Medieval Storytelling: The Spoken Word

A woodcut illustration of a king and queen sitting on thrones. The caption underneath reads: "How this evening goes on without end. Prithee, call forth a bard, and let someone tell a good tale, or my yawns shall swallow the night whole, bones and all." Medieval storytelling via the spoken word was an important form of entertainment during the Middle Ages, when only some people knew how to read.

Today I’m sharing an interview with Garrison Martt, a medieval storytelling enthusiast, about spoken-word storytelling traditions during the Middle Ages—roughly the 13th and 14th centuries. I hope you’ll find his responses as interesting as I did. I asked him to keep everything basic and kid-friendly so that parents and teachers could use this interview as a teaching tool for kids, but I’m sure parents and teachers will enjoy it as well.

What role did storytelling play in medieval society? How did kids view storytelling back then?

Storytelling was probably even more important in medieval society than it is now. There were no movies or television. There were no newspapers or radio to get the news. Most people learned about their world by telling each other about it. Story books were very rare, so kids would look forward to hearing stories even more than they do now!

Were there professional storytellers? Who were they, what were they called, and where, when, and how did they perform?

Professional storytellers were often people who traveled from town to town. Because they were very good at telling stories, they could receive food, lodging and items of value in exchange for the stories they would tell.

Every storyteller was different. Some storytellers could also sing or play a musical instrument or recite poetry. Each one had their own style.

There are different names for storytellers, depending on their skills and what country they came from. English or Welsh story tellers may have been known as bards while storytellers in Scandinavia may have been known as skalds. Musical storytellers in France may have been known as troubadours. I personally like the word “storyteller,” which everyone knew.

Medieval storytellers would seek out noble families with a castle or a large country manor, people who could reward them for their stories. A good storyteller always had an honored place by the fire or near the dinner table. They were welcome guests!

How could a person become a professional storyteller? Also, who were most likely to pursue this as an occupation?

Everyone grew up listening to storytellers, whether they were parents or neighbors or visitors. People became storytellers by listening and learning stories, then learning how to tell them in an entertaining way.

Some people may have become students of a master storyteller, the way that young people became squires to knights or apprentices to a successful merchant.

Everyone could be a storyteller. Those who were very good at doing this could become professional storytellers, however this could be a hard way of life because of the travel involved. Nobles in castles had a good place to live and would not leave. Local people with steady work would not leave their towns: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker would stay home.

One form of storytelling is putting on plays— which are basically stories dramatized for others to watch. Medieval actors would band together in traveling groups, going from town to town to share their stories. A young person could join one of these groups to learn this trade.

There are many different words that are related to people who offered this kind of entertainment. What are the differences between minstrels, bards, and other names for storytellers?

This is a very hard question to answer— because the words for storytellers may vary from region to region and from different times in history. Generally speaking, bards include storytellers from the British Isles. Skalds include storytellers from northern European regions. Minstrels are musical storytellers from parts of central Europe which would have included modern day France and Spain. Minnesingers are performers from the parts of central Europe now known as Germany or Austria.

Garrison Martt likes to read and perform medieval stories for his friends. He is a lifetime member of the Austin Poetry Society and the director of the Past Poetry Project. Thank you so much, Garrison for your insights on Medieval storytelling via the spoken word.

Learn about the Award-winning Sir Kaye series of medieval adventure chapter books for kids by Don M. Winn. Great for reluctant readers. Also by Don M. Winn, Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading. They can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit Don’s Amazon author page for more information.