Alliterative animals making medieval music in Saint Mary’s Church, Cogges (14th century)

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Alliteration was a foundational feature of medieval verse. Animals playing musical instruments are regularly seen in medieval art. The 14th century stone-carved musicians of Saint Mary’s Church, Cogges, Oxfordshire, delightfully bring these two elements together: there are nine instruments played by eight alliterative animals (one plays two), including a sheep playing a citole and a boar playing a bagpipe (above). 

This article begins with examples of alliteration in medieval poetry (Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman), songs (Foweles in þe frith, Doll thi ale), and the medieval mystery plays; followed by illustrations of animals playing music in medieval and renaissance art. That is the background for a brief history of Saint Mary’s Church, Cogges, and an explanation of its eight alliterative animals playing medieval music, with photographs of every carving and a video of each instrument being played.  

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The evidence for straps used with medieval, renaissance and baroque musical instruments

To play a musical instrument comfortably, sometimes the player needs a strap to stabilise it. What is the historical evidence for the types of straps used for medieval, renaissance and baroque instruments?

As this article will show, in trying to discover the historical evidence for straps, we immediately encounter the conventions of artistic representation. Medieval artists until the 15th century typically did not show straps, even when an instrument was impossible to play without one; and renaissance and baroque artists showed straps inconsistently and often only partially.

This article takes a roughly chronological look, sifting the artistic conventions from the practical realities to discover if and how straps were used on a range of historical instruments: citole; gittern; harp; psaltery; portative organ; simfony; pipe and tabor; cittern; guitar; nakers; and lutes from the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 8/8: The strange and continuing history of the minstrels’ neglect.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the last of eight articles about the iconography of Beverley Minster in Yorkshire: 71 musical minstrels carved in stone and wood in the 14th century; musical misericords of the 16th century; and neo-Gothic musicians carved in the early 20th century. Beverley Minster has more medieval musicians and more misericords than any other church in the world.

The first article gives a potted history of the building being established in the 8th century, then expanded in the 13th and 14th century, then the medieval minstrels being smashed by Puritans in the 16th-17th century and restored in the late 19th and early 20th century. The second, third and fourth articles describe all the 14th century carvings of musicians, and the fifth sought to answer the question: why are there so many more medieval minstrels in this church than anywhere else? The sixth article explains the meanings of the 14th century allegorical carvings; and the seventh describes the musical misericords of 1520 and the neo-Gothic organ screen of 1878–80 and 1919. This final article seeks to answer one central question: why, in the modern age, has the Minster’s medieval iconography been so poorly served?

Through a review of literature about Beverley Minster from the late 19th century to the present, we will see the repeated pattern of either ignoring the minstrels altogether or muddled misnaming of the medieval instruments. This has been widespread in academic journals, in specialist books, and in publications for the general reader. This is a situation which still persists today, perpetuated by literature published by Beverley Minster.

First we outline the Beverley Minster Project, which would have provided an accurate book about the minstrels with illustrative photographs, complete with music CD/downloads; a concert with all the instruments of the Minster being played by medieval music specialists; an audio-visual tour of the minstrels for visitors; education for guides; and a new website about the minstrels linked to the main Beverley Minster site. This proposal would have been fully-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, at no cost to the Minster – indeed they would have generated money from it – and it would have promoted the Minster as an educational attraction for schools and individuals on the subject of historical music. The project was turned down without any engagement.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 7/8: Tudor misericords and neo-Gothic musicians.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the seventh in a series of eight articles about the musical carvings in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are 71 14th century carvings of musicians, more than in any other medieval site, as well as more Tudor misericords than in any other church, some of them musical, and a neo-Gothic organ screen with medieval instruments.

Having given the story of the Minster’s foundation, flourishing, iconoclasm and repair in the first article; examined the medieval minstrels of the arcades in the second article; of the walls in the third; and of the tombs, altar screen, chapel and south transept in the fourth; the fifth article asks why there is such an abundance of medieval minstrelsy in the Minster, finding the answer in the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls”, which had its headquarters in Beverley. The sixth article completes the description of 14th century iconography with the allegorical carvings.

This seventh article moves from the medieval period to the renaissance and describes musical aspects of the 16th century misericords – animal and human musicians, fools and morris dancers, playing bagpipes, harp, fiddle, hunting horns, and pipe and tabor – and the neo-Gothic imitations of medieval instruments on the 19th–20th century organ screen, with lyre, timbrel, harps, portative organs, simfony, cornetts, gittern or koboz, and lute.

