Welcome to another edition of Scholarly Saturdays. Today we are going to talk about scops, who performed the role that we commonly associate with either bards or minstrels. They were an integral part of the Medieval society and thanks to the scops we have some great works of literature today. The most notable of these is Beowulf, along with some other great poems from that time such as The Wanderer.
So what exactly did a scop do? Like the common perception of a bard or minstrel, part of their function was to entertain through songs accompanied by their harps. Sometimes they might tell amusing tales to please the crowd and raise moral or lighten the mood. They also could chant a recitation of an epic story, recounting the deeds of great heroes and giving honor to those men and women. This was the primary way for that society to preserve the memory of a culture for future generations.
They were far more important than a more modern perception of a poet of minstrel, though. They were present in a time when there were few forms of entertainment. They clearly had no television to watch, and even books were a very uncommon thing at the time (not that many people could even read or write well to take advantage of books) so the scop was the primary form of entertainment. This is why many scops had a permanent place with the kings, lords, jarls of the areas and so the life of a scop could have a firm place with food and shelter. But others would travel the countryside, bringing life and entertainment wherever they might happen to be staying.
One of the great benefits that a scop would bring, apart from the sheer value of entertainment, was the ability to transport the audience to new places. The people in this time might never travel far beyond the borders of their own birthplace, so much of the world around them would remain a mystery. So the scops could allow them to experience new sights and adventures that they would otherwise never get to experience in their own lives.
The ability of the scops to memorize long bits of poetry are the reason why we have so many great poetic works surviving today from that era. One of the Medieval poems that I find to be interesting is Deor, which is actually a lament written by a scop about his own life, or rather a wistful look back at his previous station in life that he no longer holds. Here is a link to a translation of the poem, which you can also listen to Seamus Heaney read (I recommend doing both!)
And, for the full experience, here is a video of it being recited in Old English and being accompanied by a lyre: