|The Musicians, Lucas van Leyden 1524|
So, without further ado, a little bit about gleemen, the Old English term for minstrels, bards, jongleurs. I chose the word "gleewoman" (modified to the feminine) for the new title of my blog because the role of the traveling singer and taleteller has always plucked a deep cord in my heart, ever since I was small. Before newspapers and movies and books read in bed, there were the wandering ones who came bearing not only local gossip and news from the next village, not only bright silks and juggling balls to entertain the small ones, but stories ripe as apples, stories with their roots so far back in time and in the land that no one could say where they had begun, or where they might end. It is this tradition—of the stories passed on round fires for millennia, stories that always had hearts made out of wonder, hearts threaded with hulda and vila and dragons and trolls—that I write in, to which I sing my songs at dusk.
|Girl Playing Music, Marie Spartali Stillman 1844-1927|
I love that the literal etymology of gleeman is exactly as it looks—a man who is mirthful with music; a man who brings the joy of music; perhaps most specifically a man whose trade is the glee of song. Glee in its original sense was connected with music, but also with the Old Norse gly, for joy, which had its hooves in other gl- words associated with shining, smooth, radiant things. And of course back before the printing press, and up until today in oral cultures, story and poetry and song were inextricably linked. So glee is the joy of good tales as well as good songs.
A gleeman or gleemaiden (as the rarer women-minstrels were also called) was not the fancy sort; not the kind of minstrel who was invited to the king's court. No; these jolly gleemen were for common folk, and their stories were all the richer and freer for it. Getting roped in to the life of a court bard surely had its advantages in pay and comfort, but it also meant that the poet had to tell tales and sing ballads to the liking of those in power. You danced the king's dance, not your own. And so although gleewomen and men probably rarely dressed in shining robes, the stories they told could gleam brighter than any buried treasure. And to juggle from town to town, trading in the glee of story; well, that must have been a shining life in many ways, despite its inevitable hardships.
|Sapho jouant de la harpe, 1475, French illuminated manuscript|
When I was seventeen, I did my final project for a medieval European history class on jongleurs. These were the French equivalent of the English peasant gleeman—not the aristocratic troubadours, but the fellows who rambled town to town hawking every kind of entertainment. Jongleur, after all, is where we get the word "juggler." For my project, I created the leatherbound journals, complete with watercolors and pressed flowers, of one such roaming taleteller. "... In which one wayfaring jongleur recounts his journeys in Southern France in the year of our Lord one thousand two hundred and eight," reads the title page. I remember staying up very late the night before it was due, dashing out paintings of St. John's Wort and scrambling to find something suitable for affixing dry oak leaves. The tale—a bit florid, I daresay, with this decade of hindsight—is threaded through with factual information about the lives of jongleurs. Here is a little taste below, to bring that old world to life...
|Rebec player, medieval illuminated manuscript|
I spent the night beneath an oak tree, arms stiff and wary around my harp, as if she were an anchor, holding me steady against the waves and eddies of the darkness, against the small voices of the little folk who dance with the full moon. [...]
I am bound to no one, nothing but the wind, the winding roads, and my harp. The villagers are delighted when I pass through, because it is not often that they hear the sweet voice of a harp. Such instruments are usually played only by the troubadours, the nobles, and since they rarely travel beyond their castles and manors (preferring their luxury I suppose), the folk must settle for the more common sounds of whistles, drums, rattles and gitterns, on occasion. [...]
I came upon the small town of Mailline early this morning, and greeted the stirring folk with the lively plano, followed by the juggling of nine balls stitched from cowhide and painted in colors like the sunrise. It is always wise to capture the ears of the villagers with a quick, loud ditty, then enchant their eyes with flashing hands and colors, woo them with small feats, and then tie them in completely with the sound of the harp. [...] The villagers of Mailline were especially enchanted with my songs, and gathered round, abandoning their chores to listen, cross-legged or leaning against the central well. I played for them an alba about a shepherdess and a knight who, after sharing their love for a night, had to part with the first rays of sun, the first notes of birdsong. I sang a sirvente, criticizing the ever warring dukes of our land. [...] I also recited, without my harp, a simple verse, embellished with my own additions, of the tale of Joseph and Mary. I always like to weave into a performance at least one religious piece, for safety's sake, though I find they don't lend themselves particularly well to romance...
|The Minstrel, Kate Elizabeth Bunce 1890|
It is this lineage of story-making to which I have been very joyfully and also very humbly apprenticing myself for most of my life. (Not necessarily the traveling, performative bit, but who knows? Perhaps one day...) This past year has seen some changes in my Wild Talewort business and the intensity and speed with which I write and share. These outer changes reflect some deeper inner shifts as I travel with ever more devotion along the gleewoman's path, trying to make sure that the joy of storymaking reaches as deep into my own heart as it can, and then on out into the world, doing its best to sing a song of hope and reconnection.
|The Beggars, Lucas van Leyden 1520|
I hope that this refreshed blog space can be a place of respite, gleaming bits of beauty, bright juggling balls and love-songs, amidst all the bad news, negativity and disconnection rife online and in our world. I hope that these scraps of magic will help you (and me!) stay with it, with the true songs in our hearts, no matter how dark the winds that blow.