The final article puzzles over the paucity of publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 6/8: Medieval beasts and allegories.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the sixth in a series of eight articles about the 14th century carvings of minstrels in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are a total of 71 musicians, more than in any other medieval site. Having given the story of the Minster’s foundation, flourishing, iconoclasm and repair in the first article; examined the minstrels of the arcades in the second article; of the walls in the third; and of the tombs, altar screen, chapel and south transept in the fourth; the fifth article asked why there is such an abundance of medieval minstrelsy in the Minster, finding the answer in the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls”, which had its headquarters in Beverley.    

This sixth article describes the 14th century allegorical carvings and beasts of the Minster which accompany the minstrels on the west, north and south walls. We will see allegorical carvings and describe the medieval meanings of: dogs and their owners; a thirsty snake attacking a man; a fighting lion and dragon; a lustful goat carrying nuns to hell; Reynard the trickster fox; a wild hairy man of the woods (woodwose); a beard-tugging pilgrim; a faithless pilgrim in the grip of a two-headed dragon (amphisbaena); half-human half-ass hybrids (onocentaurs); asses being carried by people; Triton the merman; and foliate heads, now misleadingly called green men.

The next article examines musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and the neo-Gothic imitation medieval instruments of the 19th–20th century organ screen. The final article puzzles over the paucity of publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 5/8: The “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls in Beverley”.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the fifth in a series of eight articles about the 14th century carvings of medieval minstrels in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are 71 images of musicians in stone and wood, more than in any other medieval site. This article asks what is special about the Minster that it houses such a profusion of minstrel iconography, and finds the answer in the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls in Beverley”, a trade guild for professional musicians which covered the whole of the north east of England.

This is followed in the sixth article with an examination of the 14th century allegorical carvings of real and mythical beasts; in the seventh article with musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and the 19th–20th Gothic revival century organ screen; and the final article puzzles over the paucity of print publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Left to right, fiddle, citole and harp as they appear in the Romance of Alexander, MS. Bodl. 264, 1338-44, and above as they appear carved in Beverley Minster, 1330-40.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 4/8: The minstrels of the tombs, reredos, Saint Katherine’s chapel, and south transept.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the fourth in a series of eight articles about the 71 stone and wood carvings of musicians created between 1330 and 1390 in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Since Beverley Minster has more iconography of medieval musicians than any other surviving historical site, these articles are a survey of the musical life of 14th century England.

Having given the Minster’s history in the first article, described the medieval musicians of the arcades and triforium in the second article and those on the walls either side of the nave in the third article, here all the outstanding medieval stone and wood carvings are explored in the remaining parts of the church. We will see 14th century carvings of musicians playing bagpipes, hunting horn, vielles (medieval fiddles), harps, portative organs, psaltery, oliphants, and nakers. These carvings raise questions about: the history of the influential de Percy family from the Norman conquest to the English Civil War; the royal and military practice of blowing elephant horns; and the pre-eminence for medieval musicians of the fiddle, bagpipe, harp and portative organ.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 3/8: The minstrels of the west, north and south walls.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

There are 71 images of 14th century musicians in stone and wood in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire, more than in any other medieval site. This is the third in a series of eight articles about the Minster’s medieval minstrels, surveying the musical life of 14th century England. This article explores the carved musicians of the west, north and south walls, who are depicted playing medieval fiddles (vielles or viellas), gitterns, timbrel (tambourine), bagpipes, portative organs, citoles, harps, pipes and tabors, horns, cymbals, simfony, psaltery, nakers, and trumpets. Each instrument is described, with a photograph and a link to a video of the instrument being played.

In this article, the carvings on the walls teach us about: the meaning of minstrel; fashions of the 14th century; a medieval menagerie of captive animals from overseas; a transition in the form of the portative organ; the fog of confusion in differentiating between the citole and gittern, only recently lifted; evidence of medieval fiddle tunings; and the difficult art of restoration and repair in both medieval art and medieval music.

