“A bard? How dare you? I’m don’t serve some puffed up peacock on a throne, telling him his own don’t stink for thirty in rhyming couplets, kissing my artistry and integrity on the cheek for thirty bits of silver. Call me not a bard, nor a skald, nor a scop. I am no minstrel, no troubadour, no jongleur. Nay! Call me gleeman, to rhyme with free man, for I work for a living and I love my art more than I love coin. Speaking of… five coppers for a song?”
Ah, the bard, the traveling singer, storyteller, and adventurer. The quintessential free-spirit. Beholden to no one. Master of his own fate. The bard is a D&D class you either love (like d20monkey who recently posted a preview of the new D&D 5E Bard class), or you hate (like any sane, rational person). Nobody is neutral about the bard. The trouble is, the bard in D&D isn’t really a bard at all. Neither is it a skald or a scop or a minstrel or a troubadour or a jongluer or a jester or a fool. Nor is it a druid.
Bards originated in the Celtic societies of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. Their first function was to compose and recite eulogies for dead rulers. According to one myth, if the bard was unsatisfied with his pay, he’d compose a satire instead to ridicule the cheapskate ruler and his cheapskate family. But that may be apocryphal. Over time, the bard’s role expanded. The ruling caste of Celtic society would retain bards to recount the histories of their families and their military conquests and just generally tell them how great they were. They were basically yes-men. Paid members of a ruler’s entourage.
And that’s where things get sort of complicated. See, there was actually a professional heriarchy in Celtic society and it varied a little from place to place. So, in some places, the word bard was used for an unemployed itinerant musician and a court poet was called a filidh, ollave, or derwyyd. This is further muddied by the fact that when Christianity spread into the Celtic lands, they may have purposely discredited bards because filidh became associated with the Faith. It also doesn’t help that the druids didn’t keep good written records, which is precisely why bards existed. In point of fact, the word derwydd (for a court poet) is the word that gave us the word druid. Bards were members of the druid hierarchy.
The thing is, though, that the D&D depiction and the modern pop-culture understanding of the druid is a little off. The title “druid” simply referred to members of the educated, professional classes of Celtic society. It included Celtic priests, which is what we think of when we talk about druids, but it also included doctors, poets (like the bard), and Celtic lawyers. As a member of the druidic hierarchy and as bearer of news and a repository of knowledge, bards were protected under Celtic law. They could travel anywhere freely and say whatever they wished. Bards were also often experts in laws and customs and could be consulted on legal matters.
But that doesn’t change the fact that they were court poets paid by patrons to sing their praises.
Skalds and scops are the Viking and Germanic equivalents of the bard. Preservers of history, praisers of patrons, and sycophantic yes-men. Sorry about that. Interestingly though, they did have a very crude sense of humor and a quick wit as both societies were connoisseurs of crude, drunken humor. Skalds and scops would often be paid to mock a ruler’s enemies. It was said that the mockery of a skilled skald could cause boils to erupt on the face of their victims. From skald we get the word scold. And from scop, we get the word scoff. But still, they were basically just paid by rich kings to tell them how awesome they were and how much their enemies sucked.
What about a minstrel? Sorry. Minstrels were the late medieval French equivalent of bards, skalds, and scops. They were court entertainers, sometimes even retained as fools or jesters or jongleurs (which we call jugglers). All of them were tied down to wealthy, paying patrons. The word minstrel even comes from the same Latin root as minister and administration. No free spirits there.
Maybe the troubadour. Troubadours did indeed travel. But they weren’t entertainers so much as composers. But close enough, right? Well, sorry. While they DID travel from place to place, they often settled down for long periods of time and worked for… you guessed it… a wealthy patron, singing their praises and telling them how awesome they were.
So what do you want if you want to play a free-spirited chaotic-good adventuring entertainer, living by quick wits, a silver tongue, and whatever loot you can earn with your lute? Well, you sir or madam, are looking at the lowly cantabank or gleeman.
Cantabank comes from the Latin meaning “to sing from a bench,” because that was often the best they could afford. Gleemen, cantabanks, circlers, or itinerant minstrels, were the lowest class of composer, singer, storyteller, and entertainer. They were even below professional fools and jesters. Why? Because they didn’t steady work. They wandered from place to place struggling to earn two coins to rub together.
And so, those are really your choices for your new bard. Are you a sellout, a nobleman’s lapdog, paid to tell your boss how awesome he is in iambic pentameter day after day? Or are you an unemployed medieval busker, wandering from town to town, looked down upon by the people who would someday invent the pie-in-the-face gag?