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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Above we see a map of Beverley Minster with locations marked. In this article, we will describe the minstrels of the arcades (an arcade is a row of arches supported on columns), the columns numbered 1 to 18 on the plan; of the triforium (a second and higher arcade above the first); and one minstrel on a capital (a wide decorated crown of a column).

For a complete list of all the 14th century minstrels in the Minster, go to the foot of the article under the heading, Beverley Minster floor plan and instrument inventory.

My intention in this series is to briefly describe every representation of a musical instrument in the Minster, giving more focus where there are particularly indicative, interesting, or unusual details on the carvings. Blue text is a link to a more detailed article about the instrument or other significant topic.   

arcade and capital minstrels

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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We start our tour of the medieval musicians of Beverley Minster in the impressive nave, with its high ceiling and two rows of arches or arcades. From the vantage point of the photograph above left, column 1 on the Beverley Minster floor plan is in the distant right, moving up to column 9 near right, with column 10 near left leading down to column 19 distant left. If we were to walk almost the full length of the nave and look up to our right, we would see the view in the photograph above right, showing columns 1, 2 and 3 with their harper, timbrel player and psaltery player above the capitals and, above them, the triforium. The arcade minstrels were created between circa 1330 and the 1390s.

We follow the minstrels in numerical order of columns according to the floor plan above, except when there are two instruments of the same type on different columns, such as the harps on columns 1 and 4, in which case these instruments are viewed together.


Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

The harps above are at the top of columns 1 (left) and 4 (right). A harp is essentially a triangular wooden frame with a carved hollow resonating chamber fronted by a soundboard, strung with gut or, on the harps of the Irish and Scottish Highland Gaels from the late 14th century onwards, wire (usually brass). As we see in both examples above, these gut-strung English medieval harps were considerably smaller than modern harps.

A notable feature of both harps above is the material wrapped around the base, seen regularly in iconography from c. 1200 to the middle of the 15th century, almost exclusively in depictions from the nations of what became Britain, the few exceptions all being French. Due to research by the Dutch musicologist Martin van Schaik, this can be identified as a rolled down harp bag, three examples of which are seen below.

Left: by an anonymous artist in Jean de Mandeville’s copy of Bible Historiale, dated 1360-70
(Ms. 1, 84.MA.40, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).
Centre: Alphonso Psalter (British Library Add MS 24686, folio 11r), England, 1280s.
Right: Rutland Psalter (British Library Add MS 42130, folio 55r), England, c. 1260.

Since almost all illustrations of the harp are of it either being played or tuned, a full picture of a harp bag with the instrument inside is rarely seen. The illustration on the bottom margin of folio 9v of The Tickhill Psalter, England, 1310, shown below, is a notable exception. It depicts a passage from the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 16: 23: “So it came about whenever the evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the kinnor [Hebrew for lyre – shown here as a harp] and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” To illustrate this passage, King Saul is shown with a devil at his back as David arrives with his harp in its blue bag, roughly triangular, following the contours of the instrument. The next scene shows David tuning the harp and David becoming free of the devil, and any medieval reader would understand the visual symbolism: harp-tuning represents the restoration of harmony between body and soul. (For more on harp symbolism, click here.)

Folio 9v of the Tickhill Psalter, England, 1310, gives a rare picture of a harp inside a harp bag.

Harp bags are often shown with the inside and outside in contrasting colours: green with red, pink with white, orange with green, black with white, light blue with light grey, white with pale green. If taken literally, this means harp bags were decoratively dyed. There are only two indications of material: the Irish myth of Táin Bó Froích, 8th-11th century, names otter skin on the outside and goat skin on the inside, and the early 16th century Scottish poem, Beannuigh do theaghlach, a Thríonóid, by Giolla Críost the Tailor, describes a wolf skin harp bag. Without further evidence, it is impossible to say how widespread these materials were for harp bags.

What we can say for certain from the evidence of iconography is that some harpists did not remove the instrument completely from the bag for performance but, for stability while playing, rolled the bag down to secure the base of the harp on the leg or on a stable object. The Beverley Minster harpists have the bag rolled down while playing standing up, with no visible means of support to keep the harp in place. This raises two possibilities. Medieval artists regularly showed musicians standing with their instruments floating impossibly in the air. This may indicate a medieval artistic convention that instruments played sitting down were often represented with the player standing. Secondly, it may mean that when an instrument was played standing up, requiring a strap, straps were considered an ugly distraction by artists, so were rarely depicted. (Some instruments, such as gitterns and citoles, can easily be played without straps – harps cannot.) Thus we see, left to right below, a free-floating harp played standing in a 10th century carving from Lethendy Tower in Perthshire; then the same in Virgin and Child by the Master of Flémalle or Robert Campin, Netherlands, much copied, originally c. 1420; and again in a manuscript in the Hague, Netherlands (MS MMW, 10 A 11), 1475–80. Far right, we see a rare example of a standing (or, in this case, flying) harpist with a clearly-shown strap, a detail from Mary and child with virgins and musicians, Cologne, c. 1440, now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. One obvious conclusion is that all the standing harpers required straps for their instruments, but in these examples only the latest artist, c. 1440, shows the strap. This reflects the same pattern we see with other instruments that would require straps to play standing, such as psalteries, as we will see below.

