Notes 60.2 (2003) 420-422
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Paying the Piper: Music in Pre-1642 Cheshire. By Elizabeth Baldwin, with David Mills. (Early Drama, Art, and Music Monograph Series, 29.) Kalamazoo, MI: The Medieval Institute/ Western Michigan University, 2002. [xii, 287 p. ISBN 1-58044-040-1. $30.] Maps, illustrations, bibliography, index.
Paid pipers and, to a much lesser extent, called tunes feature prominently in this focused contextual study of the musical life of a provincial English town and county before the civil wars. But the musical world illuminated here by Elizabeth Baldwin displays a striking variety that quickly disabuses the reader's expectations of an orderly world of client-patron contracts, or of consensus or conformity. In Baldwin's concluding words, "music and musicians had not one role but many, both positive and negative, in the county of Cheshire" (p. 186). Not all pipers were paid; many called their own tunes, and some played a decidedly disorderly role, even on occasions when they were specifically enjoined to desist from playing tout court.
Baldwin's history depends on the nature of the available sources, whose patchy survival and problematic interpretation are covered in her lucid discussion of contexts and sources in the introduction (pp. 1-13). Paying the Piper stems in large part from associated research on Chester (the county town of Cheshire) published in the series Records of Early English Drama (Lawrence M. Clopper, Chester [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979]), which has done so much to unearth information on music, drama, and ceremony in late medieval and early modern England, and with which Baldwin's coauthor, David Mills, has long been involved. The topological scope of the book is wide, encompassing town and county, church, alehouse, guildhall and domus, the institutional and unofficial (if not [End Page 420] downright subversive), and the trained and untrained. The sources are equally wide-ranging, principally financial records and legal cases (from which so much of the musicians' negative roles can be deduced; see below), as well as letters, poems, wills, bishops' registers, and civic records. A few early treasures aside, most of these sources postdate the Reformation and are secular in origin. Although one might regret the disappearance of so much of the medieval source material, Baldwin rightly allows the surviving sources to give shape and direction to the narrative: the full extent of Chester's musical life in the later middle ages must remain tantalizingly elusive.
While avoiding bucolic Merrie Olde England stereotypes, Baldwin places her discussion of musical practices within a rich historical context. This context, and the variegated identities of the region's musicmakers, Baldwin delineates in her first chapter, "Music in Context." Simple questions of nomenclature serve to illuminate the variety of statuses and categories of musicians at work from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. Around 1576, Thomas Whythorne claimed a pecking order, from learned doctors and bachelors of music, through teachers, organists, and liturgical singers, to the lowest grade of riffraff, itinerant alehouse players. For Whythorne, the latter were not true musicians (or "miuszisions"), but "minstrels," a term which by 1576 had become thoroughly pejorative. The declining status of traveling minstrels is marked by their treatment under the 1572 Statute of Vagabonds. Although the licensed minstrels of Cheshire were exempted from the provisions of this act, its implications were stark —unlicensed minstrels were explicitly classed as vagrants and were to be treated accordingly.
The Reformation provides the essential backdrop and motivating force for this change. Comfortably distant from the metropolitan center, and hence viewed as a potential center of religious conservatism (if not outright recusancy), Cheshire was planted with reform-minded clergy under Elizabeth. In the resulting confrontation, between "precise" (i.e., Puritan) divines and the more intractable members of their congregations, established cultural practices and their reformation played a key role. Music became a marker of religious identity and a tool of provocation; Sabbatarian attempts to enforce Sunday observance were met with deliberate profanation. Alehouse musicmaking proved equally resistant to the reformation of manners, providing a conspicuous forum in which music served its most transgressive role.