Norwich Entertainments – Part VII: The science of music

Brodie Waddell

I live in Cambridge, a well-touristed little town, and when the sun is out the streets are Cambridge bin buskerawash with buskers. Some are quite good. For instance, there’s the chap who strums tunes on his guitar from inside a litter bin who always makes me chuckle even when his playing isn’t brilliant.

But there are also some that are decidedly displeasing to the ear. If only – I find myself muttering – these unmusical musicians had been sufficiently trained in the science of music.

In the seventeenth century, it seems the authorities took such renegade buskers much more seriously. Hence, on 2 October 1678, the Norwich Mayor’s Court ordered a clamp-down on those public menaces who wandered the streets both day and night spreading aural pollution.

‘Upon complaint of the Weights [i.e. Waits] of this City against Daniell Hot, George Ellis, Samuel Suffield, Mathew Crotch & Thomas Turner that they notwithstanding they were not bound apprentice to the Science of Musick doe goe from howse to howse & play not onely in the day but at unseasonable times in the night to the great prejudice of severall persons & their friends in this City & also to the Weights of this City, It is ordered for the future that if they or any other person besides such as are the Weights of this City shall in Companyes play in any part of this City eyther in the publique or private houses unless it be in the Assizes weeke, at the Sessions at the Guild time or the choice of parliament men shalbe punished according to the lawe.’1

A renegade piper rampaging through the English countryside?

A renegade piper rampaging through the English countryside?

The prosecution of these five men seems to have had two main motives. First, as I mentioned above, the fact that they were disturbing the neighbourhood by playing ‘at unseasonable times’ was definitely a factor. However, perhaps more importantly, they had also not been trained as apprentices ‘to the Science of Musick’ and were not part of the city’s official company of waits.

Who were the waits? They were, in essence, municipal musicians. According to the OED, they were:

‘A small body of wind instrumentalists maintained by a city or town at the public charge. … They played for the daily diversion of the councillors, on ceremonial and festive occasions, and as a town or city band they entertained the citizens, perambulating the streets, often by night or in the early morning.’

This group in Norwich appears to be the same body that later called themselves ‘the Company of Musicians’ and had their by-laws affirmed by the town’s authorities in 1714.2 In London, the Company of Musicians there were petitioning against ‘diverse Forreigners’ who were practicing ‘the Arts of Musick and dancing’ in 1699.3 They successfully won the support of the city which passed an act against such dangerous practices the next year.4

What’s clear from all this is that professional music-making – just like other skilled trades such as carpentry or metalworking – was regarded by many as a vocation that could not be pursued by mere laypeople. Instead, it was expected that if you wanted to earn money by playing catchy tunes in public, you would submit to a seven-year apprenticeship under a master musician who could train you in this ‘science’ or ‘mystery’. Those who failed to follow the proscribed route were liable to be suppressed and prosecuted by the civic authorities.5

The question, then, is whether it worked. Did these apparently strict rules governing public performances significantly raise the quality of the aural environment by shutting out untrained bunglers? Or did it simply protect the jobs of the handful of official musicians against competition from talented amateur buskers?


1. Norfolk Record Office, NCR Case 16a/25, f. 33.

2. NRO, NCR Case 17d, f. 81ff (by-laws of the Company of Musicians, 1714)

3. London Metropolitan Archives, COL/CA/05/01/0005/1699 (petition of Company of Musicians, 1699)

4. LMA, COL/CC/01/01/050,  f. 317, 358-359

5. Many of these issues are discussed in Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (2010), ch. 2-3

15 thoughts on “Norwich Entertainments – Part VII: The science of music

  1. Great piece Brodie. As you say, the disruption to the neighbourhood must have been an important, and the fact that this was a group of men was presumably significant. In a similar vein, Christopher Marsh also talks about groups of bellringers getting into trouble. There the ‘unseasonableness’ of the noise they created was again an issue, but there also seemed to be concerns that groups of young men were congregating and organising independently. In some cases this led them into conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities. Marsh suggests that this popular recreation might have provided a new outlet for expression of deeply traditional socio-religious instincts after the Reformation, which is probably where this and your example differs. The chapter is in Mears & Ryrie (eds) Worship and the Parish Church in Early Modern Britain (Ashgate, 2013).