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If we take the carvings literally, Beverley’s standing harpists show us that harp bags were rolled down to the base of the instrument by standing players as well as by the sitting players we see in manuscripts. If so, the bag would need to have been attached to the player in some way, perhaps by a strap or drawstring integral to the bag that the harper tied around his/her person, serving the purpose of stabilising the harp against the player.

To see and hear a medieval harp, click here.


Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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A timbrel or tambourine is a percussion instrument consisting of an animal skin stretched across a wooden frame, usually circular, often with bells in the rim. Above left we see the timbrel player on column 2, and in the centre the same figure viewed from the underside. Above right we see the angel timbrel player above column 15.

Below each minstrel is the capital of the column. On the other side of the capital below the timbrel player on column 2 is another timbrel player, this one next to an onocentaur, a mythical man-ass hybrid popular in medieval art. Below left we see column 2 with the capital at the top and, on the right, a close-up of the capital.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

The Minster’s timbrels are held by the players in the typical medieval style, with one hand supporting the bottom rim and the other playing the skin. For a reconstruction of what this playing style looks and sounds like in practice, click here for a video of the medieval music ensemble, MusiCanti Potestatis, performing Amor mi fa cantar a la Francesca (Love makes me sing to Francesca) from MS Rossi 215 (Codex Rossi, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City), c. 1370, contemporaneous with these carvings.

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It is notable that, contrary to the Beverley percussionists, medieval timbrels are usually shown played by women, as we see above left from folio 27v of The Utrecht Psalter, created 820-30 in Reims or in the nearby convent of Hauvilliers, north-east France; above right from folio 182r of The Queen Mary Psalter (British Library Royal 2 B VII), England, 1310-20; below left from folio 61r of The Luttrell Psalter (British Library Add MS 42130), England, 1325-40; and below right in a detail from the fresco, Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, painted 1338-40 in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy.


Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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Next we see a psaltery, a resonating wooden frame in various shapes, including trapezoid, as we see here. It is notable that this psaltery-playing minstrel is a woman, the first of four female musicians in the Minster.

We know from medieval sources that the strings were wire: Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things), Paris, c. 1250, states that psaltery strings were made of brass or silver, restated in its translation into French by Jean Corbechon, 1372, into English by John of Trevisa, 1398, into Spanish by Vinçente de Burgos before 1425, and anonymously into Dutch, 1485.

On a stringed instrument, a course is one, two or three strings, closely spaced and played as a single entity. Medieval art indicates that psaltery courses could be single, double or triple strung, and we see from the tuning pegs on the corners of the Beverley instrument that this has 10 double-strung courses, giving it a range of just over an octave. This is the same number of courses for a psaltery mentioned by Gascon troubadour, Giraut (Guiraut) de Calanso (Calanson), in his Conseils aux Jongler (Advice to Jongleurs – jongleurs were professional entertainers), 1210. The hand positions indicate playing with two quills, one of the standard ways of playing the psaltery.

This large psaltery must necessarily, like the harp, have been supported by straps over the player’s shoulders if played standing. The tilt of the instrument here is consistent with a sitting position, and inconsistent with the standing position shown, perhaps giving credence to the theory of a medieval artistic convention of showing sitting musicians as though standing. The weight and shape of the instrument necessitates it being played flat against the chest or abdomen when standing, as we see in the representations below. On the left, a woodcut from the Heidelberger Totentanz (Heidelberger Dance of Death) Germany, 1488; right, from the Hours of Bonaparte Ghislieri or Albani Hours, Bologna, Italy, c. 1500 (British Library, Yates Thompson MS 29, folio 104v). As with the harp, discussed above, these are rare examples in art of a psaltery player shown with visible straps.

To hear a psaltery, click here.


Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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The instrument on column 5 is a gittern, a plucked instrument played with a plectrum, with between two and five gut courses, usually double courses, sometimes single, and on a few occasions triple. The number of pegs and strings here indicate four courses, three double courses and a single course. Other iconography suggests the single course could be the first (highest pitch) or the fourth (lowest pitch). The bowl back, neck and sickle-shape peg box were all carved from solid wood, with tied gut frets on the neck. There would have been a carved decorative figure on the end of the peg box, now missing, as we see above.

The gittern was tuned in fourths, as was the lute, and the two instruments are sometimes seen in 15th century iconography playing duets. There are no lutes in Beverley Minster, as we would expect. At the date of these carvings, c. 1330–90s, the lute was fretless and appeared infrequently in art. This changed after c. 1400, when the lute gained tied-on gut frets, like the gittern. By around 1500, the gittern had all but died out and the lute was on its way to establishing itself as the pre-eminent renaissance instrument.

The tail of the Beverley Minster gittern is a replacement by John Percy Baker, who was appointed by Canon Henry Nolloth to repair and restore the Minster’s stone carvings between 1895 and 1912 (as described in the first article). John Baker’s replacement tail for the gittern is pointed, with a string-holder from the bridge to the tail. As we see on the surviving five course gittern below by Hans Oth of Nuremburg, who made instruments from 1432 to 1463, the gittern has no string-holder and the tail is not pointed but semi-circular.

