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 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 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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The medieval harp (2/3): harp symbolism

In the middle ages, musical instruments were not just important for the music they produced, but for what they symbolised. Using medieval art and the testimonies of medieval writers, this article describes the harp as the foremost symbolic instrument: an emblem of King David, Old Testament monarch and reputed writer of the Psalms; the harp as a representation of cosmic consonance, bringing harmony between heaven and earth; and the harp’s gut strings and wooden frame as a symbol of Christ on the cross.

This is the second of three articles about the medieval harp. The first describes harp development from ancient Egypt to the end of the medieval period; and the third seeks out evidence for medieval performance practice.

Each article begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to historically attested performance principles. This article begins with La Seste estampie RealThe Sixth Royal estampie.

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The medieval harp (1/3): origins and development

This article, the first of three about the medieval harp, sets out what we know about its earliest known development, looking at harp forms, decoration, stringing, and the problem of language in original sources. We see surviving instruments and manuscript illustrations from ancient Egypt to the middle ages – arched harps and angle harps, open harps and pillar harps – leading to the development of the bray harp and the Irish/Scottish cláirseach/clarsach of the early renaissance.

This is followed by a second article about medieval harp symbolism and a third about medieval harp performance practice.

Each article begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to historically attested performance principles. This article begins with La quarte Estampie RoyalThe fourth Royal Estampie.

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Mirie it is while sumer ilast: decoding the earliest surviving secular song in English (revised and updated)

LaboursOfThe Months.January.1475Mirie it is while sumer ilast, dated to the first half of the 13th century, is the earliest surviving secular song that is both English and in the English language, preserved only by the good luck of being written on a piece of paper kept with an unrelated book. We have the music and a single verse. This may be a fragment, but its wonderful melody and poignant lyric embody in microcosm the medieval struggle to get through the winter, nature’s most cruel and barren season.

This article examines the original manuscript, showing that the now-standard version of the song performed by early music revival players is not a true representation of the text and music, but the music itself poses many problems of interpretation. We begin with a translation of the Middle English words into modern English, continuing with a short survey of the social background and a step by step reconstruction of the music. Originally published in February 2016, this is a completely revised account, with a reworked rendering of the melody and a new performance video of Mirie, arranged for voice and medieval harp.  Read more

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 trees they do grow high: a ballad of medieval arranged marriage?

The trees they do grow high is a traditional ballad about an arranged child marriage, also known as The trees they grow so high, My bonny lad is young but he’s growing, Long a-Growing, Daily Growing, Still Growing, The Bonny Boy, The Young Laird of Craigstoun, and Lady Mary Ann. The song was very popular in the oral tradition in Scotland, England, Ireland, and the USA from the 18th to the 20th century. Questions about its true age (medieval?), the basis of its story (describing an actual marriage?) and its original author (Robert Burns?) have attracted conjectural claims. This article investigates the shifting narrative of the story over its lifetime and sifts the repeated assertions from the substantiated evidence.

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The Lyke-Wake Dirge: the revival of an Elizabethan song of the afterlife

effigyThe Lyke-Wake Dirge, with its dark, mysterious imagery and its brooding melody, is known to singers of traditional songs through its resurrection in the repertoire of folk trio The Young Tradition in the 1960s, and its subsequent recording by The Pentangle and others. What many of its performers may not realise is that its history can be reliably traced to Elizabethan Yorkshire, with a hint from Geoffrey Chaucer that its origins may be earlier. This article uses direct testimony from the 16th and 17th century to explore its meaning, its perilous and punishing “Whinny-moor”, “Brig o’ Dread”, and “Purgatory fire”; and discovers the surprising origin of its doleful dorian melody.

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