Sounds and Sweet Airs: City Waits of Medieval and Renaissance England
Seitz, Cheryl Glenn
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 4 (1987)
At the close of the seventeenth century, as the public conscience reacted to the excesses of the Restoration, and moral reform grew fashionable, tavern keeper Ned Ward published The London Spy, a Hudibrastic sketch of London life. On his way home from a long evening of carousing, the humorous and satirical Ward and his companion meet a group of nocturnal musicians: We heard a noise so dreadful and surprising that we thought the devil was riding on hunting thro’ the City, with a pack of deep-mouth’d hellhounds…. At last bolted out from the corner of a street … a parcel of strange hobgoblins…. Of a sudden they clap’d [their instruments] to their mouths and made such a frightful yelling that I thought the world had been dissolving and the terrible sound of the last trumpet to be within an inch of my ears. Under these amazing apprehensions I ask’d my friend what was the meaning of this infernal outcry? “Prithee,” says he, “… Why, these are the city waits, who play every winter’s night thro’ the streets to rouse each lazy drone to family duty! … These are the topping tooters of the town, and have gowns, silver chains, and salaries, for playing Lilliburlero to my Lord Mayor’s horse thro’ the city.” (Ward 25-26) A curious reader of Ward’s text who wishes to find out more about these revelers will be hard pressed, for the waits are hardly mentioned in medieval and Renaissance scholarship. And a trip to the Oxford English Dictionary reveals a wide variety of definitions for wait: a watchman, a wind instrumentalist, and the wind instrument itself. In the past forty years, only a handful of articles on wait musicians has been published. Recently, however, scholars working on the Records of Early English Drama (REED) have made accessible to us the city records of medieval and Renaissance English towns. These painstakingly collated and edited records provide us with the raw data necessary for accurate-reconstructing the pattern of waits lives and for taking a fresh look at these musicians, not only as individual representatives responsible to a particular community, but as a professional group of multitalented musicians who shared a larger civic and social tradition.