John Baker’s replacement tail is beautifully executed but incorrect. It seems clear which instrument he used as a model: the replacement gittern tail has the shape of the tail of the citole in Lincoln Cathedral’s angel choir, completed in 1280, below left.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

John Baker’s replacement gittern tail has another curious detail. There is an original 14th century rose (decorated sound hole) under the strings, about halfway along the original body, as we would expect, and as we see on the Hans Oth gittern. As we see in the photograph below, the rose now appears to be further along the body, nearer the neck, due to the incorrect elongated citole tail John Baker added. On this new tail is another larger rose underneath the string-holder. This can be explained on the assumption that John Baker used Lincoln Cathedral as a model: above right is a carving on a choir stall in which we see the same design. Lincoln Cathedral’s original choir stalls were made in 1365-70, added to in the late 19th century towards the end of the Gothic Revival. The instrument above right, probably used as a model by John Baker, is from a Victorian neo-Gothic stall, and the instrument it shows appears to be a mixture of real elements of medieval instruments mixed in with inaccurate 19th century artistic license.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

The confusion between gittern, citole and the neo-Gothic is to be expected given the date John Baker was working: the true identity and organology of the gittern, and how it was distinct from the citole, was not established until Laurence Wright’s seminal article of 1977, The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity, 65 years after John Baker completed his work.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

On column 10 we see an instrument (pictured right) with a broad approximation of the general shape of a gittern, but with a host of problems. It has a flat peg box instead of the gittern’s sickle-shape peg box; a string holder, seen on medieval fiddles or vielles and many citoles, but never on gitterns; and it appears to have a flat back, whereas gitterns always had carved bowls. This organologically incorrect instrument is a late 19th or early 20th century creation of John Baker, responsible for literally picking up the pieces of the smashed medieval minstrels and making them presentable again (as described in the first article). Where there were gaps because 16th-17th century Puritans had completely obliterated the 14th century work, Mr. Baker sometimes created new figures based on his best understanding of what was appropriate. In this case, the figure has the original legs and torso, with a new Baker instrument, arms and head. He made his instrument with the same string-holder and pointed tail he added to the gittern, modelled on the string-holder of the Lincoln citole. The instrument as a whole is clearly intended to be an approximation of something played by a medieval musician, but the result is historically confused.

To see and hear a gittern being played, click here.


Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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On column 6 stands an angel shawm player (above). The shawm was a conical bore, double reed instrument made of wood, which emerged in Europe between the 9th and 12th century. The shawm is loud: note that the figure above the player has his hands over his ears! The shawm descended from the wilder and less controllable Eurasian zurna, and was the predecessor of the modern and much more polite oboe, which was developed in the mid 17th century.

Only a small section of the shawm’s double reed protrudes past the pirouette, the circular wooden reed protector which may have been used for the player to place his lips against. The pirouettes are clearly seen on two more shawms mounted on columns 16 and 17 (left and right below). More Puritan damage is seen to the shawm on the right, which has a broken bell.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

These shawms raise two questions of nomenclature.

Firstly, these larger bass members of the shawm family were called bombards in Germany and England in the 14th century, not to be confused with the modern bombard of Breton, which conversely is a very small shawm.

Secondly, there is a common belief in modern early music circles that medieval waits were bands of shawm players who kept the night watch and played music at civic occasions. As Richard Rastall has carefully documented, the modern lack of discrimination concerning the various historical uses of the word wait has led to current-day conflation and confusion. By the late 13th century, the word wayte (wayt, wait, waite) meant a shawm or a shawm player, or alternatively it meant a servant who keep the night watch all year round, also known as a vigile or a vigilatore, but there was no connection between the wayte who played the shawm and the wayte who kept the night watch. In the 15th century – but not earlier – small bands of minstrels employed for civic occasions were known as the town waits. Town waits played a wide range of instruments, not only waytes = shawms, and the town wait who was a musician was still separate from and unconnected to the waits on the night watch. The confusion comes from the fact that word wait (in all its spellings, since spelling wasn’t standardised) was a homograph, a word that, though spelt the same, has more than one meaning, each unrelated to the other. A modern example is date, meaning a specified day in the calendar, a type of fruit, something old-fashioned (dated, out of date), or a social or romantic event.

One other detail on the two shawm players above is highly significant: they have large swords, and are the only musicians in the Minster shown carrying weapons. The law at the time was that no ordinary person was allowed to carry a weapon within the city walls. If someone entered the city with a weapon they had to stay at an inn and give their weapon(s) to the innkeeper for safe-keeping. Breaching this law was a criminal act, punishable by imprisonment. There were two legal exceptions, indicating the identity of the bombard players: aldermen (local governors, members of the legislative body) and knights were allowed to carry weapons. The weapons of the bombard players are called arming swords, or sometimes knight’s swords or knightly swords. There are many surviving arming swords on display in museums, and they fit the profile of the musicians’ weapons, with blades that measure 30-32 inches. They were commonly used from the beginning of the 11th century until the middle of the 14th, so by the time of these carvings of 1330-90 they had nearly three and a half centuries of usage.

To see and hear a shawm being played, click here or here.

portative organ

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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As the article about the relationship between minstrels and the medieval church shows, minstrels and their instruments were regularly heard in church, but only one instrument beside the voice was permitted for use in the liturgy: the organ. It is entirely appropriate, then, that above the portative organ on column 7 is a bishop, with his mitre and crook, holding the head of Christ wearing a heavenly crown, and that the instrumentalist here is an angel.