This is followed in the fourth article with photographs and commentary on the minstrels in the tombs, altar screen, Saint Katherine’s chapel and south transept; and in the fifth article by a gathering of evidence to answer the question: why are there so many medieval minstrels in the Minster? The sixth article describes the 14th century allegorical carvings of real and mythical beasts; and the seventh article explores musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and 19th–20th century neo-Gothic organ screen. The final article puzzles over the paucity of print publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and Beverley Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 2/8: The minstrels of the arcades, triforium and capital.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the second in a series of eight articles about the 14th century carvings of medieval minstrels in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are 71 images of musicians in stone and wood, more than in any other medieval site. This article explores the carved musicians of the arcades, triforium and a capital, depicted playing harps, fiddles, bagpipes, timbrels, shawms, gittern, citole, portative organ, psaltery, pipe and tabor, nakers, and a drum. Each instrument is described, accompanied by a photograph of the Minster minstrel carving, with a link to a video of the instrument being played. This article thereby acts as a survey of the musical life of 14th century England.

This is followed in the third and fourth articles with photographs and commentary on the minstrels in the rest of the church, and in the fifth article by a gathering of evidence to answer the fundamental question: why are there so many medieval minstrels in the Minster? The sixth article describes the 14th century allegorical carvings; and the seventh article focuses on musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and 19th–20th century neo-Gothic organ screen. The final article puzzles over the paucity of print publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 1/8: Foundation, destruction, and restoration.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway

This is the first in a series of eight articles about the medieval musical iconography of Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Beverley Minster has a remarkable 71 medieval carvings of musicians in stone and wood, more in one place than any other site, as well as 68 magnificent Tudor misericords, more than in any other church. The current building originates from the 13th century onward, its musical carvings largely from the 14th century, with some additionally from the 16th and 19th–20th centuries.  

This series of articles is the first and so far the only available account in print or online to photograph and describe all the medieval musical iconography and many of the allegorical carvings of this historically important church. The articles are illustrated by colour photographs by the author, acting as a survey of the musical instruments and religious culture of 14th century England.

This first feature is an introduction to the Minster’s history: its foundation in the 10th century under King Athelstan; its attempted destruction under Henry VIII and then the Puritans; with a particular focus on the repair of its stone medieval minstrels in the late 19th and early 20th century by John Percy Baker, making it possible for visitors today to admire the minstrels rather than view only vandalised fragments.

Following articles explore the carvings of 14th century minstrels high in the arcades, triforium and capitals (article 2); on three walls at eye level (article 3); and in the rest of the church, such as the Minster’s two tombs (article 4). This is followed by a gathering of evidence to answer the fundamental question: why are there so many medieval minstrels in the Minster (article 5)? Because they are too interesting to omit, the next article surveys the wonderful 14th century stone carvings of allegorical dogs, Reynard the fox, beard-pullers and dragons, some with two heads (article 6). The penultimate article surveys the musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and 19th–20th century neo-Gothic organ screen, with its imitation medieval instruments (article 7). The final article surveys literature about Beverley Minster, puzzling over the paucity of print publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in its own heritage (article 8).

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Rediscovering the vitality of medieval chant: an interview with Bruno de Labriolle

This interview with Bruno de Labriolle, Gregorian choir leader in Lyon, discusses why historically informed performance of medieval ecclesiastical chant has proved controversial. In this wide-ranging interview, Bruno discusses:

• how very recent changes in chant are wrongly considered to be the way things have always been;
• how and why the work of the Abbey of Solesmes in the 19th century standardised previously diverse, varied and rich traditions of singing;
• the plainness of modern chant compared to the emotional vitality of medieval singing;
• ways to make sense rhythmically of chant written non-mensurally (without signs for rhythm);
• historical evidence for ornamentation in medieval chant.

The article begins with a recording of Bruno and his singers of Saint-Bruno-des-Chartreux, and includes further videos of Lycourgos Angelopoulos leading the Greek Byzantine Choir, Marcel Pérès leading Ensemble Organum, and soundfiles of Bruno demonstrating singing technique.

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The Elbląg ‘gittern’: a case of mistaken identity. Part 2/2: Identifying the koboz.

In the first article, I explained why the koboz (kobza, cobza) found in 1986 in a latrine in Elbląg, Poland (above left), dated to 1350–1450, cannot be a gittern, though it is always identified as such in modern literature.

