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 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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The scandalous la volta: “such a lewd and unchaste dance”

La volta (or volte or volt or, in England, lavolta) was reputedly the favourite dance of Queen Elizabeth I, performed by couples with much leaping, lifting and turning. The dance, a variation of the galliard, was considered scandalous by the moralists of the day. Just as today we hear talk of ‘gateway drugs’ leading to harder and more destructive substances, la volta was considered a ‘gateway dance’, leading to more destructive vices. This article describes the key point of the choreography, discusses the moral opprobium it attracted, and weighs up the evidence for the Queen dancing this “lewd and unchaste dance”.

We begin with a performance of two voltas by The Night Watch.

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A brief history of farting in early music and literature

TheVowsOfThePeacock.c1350.This may seem like surprising material. Indeed, this article started out as a bit of silliness based on a few farty fragments, but soon became a serious study when I uncovered the surprising historical meanings behind flatulence in the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. A 17th century music society sang gleefully about it (for which there is a music video in this article); Thomas D’Urfey published several songs about it; and a buck does it in the earliest surviving piece of English secular polyphony. Plus there’s Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Edward de Vere’s bottom burp in front of Queen Elizabeth, and farting musical marginalia. So rest your cheeks, wind down, and let rip with a brief history of farting.

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