The portative organ gained its name from the Latin portare, to carry, since it was small enough to be portable. It was also known as an organetto or organino, little organ. In use from the 13th to the 16th century, one hand played wooden buttons – or, in the renaissance, keys – while the other reached around the back to pump the bellows, producing its sound through copper pipes, varying in number in illustrations. Unlike a modern keyboard, the portative organ had between one and four drone pipes to play a continuous note under the melody. The earliest models had only diatonic notes (a natural scale) with the addition of B, plus F# in the 13th century, before eventually becoming fully chromatic. It was played standing, as here, held with a strap over the player’s shoulder.

To see and hear a portative organ, click here.

pipe and tabor

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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On column 10 is a pipe and tabor, two instruments played together.

The pipe is usually a single three hole pipe played with one hand. It has a narrow bore to facilitate over-blowing, i.e. more available notes by blowing harder, giving a comfortable range of an octave and a half, or a little more for the well-practiced with excellent skills. Above we see that the Beverley Minster instrument is, unusually, a double pipe. The player’s fingers are positioned over holes towards the top of the instrument. If this was the standard three hole tabor pipe then we’d conclude that this is a carver’s mistake, since a three hole pipe has two front holes on the bottom end and a third hole at the back. However, this depiction is credible, as there were (and are) other one-handed pipes with several more holes, such as the flabiol of Catalonia, which you can see being played with tabor or tamborí here.

There is plenty of iconographical evidence for double pipes or double flutes for polyphonic music, and three such examples are shown above, left to right: double-piping player for a tumbler (acrobat) in The Decretals (decrees) of Pope Gregory IX, 1275-1325 (Smithfield Decretals, British Library Royal 10 E IV, folio 58r); a shepherd in The Luttrell Psalter, 1325-40 (British Library Add MS 42130, folio 87v); and a musician for an investiture in the Italian fresco Saint Martin is knighted by Simone Martini, 1312-18. In all three examples above (and many others like them) we see that both pipes (flutes, flageolets) are being fingered simultaneously, and that therefore there are two moving parts, i.e. two-part polyphony is played. The double tabor pipe in the Minster is different to these double flutes in two fundamental respects: on a tabor pipe only one hand plays, so moving two-part polyphony requiring two hands is impossible, and therefore one pipe must be a drone; and whereas other double flutes are two separate instruments played together, the Beverley one-handed double tabor pipe must practically have been made as a single instrument.

A tabor is a drum played with the other hand to beat time. The tabor above has a snare, shown as a line across the skin, as we also see below left in folio 237v of British Library Royal 20 D IV, France, 1300-25, and middle left in folio 164v of The Luttrell Psalter (British Library Add MS 42130), England, 1325-40. Particularly notable in the Minster is the substantial size and therefore weight of the tabor beater, also evident in the Luttrell Psalter image and centre right in folio 345v of The Breviary of Renaud or Marguerite de Bar, France, 1302-03 (British Library Yates Thompson 8), and right in folio 343v of Biblia Porta (U 964, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire, Lausanne), from the end of the 13th century, France.

The Beverley Minster taborer and the above manuscript art shows the position of the tabor on the left shoulder and/or upper arm, secured by a cord around the neck. Though this looks deafening for the player, it is widely attested. There are other positions in iconography, either held on the front of the body by a strap, as we see below left in the frieze, The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome by Andrea Mantegna, c. 1500, Italy (now in The National Gallery, England, and in which we see another high finger position on the pipe), or suspended from the crook of the arm or the wrist, as we see below right on one of Beverley Minster’s misericords, 1520-30 (the latter described in detail in the seventh article).

Photograph on the right © Ian Pittaway.

fiddles (vielles, viellas)

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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On columns 9 (left) and 13 (right), we see two vielles, viellas or medieval fiddles. The vielle could be thought of as a family of instruments rather than in the singular: it came in a variety of shapes and sizes, had 3 different types of bridge, was played with 3, 4 or 5 strings, had three different 5 string tunings we have evidence for, and certainly other tunings for fewer than 5 strings for which the evidence has not survived.

Dominican friar and music theorist, Jerome of Moravia, in his Tractatus de Musica, c. 1280, provided the evidence for fiddle tunings. He considered that the fiddle or viella “should have” 5 strings, which suggests fiddles he knew of with fewer strings that he didn’t care for and therefore didn’t describe. Some vielles had a bourdon, a string off the fingerboard that can therefore play only one note, either plucked with the thumb or bowed, and one (possibly two) of the three tunings given by Jerome indicate this. Though Jerome doesn’t state so, the nature of the tunings indicate that strings were probably arranged in a mixture of single and double courses. Since both Beverley arcade fiddles have 5 strings, a flat bridge and no bourdon, this would indicate Jerome’s non-bourdon tuning: 5 strings tuned g’– d’ – g – G – d,  probably in four courses, g’– d’ – g/G – d.

