Origin of the Waits
The Oxford English Dictionary has various definition of the term 'Waits' including a watchman, a wind instrumentalist and the wind instrument. The Waits date back to the early Medieval era when they acted as watchmen at castles. They stood watch over the castles at night when nobody else was allowed abroad. The Waits patrolled the streets or stood guard in the watch towers looking out for any signs of fire or from surprise enemy attacks, allowing the occupants of the castle to sleep easy.
Medieval Waits and the Medieval Watchmen
The role of the Waits moved from the castles to the towns where they accompanied town watch. The waits generally consisted of four musicians. The Waits were supplied with high-pitched pipes called shawms or hautboys which were similar to the modern oboe. These pipes became known as Waits Pipes and were first used to sound alarms to alert the townspeople to any danger. The Waits and the town watchmen often placed themselves in high places ensuring that they had a panoramic view of the surrounding land. The steeples of churches were easily accessible and watchmen and the waits would often perform their duties from these prime positions. Another role of the early Medieval Waits was to wake the townspeople by playing music in the streets.
Medieval Town Music - The Waits
The role of the Waits gradually evolved into groups of musicians employed by the towns. The Waits therefore became official musicians employed in the large English towns, who were equivalent to the town band and no longer were employed for protective purposes. Their hours of work also changed - they played morning and evening but not during "the dead time of night". The waits were employed by the town and wore colorful liveries and silver chains of office emblazoned with the town's arms. The Waits were expected to compose and play music for important town and civic ceremonies and occasions. The Medieval Waits therefore provided free concerts for everyone, financed by the town. The Waits played every Sunday and also during holidays. The Waits also played an important part in town processions and town parades accompanying the civic dignitaries in colorful and musical processions.
The musical instrument most closely associated with Waits is the shawm - so much so that it was also known as the wait-pipe. The shawm was a reed instrument with vent holes - a predecessor to the hautboy. A form of the slide trumpet and later the sackbut, lute, viol, recorders, bagpipes and fiddles were also musical instruments used by the Medieval Waits.