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.