A great deal of iconography shows that many fiddles had flat bridges, necessitating a bowing technique that favours playing all strings at once to produce a melody within a drone block. The fiddle on column 13 (above right and below right) is not carved in enough detail to make a judgement about the bridge, but the fiddle on column 9 (above left and below left) does show a flat bridge. This instrument is identical to another fiddle next to the Percy tomb (see the fourth article) and the one in bay F on the north wall (third article), except that the latter has a bourdon. The column 9 fiddle is also very close in design to one painted in Saint Mary Magdalene holding a crucifix, c. 1395–1400, by Italian painter Spinello Aretino, shown on the right. These Minster fiddles and Aretino’s fiddle all have flat bridges but with different bridge designs: the Beverley fiddle has a string-holder or tailpiece and a separate flat bridge, whereas the Aretino fiddle has a tailpiece/stringholder which itself is the flat bridge.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Another notable feature is that the fiddler on column 9 has his mouth open, the indication of singing in medieval iconography, a rare depiction for an instrumentalist among the Beverley carvings and in medieval depictions of instrumentalists generally. The fiddlers in bay F and on the right side of the reredos (article 3 and article 4 respectively) are also shown singing.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

To see and hear a medieval fiddle, click here.

The head-dress of the column 9 fiddler (above) is a chaperon, a development in style from the simple hood. From the 12th century, the hood was worn pulled over the head onto the shoulders through the intended gap, as we see below in folio 171r of The Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325-40, one hood worn down and the other up.

In c. 1300, while some continued to wear the hood in the original way, others wore the hood on top of the head, leaving the tail and cape hanging down from the back or side of the head, and thus the chaperon was created, as we see on the fiddler. The chaperon continued to be popular until the late 15th century, and below we see several variations of the style, from Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry), a French book of hours created between c. 1412 and 1416.


Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
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A bagpipe is a reed wind instrument where, depending on the type, the air is supplied by the player’s mouth blowing into a pipe and filling an airbag, or the mouth is free and air is supplied by bellows operated under the arm. The airbag functions to enable the sound to be continuous. Modern bagpipes have between one and five drone pipes to make a continuous drone note or notes, but bagpipes before the second half of the 13th century did not have separate drone pipes or drone stocks, and such bagpipes continued to be made and played well past the middle ages. Above we see two views of the bagpipe without a drone pipe on column 11, and below we see three images of bagpipes without drone pipes from The Maastricht Hours, made in the first quarter of the 14th century in Liege, the Netherlands (British Library Stowe MS 7), contemporaneous with the Beverley carving.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

Not having a drone pipe did not necessarily mean not having a drone. As we see on the right, the chanter is easily wide enough for two sets of vertical finger-holes, one for the main melody, the other for a drone that the player can change by stopping a hole with a finger. Such an arrangement is evidenced in other medieval iconography (as we will see below), and shown in practice on a reconstructed medieval bagpipe of the same type in this video.

Medieval bagpipes often had chanter stocks that were carved with a human or animal head, positioned so that the chanter seems to be blown by the carved head, as we see in all three examples from the Maastricht Hours above. The chanter stock on the Minster arcade bagpipe has a ram’s head, out of whose mouth there comes a rectangular chanter, as we see on the right.

The advantage of a three dimensional carving over a flat image in a manuscript or on a fresco is that we can more clearly identify features such as the stepped finger holes on the flat chanter. Flat-faced and stepped chanters are shown on other contemporaneous three dimensional carvings, as we see below. Top left is a bagpipe in the Cistercian monastery of Santes Creus, Catalonia, built 1174-1225. This is without a drone, as we see from the single row of finger-holes and the lack of a drone stock. Top right, the chevrette or goatling bagpipe high on the inside roof of the Abbey Church of Saint Sergius, Angers, Maine-et-Loire, France, 13th century, has a common stock for the chanter and drone, like the Beverley bagpipe and that in the video link above. (Thanks to Jean-Luc Matte for this image.) Bottom left and right are two views of the bagpipe played by the life-size figure in the Musée Saint-Rémi, Reims, France, 13th century, again with a common stock for the chanter and drone and with stepped finger holes.

Flat-faced chanters and chanters with stepped or scalloped finger holes are still made today, such as on the Sakpipa of Sweden, below left. The boha, bohaossac or Cornemuse Landaise, below right, from the Landes of Gascony, south-west France, has the same type of rectangular chanter as we have seen above, with melody and drone side by side.

On column 18 of the Beverley Minster arcade we see a bagpipe more familiar to modern musicians (below), with a rounded chanter and a single drone pipe over the player’s left shoulder.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

simfony or organistrum

Photograph © Ian Pittaway
Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

On column 12 is an angel playing a simfony – also symfony, simfonie, sinfonie, symphonie, symphony, symphonia, chifonie, or organistrumthe predecessor of the vielle à roue (wheel fiddle) with its buzzing bridge, created circa 1500. The term hurdy gurdy to describe the instrument is late, dating from the mid-18th century, meaning any musical device with a crank, including barrel organs.

The simfony had three or four strings – the Beverley simfony has four – and medieval evidence is lacking about their arrangement and function. It is likely that they functioned like the later vielle à roue, with either three drones and one chanterelle (melody string), or two drones and a double chanterelle, or two drones and a single chanterelle. The strings are played by what is, in effect, a circular bow: a wooden wheel is coated with rosin, the same plant resin used to coat fiddle bows, which helps the wheel or bow to grip the strings, and the wheel is turned by a crank, which we see above and right being turned by the player’s left hand.

