c. 1200, "a servant, a functionary;" c. 1300, "instrumental musician, singer or storyteller;" from Old French menestrel "entertainer, poet, musician; servant, workman;" also "a good-for-nothing, a rogue," from Medieval Latin ministralis "servant, jester, singer," from Late Latin ministerialem (nominative ministerialis) "imperial household officer, one having an official duty," from ministerialis (adj.) "ministerial," from Latin ministerium (see ministry). The connecting notion to entertainers is the jester, musician, etc., as a court position.
Specific sense of "musician" developed in Old French, and the Norman conquest introduced the class into England, where they assimilated with the native gleemen. But in English from late 14c. to 16c. the word was used of anyone (singers, storytellers, jugglers, buffoons) whose profession was to entertain patrons. Their social importance and reputation in England deteriorated and by Elizabethan times they were ranked as a public nuisance. Only in 18c. English was the word limited, in a historical sense, to "medieval singer of heroic or lyric poetry who accompanied himself on a stringed instrument." Compare troubadour, jongleur.
By 1843 in American English in reference to a class of singers of "Negro melodies" and delineators of "plantation life," usually white men in blackface (burnt cork). The act itself dates to c. 1830.
The characteristic feature of such a troupe or band is the middle-man or interlocutor, who leads talk and gives the cues, and the two end-men, who usually perform on the tambourine and the bones, and between whom the indispensable conundrums and jokes are exchanged. As now constituted, a negro-minstrel troupe retains but little of its original character except the black faces and the old jokes. [Century Dictionary, 1895]
updated on January 25, 2019