The term ‘minstrels’ gallery’ is something of a misnomer, as very few, if any, of them ever held a minstrel. Minstrels were the highly regarded, all-round entertainers of the medieval world. They were expected to be able to turn their hand to almost any form of entertainment – be it juggling, singing, illusions, story telling or dancing – and to be good at it. The word ‘minstrel’ means ‘mini-servant’ and may refer to the fact that they were hired for festivals, feasts or other occasions rather than being a permanent part of the household.
Richer households did have their own staff musicians, or waits, who wore the livery of the lord who employed them. It was these waits who performed in minstrels’ galleries from the 14th century onward. They played music for dances or to accompany meals.
In both instances the music was considered to be a mere background to the entertainment. The musicians could therefore be put up in a gallery where they would not be seen and would not get in the way, but from where they could still be heard. The minstrels themselves were too expensive and famous to be relegated to the gallery and instead performed in the hall in full view of the audience.
Answered by: Rupert Matthews, historian and author.