The melody string, the chanterelle, is played by a series of wooden keys. If the wheel does the equivalent job of a fiddler’s bowing hand, the keys do the equivalent job of the fiddler’s hand on the neck, stopping the strings at intervals along the strings to make different notes. The keys are on the bottom of the instrument: once the note is played and the player lets go of the key, gravity makes it fall back into a disengaged position. Contemporaneous iconography shows that many other simfonies had a row of keys on the top of the instrument rather than the bottom.

A simfony is usually shown with the crank turned by the player’s right hand, with keys played by the left hand, equivalent to a fiddler’s hands, who bows with the right and stops the strings with the left. On the Beverley Minster simfony, this is reversed. Another unusual feature is that the key hand is usually shown over the top of the instrument, rather than coming from underneath, as here. It would be more awkward but not impossible for a simfony player to play the keys from underneath, as long as there was clearance, i.e. the instrument is held up by a strap rather than resting on the legs, which would be in the way of the hands. There are more pressing practical questions about how realistic a depiction of the instrument this is, and those questions will be examined in the third article, in which we see a John Baker copy of this instrument on the north wall.

The earliest form of the instrument appeared in the 10th century, an example of which was carved in stone on the Collegiate Church of Santa María la Mayor in Toro, Zamora province, Spain, in the late 12th to mid 13th century (above). It has three strings, with one player to turn the crank while the other raises the sliders to make contact with one or more of the strings, changing the vibrating string length and therefore raising the pitch to create different notes at various points along the string. No surviving medieval writers state whether three strings were played in unison, or in octaves, or if there was one chanterelle with two drones or vice versa.

In modern early music parlance, a semantic distinction is regularly made between the earlier large two-player organistrum and the smaller, later, one-player simfonie. This is a modern and unhistorical distinction, as in the middle ages the two words were interchangeable. For example, the anonymous Summa Musice, c. 1200, a manual for young learners of Gregorian chant, refers to “the symphonia which is called organistrum.” Two examples of the smaller one-person organistrum/simfonie are illustrated in the royal Iberian songbook, Cantigas de Santa Maria, 1257–83 (right). Contrary to the Beverley simfonie, this shows the usual playing position, sitting down with the right hand turning the crank and the left hand over the top playing the keys.

The English Luttrell Psalter, 1325-40, shows the instrument design with the keys on top (right). While that was a common variation, three other aspects of this depiction are unusual: the player is shown standing with a visible strap (uncommon in medieval depictions, as discussed above); the wheel crank is unusually on the left of the instrument from the player’s point of view, like the Beverley simfony; and the tuning peg plate is unusually in the form of a carved head on the player’s right of the instrument.

We see further development and variation in the Sforza Book of Hours, Italy, 1490, with more work on the book in the Netherlands, 1517-20 (below). This instrument has one of the classic vielle à roue (wheel fiddle) or hurdy gurdy shapes but, as depicted, this is not quite the final article played today, as it lacks the chien, the ‘barking dog’ that provides the distinctive rhythmic buzz when the wheel is turned faster. We see a true vielle à roue or hurdy gurdy for the first time – though it had not yet been given that name – in the detail below from the hell panel of Jheronimus Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, painted between 1490 and 1510, which I have turned anti-clockwise into playing position. On our left of the instrument, two thirds of the way up, is a control wire putting tension on the highest-pitched drone string, the trompette, which suggests the buzzing bridge, the chien, underneath the wheel cover to give the rhythmic buzz.

To see and hear a simfony, click here.


Photographs: © Ian Pittaway. (As with all pictures, click to see a larger view in a new window.)

The final instrument in the arcades is a citole, a plucked instrument played with a plectrum, carved from a solid piece of wood. According to the Berkeley Theory Manuscript (Berkeley MS 744), probably written by French priest, Jean (Johannes) Vaillant, before 1361, the four course citole had an almost identical tuning to the gittern: the gittern was tuned c’’–g’–d’–a, and the citole the same except that the fourth course was raised to c’, i.e. c’’–g’–d’–c’, making only a tone between the third and fourth courses. We see that the Beverley citole is a six string instrument in three double courses, and the totality of citole iconography confirms the standard alternatives of four single courses or three doubles. For the latter, there is no surviving evidence of a tuning. If it was tuned as three quarters of four courses, as seems likely, it would have been tuned in fourths, c’’–g’–d’, or, less likely because it gives a shorter range, g’–d’–c’.

What marks the citole out visually is its distinctive family of shapes – holly leaf, hexagonal, vase-shape, and hourglass or figure of 8. The body outline of the Beverley arcade citole, viewed from the front, is a figure of 8, reproducing the shape of two citoles in the exactly contemporaneous Macclesfield Psalter of East Anglia, c. 1330, pictured below.

Citoles always had a protrusion on the tail onto which the strings were tied, either a trefoil, seen clearly in the two Macclesfield Psalter citoles, or a circular protrusion, or a point as on the Lincoln Cathedral citole (seen above in the discussion about the gittern). On the Minster arcade citole, the trefoil is hidden behind the musician’s right hand. Between the bridge and the tail, citole strings would sometimes be tied to a string-holder, which is then tied to the trefoil, as we see in the Minster and in the Macclesfield Psalter. On other citoles there would be no string-holder and the strings would pass over the bridge and be tied directly to the trefoil or protrusion.