In this second article we discover the difficulties of nomenclature in early eastern, medieval, and renaissance literature, with several quite different instruments named koboz or its variants; and that the same situation persists today. How then to establish the lineage and history of the Elbląg instrument from historical sources? First we define the characteristics of the Elbląg koboz and, having established the parameters of an instrument of the same type, we see such kobzas in iconography from the 14th to the 17th century in Turkey, Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), Hungary, France, Catalonia, England, Italy and Flanders, with possible further sightings in Romania.

I conclude that, this being the case, a new instrument can be added to the lexicon of medieval and renaissance instruments: the koboz, of which the Elbląg find of 1350-1450 is a surviving historical example. 

We begin with a video of the popular 16th and 17th century tune, Sellenger’s Round, played on a copy of the Polish Elbląg koboz.

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The Elbląg ‘gittern’: a case of mistaken identity. Part 1/2: Why the koboz was misidentified.

In 1986, an instrument identified as a gittern was found in a latrine in Elbląg, Poland, dated to 1350–1450. Having commissioned luthier Paul Baker to create a replica, the instrument that emerged was a puzzle, taking Paul and I on a journey of discovery to reveal the true identity of the recovered instrument.

This is the story of the musician who commissioned a gittern and received a koboz (kobza, cobza, plural kobzok). To understand the true identity of the instrument, this article explores the Elbląg excavation; structural reasons the instrument cannot be a gittern; and a potted history of Elbląg and Poland, placing the instrument in its historical context, revealing why the scholarship so far has misidentified the instrument.

This is followed in part 2 by an exploration of the difficulties of language in medieval accounts, where the same word is used for a variety of instruments. The characteristics of the particular type of koboz found in Elbląg are established, and examples of its appearance given in eastern and western European literature and iconography, previously unrecognised, hidden in plain sight. Finally, the importance of the Elbląg find is evaluated.

We begin with a video of 15th century Polish music, Angelus ad virginem missus, played on a copy of the surviving Elbląg koboz.

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The vihuela and viola da mano: siblings of the lute

All players of early music will be familiar with the lute, the plucked polyphonic instrument par excellence of the European renaissance. In 16th century Spain, prime position was given not to the lute but to the vihuela da mano, depicted in Spanish iconography as the instrument of Orpheus, Arion, Venus, and the angels of heaven. The vihuela drew upon the polyphonic compositions of Europe for its intabulations, as well as having had its own repertoire in 7 books printed between 1536 and 1576 by such Spanish composers as Luis Milán, Luys de Narváez, and Alonso Mudarra. In 16th century Italy, where the lute was dominant, the vihuela was called the viola da mano, and was suggested as an alternative to the lute in two prints of the music of Francesco Canova da Milano, musician to three successive popes.

This article traces the vihuela/viola da mano through its medieval origins; explains its relationship to the lute; illustrates the connection between the bowed vihuela/viola and the plucked vihuela/viola; describes the three surviving instruments; shows, through iconography, the difference in plucking style between the Spanish vihuela and the Italian viola da mano and lute; discusses the evidence for octave or unison stringing of courses; outlines the available music; and describes its use in mythological imagery.

We begin with a video performance of fantasia del quarto Tono by Luys de Narváez on vihuela/viola da mano. To illustrate the process of intabulation (turning a polyphonic song into a polyphonic piece for plucked strings) there are three videos of Josquin des Prez’s Mille regretz (A thousand regrets): for 4 voices; for solo vihuela; then for voice and lute. A fourth video shows a viola da mano playing a recercare by Francesco Spinacino and Rossina by Hans Judenkünig. We conclude with links to facsimiles of all 16th century vihuela tablature prints.

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Medieval plectrums: the written, iconographical and material evidence. Part 2/2: Medieval and early renaissance plectrum technique.

Part 1 brought together the written, iconographical and material evidence for the characteristics of plectrums used to play the gittern, lute, psaltery, citole and cetra, made from quills, gut strings, metal, bone, and ivory.

In part 2 we examine the practical evidence for medieval plectrum technique. Iconography is presented to demonstrate medieval ways of holding a plectrum; suggestions are made for easy accompaniment of monophonic melodies; the myth that plectrum instruments could not play polyphony is disproven; and evidence is presented for an intermediate stage in the 15th century between playing with a plectrum and playing with fingertips, using both simultaneously. Finally, we answer the question: were plectrums always used to play medieval plucked chordophones?

