From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"The Minstrels were an order of men in the middle ages, who subsisted by the arts of poetry and music, and sang to the harp verses composed by themselves, or others. i They also appear to have accompanied their songs with mimicry and action ; and to have practised such various means of diverting as were much admired in those rude times, and supplied the want of more refined entertainment (b). These arts rendered them extremely popular and acceptable in this and all the neighbouring countries ; where no high scene of festivity was esteemed complete, that was not set off with the exercise of their talents ; and where, so long as the spirit of chivalry subsisted, they were protected and caressed, because their songs tended to do honour to the ruling passion of the times, and to encourage and foment a martial spirit." --"An Essay On The Ancient Minstrels In England" by Thomas Percy
A minstrel was a medieval European bard who performed songs whose lyrics told stories of distant places or of existing or imaginary historical events. Although minstrels created their own tales, often they would memorize and embellish the works of others. Frequently they were retained by royalty and high society. As the courts became more sophisticated, minstrels were eventually replaced at court by the troubadours, and many became wandering minstrels, performing in the streets and became well-liked until the middle of the Renaissance, despite a decline beginning in the late 15th century. Minstrelsy fed into later traditions of travelling entertainers, which continued to be moderately strong into the early 20th century, and which has some continuity down to today's buskers or street musicians.
Initially, minstrels were simply servants at Court, and entertained the lord and courtiers with chansons de geste or their local equivalent. The term minstrel derives from Old French ménestrel (also menesterel, menestral), which is a derivative from Italian ministrello (also menestrello), from Middle Latin ministralis "retainer," an adjective form of Latin minister, "attendant" from minus, "lesser".
In Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest, the professional poet was known as a scop ("shaper" or "maker"), who composed his own poems, and sang them to the accompaniment of a harp. In a rank much beneath the scop, were the gleemen, who had no settled abode, but roamed about from place to place, earning what they could from their performances. Late in the 13th century, the term minstrel began to be used to designate a performer who amused his lord with music and song.
In a complex way involving invasions, wars, conquests, etc., two categories of composers originated. Poets like Chaucer and John Gower appeared in one category wherein music was not a part. Minstrels, on the other hand, swarmed at feasts and festivals in great numbers with harps, fiddles, bagpipes, flutes, flageolets, citterns, and kettledrums.
As early as 1321, the minstrels of Paris were formed into a guild. A guild of royal minstrels was organized in England in 1469. Minstrels were required to either join the guild or to abstain from practising their craft. Some minstrels were retained by lords as jesters who, in some cases, also practised the art of juggling. Some were women, or women who followed minstrels in their travels. Minstrels throughout Europe also employed trained animals, such as bears. Minstrels in Europe died out slowly, having gone nearly extinct by about 1700, though isolated individuals working in the tradition existed even into the early 19th century.