Above is the one surviving citole, dated c. 1280-1330, now in the British Museum. The soundboard and fingerboard are 16th century replacements because it was turned into a violin at the behest of Robert Dudley to give as a gift to Queen Elizabeth. (It couldn’t have worked!) As we see, the body overall is shaped like a wedge when viewed from the side, expanding outwards from the tail to the widest part of the body behind the player’s fretting hand. Since the wide end of the wedge at the neck would otherwise prevent a player reaching the fingerboard, a thumb hole was carved at the back of the neck, as we see above, and as we see below on the view from under the Minster citole. Since the whole hand is supporting the neck of the Minster citole, it would be impossible to both balance and play: only the thumb inside the thumb hole enables playing. We should therefore assume that the fretting hand is a John Baker replacement or that this was carved in the 14th century by someone who did not properly observe citoler players. Given the carvings of citole players in other medieval churches and in Beverley Minster itself, the explanation of a Baker replacement hand is most likely.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Above we see that the current shape of the soundboard is odd, with a large vertical elevation just to the right of the bridge. This may be the result of remedial work by John Baker to repair damage caused by the weapons of 16th–17th century Puritans (for this history, click to see the first article in this series), but a mason’s solution to a practical problem is more likely. The correct representation is shown below on a modern copy of the British Museum citole-violin, reconverted back to the original citole. We see that there is some distance between the strings and the soundboard, which causes considerable problems for a sculptor using stone, who always needs to ensure that the weight of the material is supported. Thus the 14th century stone carver would have needed to raise the soundboard to the height of the strings to prevent the carved strings from completely collapsing.  

To see and hear this citole being played, click here.

Citole and photograph by Paul Baker.

triforium percussion

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

Above the arcade on each side of the Minster is a triforium (plural triforia or triforiums), a second level arcade. On the triforium, above each minstrel except the outermost, are small figures or heads. For example, above the citole on column 14 is a tumbler (acrobat) on the left and a lion on the right, as we see in the photograph above. There are two musicians on the triforium, both above the timbrel player on column 2, and they are likewise percussionists: a player of nakers on the left and the player of a single drum on the right, in the photograph below. (Nakers will be discussed further when they appear again on the north wall in the third article.) Both percussionists have substantial, heavy beaters, as we’ve seen on the Minster’s pipe and tabor player in the north arcade, and which are typical of beaters in manuscript art.

To see and hear a short clip of nakers with trumpet and shawm, click here.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

The value of iconography

To conclude this second article about Beverley Minster, the first of three articles examining its carved medieval minstrels, I’d like to emphasise the great value of iconography for medieval musical instrument information, as I hope this article has demonstrated. I sometimes read sweeping global statements about medieval iconography that cannot be justified by data: that none of it is accurate and so cannot be trusted; that artists were making copies of copies of copies, not based on real instruments; that artists hadn’t even seen the instruments they were depicting, and so on. There is no historical information to substantiate any of these global claims, and there is much information to the contrary.

I would argue that an embracing and quizzical approach is more productive: not the foregone conclusion based on the assumption, ‘What I’m seeing is wrong’, but open, data-seeking questions, such as ‘What was this artist trying to convey?’, ‘Does what I am seeing corroborate or contradict other contemporaneous sources?’, ‘What artistic conventions, for which I have justifiable evidence, are at play in this depiction?’, and ‘What interesting questions does this pose to which I do not have answers?’

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

Even in this short article we have seen the iconography of Beverley Minster corroborate other historical sources. The depiction of harp bags (above left) confirms manuscript illustrations such as the contemporaneous English Tickhill Psalter and written accounts; the double tabor pipe is both unusual and credible, and expands the possible range of sounds played by taborers in 14th century England. Other details confirmed by a range of iconography include the double-course stringing on the psaltery (above centre); the snare on the tabor and the size/weight of the tabor beater; the fact of bagpipes without drone pipes; the shape of rectangular bagpipe chanters in manuscripts is confirmed in three dimensions by the Minster’s stone carvings (above right); and the stringing arrangement of medieval fiddles in the arcade matches the description of Jerome of Moravia’s second fiddle tuning in his Tractatus de Musica, c. 1280, suggesting that, in a milieu where there were vielles with flat bridges and vielles with arched bridges, the flat bridge and Jerome’s second tuning went together.

Details of attire are shown with care, so that painted and written accounts of clothes are confirmed by the Minster’s carved accounts, such as the decorative buttons on sleeves on nearly all musicians (described with contemporaneous evidence in the first article); the chaperon, à la mode at the time; and the visual indication of the bombard players being knights by their wearing of swords, unlike all other musicians in the church.

Medieval iconography isn’t perfect, of course. There are inaccuracies with the simfony, as hinted above and explored in more detail in the third article. Such details tend to be pounced upon in online discussions as a reason to globally invalidate all medieval music iconography, but of course no single artist is representative of all artists: it’s like saying that Charles Schulz’s Snoopy isn’t a realistic dog, therefore John Constable couldn’t paint landscapes.