This article includes 6 videos to illustrate medieval and early renaissance plectrum technique, beginning with citole and gittern playing an untitled polyphonic instrumental – probably a ductia – from British Library Harley 978, folio 8v-9r, c. 1261–65. 

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Medieval plectrums: the written, iconographical and material evidence. Part 1/2: Medieval plectrum materials and manufacture.

Studies of medieval musical instruments draw upon written testimony, iconography (manuscript art, painting, drawing, sculpture and stained glass windows) and surviving instruments to describe their characteristics and the way they developed over time. In my search for evidence about medieval plectrums, I was surprised to find not one dedicated paper, book chapter or webpage. This article is an attempt to bring the written, iconographical and material evidence together and present some new research, focussing on the characteristics of plectrums used to play the gittern, lute, psaltery, citole and cetra, made from quills, gut strings, metal, bone, and ivory. We begin with an illustrative video of La Uitime estampie Real (The Eighth Royal estampie), c. 1300, played on citole and gittern with plectrums of antler, horn and gut string. 

In the second article, we survey the evidence for plectrum playing technique, with practical applications for modern players of medieval music; and evaluate whether all medieval plucked instruments were played with plectrums.   

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Polyphonic treasure in Lambeth Palace: three unique pieces from MS 457, c. 1200

Lambeth Palace Library, the national library and archive of the Church of England, has a collection of medieval and renaissance manuscripts which includes MS 457, a compilation of religious matters and, on one folio, four pieces of music from c. 1200, all unique to this source. Three are complete, and two have not been previously performed or recorded to my knowledge.

This article presents a video performance of the three complete and beautiful polyphonic pieces:

Miro genere (By a wondrous birth)
Astripotens famulos (Kind ruler of the stars)
Mater dei (Mother of God)

In the video, each piece is sung in two or three voices as in the manuscript, then played polyphonically on citole or gittern. The article then explains the principles of interpreting the medieval notation.

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The citole: from confusion to clarity. Part 2/2: playing style and repertoire

Following on from the first article outlining the evidence for the citole’s multiple physical forms, string material and tuning, this second article examines the evidence for the citole’s playing style, repertoire, and the social contexts in which it was played. We examine the reliability of playing positions in iconography; overturn the modern myth that the thumb-hole restricts the fretting hand; show that the citole is easily capable of playing two voice polyphony; and give evidence for the musical genres citole players engaged in, including songs, jongleur (minstrel), troubadour and trouvère material, religious repertoire and dance music.

We begin this article with a video of La septime estampie RealThe seventh Royal estampie, c. 1300, played on a copy of the surviving British Museum citole.

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The citole: from confusion to clarity. Part 1/2: What is a citole?

© Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The citole, a plucked fingerboard instrument of the 13th and 14th centuries, is today the most misunderstood of all medieval instruments. It is regularly wrongly identified as a plucked fiddle or a guitar, often confused with the cetra, and mistaken assumptions are made about its string material and its distinctive wedge neck with a thumb-hole.

Using the surviving British Museum citole, medieval iconography and medieval testimony, these two articles set out the evidence, drawing on the ground-breaking research of Lawrence Wright, Crawford Young and Alice Margerum, with some additional observations.

This first article describes the citole’s physical form, string material and tuning. The second article describes the playing style and repertoire of the instrument.

We begin this article with video of a copy of the British Museum citole playing music from c. 1300: La seconde Estampie RoyalThe second Royal Estampie. Read more

The medieval harp (3/3): performance practice

Psalter, England, c. 1225 (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, MS G.25, folio 3v).

This is the third of three articles about the medieval harp. Having outlined harp history from the earliest evidence in Egypt to the end of the medieval period in the first article, and used medieval art and written witnesses to illustrate harp symbolism in the second, this final piece lays out the evidence for questions of harp performance.  

The basis of this article is a description by the author Thomas of the playing of a harper-hero named Horn, written c. 1170, combined with other sources to built up a picture of medieval harp practice. This includes: harp tuning as a performance; the training of musicians; the various ways in which medieval harps were tuned and the musical reasons for these tunings; harp repertoire; preludes and postludes; and medieval methods of polyphonic accompaniment.

Each of these three articles begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to the historically attested performance principles set out in this article. This article begins with La quinte estampie RealThe fifth Royal estampie.   

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