    I am also interested in the use of the word ‘friends’ in your quote: the men play ‘to the great prejudice of severall persons & their friends in this City, and also to the Weights’. Why three categories? Do you think that they are using ‘friends’ here to mean acquaintances, given that they are not being very ‘friendly’ in the modern sense of the word…

    • Thanks for the reference, Laura. I’ll take a look at Marsh’s piece. I agree that concerns about this group may have reflected wider concerns about groups of young men. Indeed, that would match up rather well with the guild issue: these were men that should have been apprentices or journeymen under the control of an older master, but instead they were ‘living at their own hands’ without having been socialised by the apprenticeship system.

      I’m not sure about the ‘friends’ terminology. Perhaps I’ll need to take another look at Naomi Tadmor’s Family and Friends (2001) as she discusses the ambiguities of this vocabulary.

  2. A bit more on the modern parallels…

    I’ve since noticed that interestingly Cambridge no longer has any licencing system for street performers. They now only have a voluntary ‘code of practice’.

    The opposite is true in my hometown of Victoria, Canada. There the city authorities have a strict quota of performers in particular places (e.g. ‘GVHA reserves the Lower Causeway in the Inner Harbour for 24 full-time visual artists, 24 full-time musicians and 9 full-time street performers.’) and they charge fees ranging from $195 to $1425 for a full-season licence. If I remember correctly, they also hold auditions (or at least did at one time), so perhaps the regulation of ‘the science of music’ is still alive and well!

    • Perhaps Cambridge is too small or the performers aren’t too much of a nuisance? London of course has a strict system of licensing on the tube, with an application and auditioning system and corporate sponsorship (though I can’t see anything about fees). Indeed The Libertines, Julian Lloyd-Webber, Badly Drawn Boy and Seasick Steve ‘have all played on the Underground’s stage’.

  3. Interesting that the buskers got a free pass during the assizes and sessions – it seems a bit counter-intuitive that, if this is about anti-social behaviour, the one time it was allowed was when magistrates or judges were in town. Or is just because it would have been impossible to enforce at the quarter sessions when half the population of the surrounding countryside might have descended on the town?

    Also, I am stealing the phrase “renegade buskers” as the name of my next band…

    • Good question, Nick. My guess is that there was so much demand for entertainment during these periods that the authorities thought it reasonable to be more lenient, but it’s not clear from the original order.

  4. The conflict over street performances are beautifully illustrated in the notebook of Thomas Horner of Mells 1st & 4th November 1773 concerning complaints brought by Henry Box, an alehousekeeper of Frome, against an Abraham Saunders, for unlawfully entering his house and assaulting him, and with being a vagrant “exhibiting for gain puppet shows, juggling etc”. Horner found the charge of assault unproved, but seems to have found himself required to find the charge of vagrancy proved on Saunders own admissions.
    However, Horner mitigated the sentence he imposed as it appeared that the charges “had been connived at by Lord Cork’s steward, the bailiff and the principal inhabitants of Frome” and that “at the same time I gave Box a sharp reprimand, as it appeared the quarrel which terminated in the prosecution, was begun by Box’s kicking the man’s drum in pieces, as it was beating in the street”!
    (The King’s Peace, The Justices Notebooks of Thomas Horner, of Mells, 1770-1777, Ed, McGarvie, Frome Society for Local Study, 1997, pp.105-6)

    • Great example, Neil. These sorts of travelling performers definitely remained in an ambiguous position: sometimes tactly (or openly) accepted, other times prosecuted or directly assaulted.

  5. Fascinating post and example, Brodie! I would read this as an example of professional self-interest, coupled with snobbery. Civic waits had a monopoly over certain forms of music-making, and guarded their status and privileges jealously. Music in the period was viewed both as an art and a science: anybody could pick up an instrument and knock out a tune (musica practica) but only a true, educated musician was wise to the mysterious ways of musica speculativa!

    • Glad to hear from an expert. That’s sort of what I expected, but I wasn’t sure how ‘educated’ the waits actually would be. I mean how hard can it be to play a fanfare whenever the mayor marches through town?

      • Good point! It seems unlikely that most workaday fiddlers would know the difference, but if these guys had formed a formal company, I’m sure they were capable of the rhetoric even if it was largely hollow. The term ‘science’ was often used of music when people want to stress its sober dignity, as opposed to music as a light and frivolous medium. I’ve also just remembered an example from REED Lancashire (p. 62) where the Court Leet ordered ‘forreyne musicians’ to step aside to allow the town waits to ‘playe musicke at all & everye wedding dynners in this towne as afforesaid’.

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