Volume 42, 2021

Steven Breeze
Pages 1-39

The Status of Secular Musicians in Early Medieval England
Ethnomusicology and Anglo-Saxon Musical Culture

Can we delineate secular musicians in early medieval England? If so, what was their social status, particularly from the perspective of the Christian hierarchy? The present article considers these questions in relation to a status paradigm hypothesized by the ethnomusicologist Alan Merriam. Merriam’s paradigm suggests that musicians are important for society, but they possess low status and are associated with deviance, which may be denounced yet simultaneously sanctioned by members of wider society. This article maintains that the musician is distinct from the poet or scop in early medieval England. Old English poetry idealizes musicians and represents the principal instrument of entertainment, the lyre, symbolically. However, nonpoetic material criticizes comparable performance practices. The views demonstrated in eighth-century English writing by Bede and Alcuin, and in the Canons of Clofesho, suggest that the popularity and influence of secular artistry in religious spaces and at religious events become an increasing issue. However, a letter by Abbot Cuthbert writing from Bede’s former monastery indicates lyres might have been played in monastic settings. Additional literary, archaeological, and illustrative evidence suggests that being a musician was not inherently a low-status pursuit. Lyrists are associated with deviance only in certain contexts and spaces, and there is apparent need for them in wider society. The status of the secular musician in eighth-century England is somewhat ambivalent, but is found not to reflect Merriam’s overly-simplistic paradigm. An alternative is proposed, accounting for the complexity of early medieval English social structures and cultural perspectives.