I had previously thought that medieval travelling performers were regarded as being of a low social class, not for respectable people to associate with, but upon researching it I found out that many minstrels, at least, were employed at court, and were - it seems - well-respected. So I am curious, what was their status and how were they treated?

I am particularly interested in Germany - 13th century to be exact - because I'm researching a book, but any information is appreciated :)

3 Answers 3


The class of travelling entertainers seems to have had quite diverse social status. While minstrels at court would likely have been afforded some respect, other entertainers could be seen as scum, not even afforded the right to fair trial. I will cite the Wetrogothic law, the oldest Swedish provincial law (landskapslag), dating from the first half of the 13th century, which has a quite well known passage:

Jester's right (a)

If a travelling fiddler(b) is hit, there will never be a fine. If a fiddler is hurt[...] take a wild heifer and put her on a hill. Shave all hair of her tail and grease it. Give the fiddler greased shoes. Let him grab the heifer by the tail, and someone hit it with a sharp whip. If he can hold it, then he shall keep the good animal and enjoy it, as dogs enjoy grass. If he can not hold it, he shall have and endure what he got, shame and hurt. May he never again demand more rights than a whipped female thrall.

(a): "Lekarerätt"
(b): Actually"spelman", which is not tied to a specific instrument

This law also appears in the Ostrogothic law, and in manuscripts of the Danish Jyske lov, so it seems to have been quite well known. Thus, medieval Scandinavians accorded travelling musicians protection on par with female thralls, even subjecting them to a degrading mock trial by arms if they should complain. They were certainly not well respected.

  • That's kinda' harsh...
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 27, 2017 at 16:43
  • Good grief, that's horrible. O.o But does give an adequate idea of how a travelling performer could expect to be treated.
    – TMary
    Feb 27, 2017 at 19:14
  • To be honest, I personally suspect that it is some kind of a joke: it is placed at the very end of the lawbook, nowhere next to any similar laws. Still, joke or not, it does say a lot about how travelling entertainers were seen.
    – andejons
    Feb 28, 2017 at 17:52
  • Rereading this, I just noticed the "as dogs enjoy grass" part. Dogs eat grass to induce vomiting. I'm not entirely sure what they were trying to say here, but I'm pretty sure its not complementary.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 2, 2017 at 16:04

As you might have guessed from the existing answers (of MAGolding and andejons, at the time I am typing this), there seem to be two truths to it -- the highly respected minstrel, and the -- basically outlawed -- gleeman.

This is because they are two very different characters. The minstrel ("Minnesänger") was usually already a nobleman and part of the court (albeit quite often of low rank). Performing well as a minstrel was like performing well in the hunt, in the tourney, or in the field, a sign of competence that earned the performer respect, a way to distinguish yourself among your peers. These were (usually) not men from the street that had earned their way up!

In contrast to this are the "professional entertainers" from the street, the jugglers, fire breathers, tavern musicians etc., who are, if you look at it closely, merely a step up from vagrant beggars. These are what the "not respectable" parts (and the "Jester's right" quoted by andejons) refer to. You definitely couldn't hit the Duke of Aquitaine over the head and get away with it -- it should be clear that we are looking at two very different "professions" here.

With time, musicians organized themselves in guilds ("Musikantenzunft", sorry there seems to be no English WP article on the subject), with only guild members allowed to perform in an area, and the guild having the privilege of playing on official events like weddings or funerals. It should be obvious that this was still something different from Walther von der Vogelweide reciting lyric poetry or singing about the crusades. ;-)

  • That was what I was starting to suspect, that there were two different classes. Another question though, was the peasantry quite as snobby as the upper class? I always thought that even the poorer people would have thought, "Well, even if we're poor, at least we're decent, clean-living, honest Christian folk" with regards to performers.
    – TMary
    Feb 27, 2017 at 19:18
  • @19Mary: A quite different question, really, and one I am afraid I cannot answer ad-hoc. Probably depends on skill and general behaviour of the Spielmann -- they were expected to show deferrence to the "actually working" populace. Perhaps post it to the general audience?
    – DevSolar
    Feb 28, 2017 at 8:31

The Codex Manesse of c. 1304-1340 is an illustrated anthology of German poetry written by professional and amateur Minnesang poets and singers.

Many are commoners but others are knights and nobles up to kings and Emperor Henry VI. If it was respectable for the highest levels of society to be amateurs presumably professionals would be considered reasonably respectable persons suitable to be present at the courts of kings and nobles instead of vulgar scum.

No doubt the high nobility didn't think that commoner minnesangers were their social equals, but I am uncertain how snobbish they were. I get the impression that rigid social stratification and court etiquette was introduced in more modern times.

I remember reading somewhere that Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) wrote that his father, goldsmith Albrecht Durer Sr., sometimes met Emperor Fredrick III (1415-1493) in a tavern and was complimented on his skills by the Emperor.

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