Not only can iconography of any type – carving, drawing, painting, tapestry – corroborate other iconography or written accounts, it can also raise awareness of previously hidden questions for further investigation. In this article, due to examination of the Minster harps, I have raised the question of the use of harp bags while standing: since harp bags had a gripping or stabilising function for seated players, may the same also have been true for standing players, in a way we have yet to understand? Or should we conclude that these were really seated harpers, but shown standing in line with a medieval artistic convention?

The next two articles focus on the rest of the 14th century musical iconography of Beverley Minster: the west, north and south walls in article 3, and the remaining parts of the church, including the tombs, reredos, Saint Katherine’s chapel and the south transept in article 4. Following that, article 5 explores the historical evidence that explains the large number of musicians depicted in Beverley, focusing on the town as the headquarters of the minstrels’ guild for the north east of England. This is followed by an investigation of the Minster’s 14th century allegorical carvings in article 6, and the 16th century misericords and early 20th century Gothic revival medieval-style musicians on the organ screen are surveyed in article 7. Finally, in article 8 we seek a reason for the puzzling lack of interest in the medieval minstrels shown by almost all modern writers about Beverley Minster – and even by Beverley Minster itself.

Thank you

Grateful thanks to:

Martin van Schaik for very generously sending me his article about medieval harp bags (now unfortunately out of print), and to Jürgen Steiner for taking the time to scan and send the same (see bibliography);

Harriët van der Putt for sending me images of harps with their harp bags;

Richard Sermon for information on the variety of one-handed tabor pipes;

Jane Moulder for suggesting the Maastricht Hours bagpipe images and giving me several leads;

Jean Laflute, Phil Williams, Bruce Teter and Sean Folsom for information on bagpipes with flat-faced rectangular chanters;

Jean-Luc Matte for use of his photograph of the chevrette in Angers, from his excellent website accessible by clicking here

Beverley Minster floor plan and instrument inventory

As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.

The floor plan above shows the various stages of building of Beverley Minster. Modern sources do not always agree on precise construction dates, so I have used the widest suggested timescales. The arcade columns are numbered 1 to 18 for convenience, and descriptions of minstrels in the arcades follow this scheme in the article above. Likewise, the letters A to R on the inside of the west, north and south walls indicate bays, and this lettering system is used to indicate the location of minstrels in the third article.

The 14th century minstrels are listed below by location in a table cataloguing instruments by type, from the most to the least numerous.

© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.



The eighth and final article is a survey of and commentary on the literature to date about the medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. 

Barnwell, P. S. & Pacy, Arnold (ed.) (2008) Who built Beverley Minster? Reading: Spire Books.

Bennett, Carol (2021) A Guide to Lincoln Cathedral. London: Pitkin Publishing.

Booker, George (undated) Musical Instruments in the Psalms. Available online by clicking here.

Easton, Matt (2013) Sword carrying laws in medieval England. Available online by clicking here.

Gilbert, Adam K. (2000) Bagpipe. In: Duffin, Ross W. (ed.) A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hiatt, Charles (1898) Beverley Minster, an illustrated account of its history and fabric. London: George Bell & Sons.

Horrox, Rosemary (ed.) (2000) Beverley Minster: an illustrated history. Beverley: The Friends of Beverley Minster

Margerum, Alice C. (2010) Situating the Citole, c. 1200-1400. A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of London Metropolitan University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. August 2010. Available online with an EThOS (E-Theses Online Service) account by clicking here.

Matte, Catherine & Jean-Luc (undated) Iconographie de la cornemuse en France. Available online by clicking here.

Page, Christopher (1979) Jerome of Moravia on the Rubeba and Viella. The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 32 (May 1979), pp. 77-98. Available online by clicking here.

Page, Christopher (1980) Fourteenth-Century Instruments and Tunings: A Treatise by Jean Vaillant? (Berkeley, MS744). The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 33, March 1980, pp. 17-35. Available online by clicking here.

Page, Christopher (1987) Voices & Instruments of the Middle Ages. Instrumental practice and songs in France 1100-1330. London: J. M. Dent & Sons.

Page, Christopher (1991) Summa Musice. A thirteenth-century manual for singers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pittaway, Ian (2021) “the verray develes officeres”: minstrels and the medieval church. Available online by clicking here.

Rastall, Richard (1968) Secular Musicians in Late Medieval England. A thesis presented to the Victoria University of Manchester for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy by George Richard Rastall. Available online by clicking here.

Reed, Susan Downs (1992) From Chaperones to Chaplets: Aspects of Men’s Headdress 1400–1519. Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Science. Available online by clicking here.

van Schaik, Martin (1994) The Harp Bag in the Middle Ages: An Iconographical Survey. Aspects of the Historical Harp: Proceedings of the International Historical Harp Symposium Utrecht 1992, ed. Martin van Schaik. Utrecht, 1994, pp. 3-11.

Wright, Laurence (1977) The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity. The Galpin Society Journal. Vol. 30, May 1977, pp. 8–42. Available online by clicking here.

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

  • 12th July 2023 at 9:03 pm

    You’ve obviously put a great deal of thought & work into this, so well done & thanks.

    • 12th July 2023 at 9:32 pm

      Thank you, Julian.


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