How reliable is medieval music iconography? Part 1/3: Understanding medieval art

Medieval art or iconography is a rich resource for the researcher of medieval musical instruments, giving information about the physical features of gitterns, citoles, lutes, fiddles, and so on, the extent of their popularity and geographical reach, and design changes over time.

However, common features of medieval art, such as size distortion and perspective distortion, mean that an individual instrument cannot be reconstructed from the page, painting or sculpture uncritically. This has led some commentators to suggest that medieval art is wholly defective and unreliable for instrument makers and players.

Using examples from iconography, I aim to show that illustrations of medieval instruments yield valuable and practically applicable data if we have a considered and historically informed approach.

This article, the first of three, discusses:

the debate about representation and idolatry in the early church, and how this affected art;
how symbolism is fundamental to representation and meaning in medieval art;
how and why proportion in medieval art is often symbolic rather than naturalistic;
nonetheless, the case for realism in medieval art, that it gives important real-world information, with examples from farming and ornithology;
and that this real-world information extends to our knowledge of medieval instruments, with examples.

We begin with a video of medieval instruments – bray lute, citole, gittern, harp and bray harp – playing the three voice polyphonic Mariam Matrem Virginem attolite from El Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (The Red Book of Montserrat), 1396-99, with a commentary of instrument information. Further information about these instruments, gleaned from iconography, is summarised in this article.

Having made the case for the value of iconography in this first article, the second article continues by suggesting 10 principles for gaining musical instrument information from medieval art. These principles are then tested in the third and final article by the recreation of a gittern painted by Simone Martini in 1312-18.

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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 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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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 Laurence 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 verray develes officeres”: minstrels and the medieval church

In the middle ages, minstrels were regularly accused by church commentators of vanity, idleness, inflaming carnal desire, lechery, and leading others into vice. In the 12th century, Bishop of Chartres John of Salisbury expressed the view that all minstrels should be exterminated. Because of this reputation, the church wanted to ensure that its most sacred music was different in kind to minstrel music, and restated several times that only the voice and organ were allowed in the liturgy, not instruments of minstrelsy. Still some writers complained bitterly of secular styles of music corrupting singers’ voices in sacred chant.

How can we account for the contradiction between clergy’s invectives against minstrels and the innumerable quantity of medieval and renaissance paintings in which gitterns, shawms, harps, fiddles, lutes – the instruments of minstrels – are shown in worship of the Virgin Mary and in praise of the infant Jesus? How can we reconcile the critiques of clerics against minstrels with their regular appearance in religious manuscripts, their likenesses carved in churches, and their employment by the church? This article seeks answers through the evidence of medieval Christian moralists; church councils; music treatises; religious paintings; records of church ceremonies; and the relationship of the church with organised minstrelsy.

Images from The Luttrell Psalter, 1325-1340 (BL Add MS 42130).
Top row, left to right: church singers (f. 171v); bishop (f. 31r); pilgrim (f. 32r); nun (f. 51v).
This row, left to right, players of: harp (f. 174v); pipe and tabor (f. 164v);
organistrum, also called the symphony (f. 176r); portative organ (f. 176r).

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The guitar: a brief history from the renaissance to the modern day

A French 4 course renaissance guitar from c. 1570. The origins of the guitar are much-discussed and much-disputed, and some pretty wild and unsubstantiated claims are made for its heritage, based on vaguely guitary-looking instruments in medieval and even pre-medieval iconography, about which we often know little or nothing beyond an indistinguishable drawing, painting or carving; or based on instruments which have guitary-sounding names. This article is an attempt to slice through the fog with a brief history of the instrument, charting its development from the renaissance, through the baroque period to the modern day, based only on what can be claimed with evidence. The article is illustrated with pictures, videos and sound recordings, beginning with a short video of guitar history.

This is an expanded version of an article originally published in 2015, with a new video.

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The English estampie: interpreting a medieval dance(?) tune

One of the earliest surviving pieces of English instrumental music has survived with the 13th–14th century manuscript, Douce 139, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is exciting in its musical drive and complexity, but interpretation has its problems. The scribe appears to have changed his mind partway through on several issues of notation, leaving us to make judgements about intention. The music is untitled, and is often named Estampie or English Dance in modern sources.

This article works through the puzzles in order to gain some performable answers. What is an estampie? Is the Douce 139 piece an estampie? How can the musical problems left by the scribe’s imperfect notation be reconciled? Drawing on music theorist, Johannes de Grocheio, writing in c. 1300, this article looks for solutions, with a video of one possible interpretation on citole.

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Performing medieval music. Part 1/3: Instrumentation

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the first of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

This first article discusses the use of instruments and instrument combinations in medieval music. The illustrations in two manuscripts are used as typical representative examples: the 13th century Iberian Cantigas de Santa Maria and the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter. The second article gives practical methods for making arrangements of medieval monophonic music according to historical principles, with an example to illustrate each method; and the third article discusses questions of style, including the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) music of the troubadours, ornamentation, and the medieval voice. Read more

The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle

QueenMaryPsalter.Royal2BVIIf.174The vielle or medieval fiddle was the most popular instrument in its heyday for secular song accompaniment. It first appeared in western Europe in the 11th century and continued to be played until the middle of the 16th century, flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries. There is a wealth of vielle iconography, which can tell us a great deal about the variety of its form and the context of its use. There is a medieval source for its tuning, Jerome of Moravia in the 13th century, who gives 3 tunings for 5 strings, leaving us with some puzzles as to what exactly they mean in practice, and whether they can be applied to fiddles with fewer than 5 strings. Our only renaissance tuning source is Johannes Tinctoris in the 15th century, which isn’t entirely clear in its meaning.

This page provides a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth or bowed lyre, demonstrating that they were identical in style, having more in common with the hurdy gurdy family than modern bowed strings.

There are two editions of this article. This one includes detailed analysis. For a brief introduction, go to On the medieval fiddle: a short introduction to the vielle.

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The gittern: a short history

Angelic gittern player, from the Cathedral Saint Julien du Mans, France, c. 1300–1325. The gittern was one of the most important plucked fingerboard instruments of the late medieval period. Loved by all levels of society, it was played by royal appointment, in religious service, in taverns, for singing, for dancing, and in duets with the lute. Yet we know of no specific pieces played on this instrument. What we do have are many representations of it being played in a wide variety of contexts and one surviving instrument of the 15th century, and from this we can reconstruct something of the history and repertoire of this widely-loved instrument. This article begins with a video of a troubadour melody played on gittern.

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Medieval music: a quick guide to the middle ages

medievaldancers110r_0The middle ages covers a period of a thousand years – and yet much of its music-making is a mystery to us. We’re not completely in the dark, though, so the aim of this article is to give a broad beginner’s guide to the principles of secular medieval music. When were the middle ages? How do we know what the music sounded like? What were the earliest surviving songs? What was its dance music like? Why does medieval music sound so different to today’s? How did medieval musicians harmonise?

This article features 4 illustrative videos of medieval music and several links to further articles (click on blue text).

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