In the year 1105, a minstrel from Tienen called Itier, had a wondrous vision of a beautiful lady dressed in white. In a dream she told him to go to the town of Arras and see a monk named Father Lambert and convince him to meditate in prayer, to entrust himself to her and she would give him a candle to purify the water and heal the sick. She then asked Itier to seek out another minstrel by the name of Norman, from Saint-Pol, however this man had slain Itier’s brother and the two men shared a deep enmity for each other.
The Lady then appeared to Norman and asked him to visit the town of Arras and find Father Lambert. Eventually both minstrels were reconciled before the monk and it was believed that this miraculous intervention by the Virgin Mary saved Arras, an independent city-state, from capture.
As a consequence of this event, the status of minstrels in Arras improved considerably and they were able to form a guild, attracting a large number of local and foreign minstrels, as well as the Arras elite. About 1120 a song contest was founded and included in the Festival of the Puy, which took place just after Trinity Sunday and lasted for three days. The festival included a programme of plays and satires, but the song competition was central to its purpose, ‘the winner of which would be chosen by an expert jury and would be crowned amid feasting and dancing’.
Before he became King of England in 1272, Edward I had been a judge at an Arras Puy and would have assessed each entrants ability to compose a five-verse song in honour of the Virgin Mary called the chant royale or ‘chansoun reale’, as it was known in London.
The London Puy commenced around the end of the 13th century and according to its articles, one of its main objectives was to bring renown to London. Even though it continued the Arras theme of honouring the Virgin Mary, it consisted of a literary, social and religious fraternity who broadened the conditions of entering the song contest, allowing entrants to compose chivalrous love songs. Members probably met at The Tumbling Bear, the largest tavern in Cheapside to perform their chant royale and the winner would receive a prize of a silver crown and a free supper.
MJ Holman @mishjholman