalry. In Taylor's persuasive words, "to move from the early of Derby's retinue on campaign in the Borders to the print shops of London was to move from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance" (150).

The book's final chapter opens with Walter Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel, which romanticizes the tradition of minstrelsy and its by-gone orality. Taylor addresses the notion that the decline of minstrelsy was part of the historical shift from an oral and public culture to a textual and private one, with the printing press sounding minstrelsy's death knell. Against that story, the case of Sheale demonstrates that there was a long period in which the printed broadside ballad and the recitation of the minstrel coexisted.

Ultimately, the case of Richard Sheale of Tamworth complicates several binaries: medieval versus early modern; highbrow versus lowbrow; the wandering minstrel versus the community member; oral versus print traditions. As such, it contributes to our understanding about how received wisdom on such things needs the revisions currently being produced by medieval and early modern scholarship. For Sheale to have thrived on the road, in taverns, and in aristocratic homes; to have sang, recited, and sold printed ballads; and to have done so in the oft-neglected middle Tudor years, shows an adaptability that should inspire today's scholars to display a similar versatility.