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

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

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

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

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

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

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

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Tudor misericords

The second, third and fourth articles focussed on the stone and wood carvings of musicians in Beverley Minster, created between 1330 and 1390. 68 choir seats with misericords were made in 1520, more than in any other English church, and this article focuses on all of the musical misericords. Unlike the 14th century stone carvings, the 16th century wood-carved misericords have survived half a millennium unscathed.

During long services in Minster churches, collegiate churches, cathedrals, priories or abbeys, participating clergy were supposed to remain standing at all times. As a way of maintaining this act of religious respect while being merciful to the legs of the clergy, shelves were carved on the underside of the seats, so that when the seats were raised vertically for the long hours of standing, the shelf was at buttock level, giving worship participants some physical support. These are the misericords or mercy seats, from the Latin misereri, to pity, or miserere, mercy, and cord, meaning heart. The earliest misericords in English churches date from the early 13th century and represent an artistic tradition: the shelves were not simply functional, but crafted works of art depicting everyday scenes of harvesting, animals, castles, horse-riding and so on; mythological creatures and hybrids such as mermaids and woodwose; animals engaging in human behaviour; and both animal and human musicians.

musical animals
Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
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In the centre of the mercy seat above, a pig plays a bagpipe for her piglets; on the right, a pig plays the harp; and, on the left, another pig wears a saddle. These scenes imply alliterative word-play: a boar plays a bagpipe, a hog plays a harp and a sow wears a saddle. This may imply common sayings or a reference to a particular piece of literature; or perhaps it is simply a clever visual/literary game.  

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
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Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

On another misericord, shown above, we see a cat in the middle, looking at and stalking a mother or father mouse playing fiddle to her/his pups on the left (detail shown on the right) and, on the right, the cat has caught the mouse who was distracted by music-making.

Misericords are not merely decorative but also didactic: what is the message conveyed in these scenes? The meaning appears to be the danger of secular music, represented by the fiddle, that it distracts a person with worldly pleasure, leaving both player and listeners open to predation. Perhaps the mice represent absorption in sensory pleasure, causing them to be spiritually unwary, thus making them prey to the devilish cat, always ready to pounce on the distracted.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

Above is a bear, clearly a captive since s/he is wearing a muzzle. Since music is being played by an ape with a bagpipe, this must be a performing or dancing bear.

This is a single drone, double chanter bagpipe. Double chanter bagpipes, with or without a drone, enable the piper to play two line polyphony, and they are present in iconography contemporaneous with the Beverley choir stalls of 1520. Three similar and near-contemporaneous images of double chanter bagpipes are shown below. The uppermost is in the church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Shrewsbury, c. 1500 – two chanters, no drone pipe; below left in Manchester Cathedral, late 15th century – two chanters, no drone pipe; and below right is a bench end in Davidstow Parish Church, Cornwall, c. 1500 – two chanters, single drone, the same as the Beverley ape plays.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
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Above is another double chanter bagpipe of sorts, but in this case the chanters are the back legs of a dog and the blowpipe is its tail, ‘played’ by an ape. Two points of information may be relevant here.

The first is that the mid-13th century English bestiary, MS Bodley 764, states that “Apes are so called because they ape the behaviour of rational human beings.” Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, 1st century CE, stated that “Apes are cunning animals. It is said that they put on as shoes the nooses set out to snare them, imitating the hunters.” (Book 8, 80) Richard de Fournival, in his Bestiaire d’Amour, c. 1250, wrote: “The hunter knows that the ape likes to imitate what people do, so he makes a show of putting on and taking off his boots when he knows the ape is watching. He then hides, leaving a boot behind. The ape puts on the boot, and the hunter catches the ape before it can take off the boot and escape.” (19, 3). This image, then, is an example of an ape aping a human playing a bagpipe.

Why use a dog? Bagpipes used to be, and some still are, made from the pelt of an entire animal, including goats, sheep, cows, and dogs. An example where the identity of the animal is still visible is carved next to the Minster’s Percy tomb (described in the fourth article), as we see below. This means the ape is not only imitating the playing of a bagpipe, but does so using an animal used to make a bagpipe.

14th century bagpipe made with the whole pelt of a pig, with a single drone and
flat-faced chanter, carved on a corbel adjacent to the Percy tomb in Beverley Minster.
Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
hunting horns
Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

The three images above from the Minster’s mercy seats all show hunting horns in use. This is not the modern hunting horn made of brass, which may more properly be called a hunting trumpet or hunting bugle, but an animal horn. As such, it comes within the category of perfunctory instruments known as blowing horns or winding horns, of which the oliphant, an elephant horn, discussed in the fourth article, is a much larger example. The hunting horn has other things in common with the oliphant: it is musically extremely limited, playing a maximum of three pitches, as its function is aural signalling rather than aesthetic pleasure; and it is similarly a class-based, high status instrument, a visual emblem of nobility and social superiority. One written example contemporaneous with the misericord is enough to make the point, from De Fructu qui ex Doctrina Percipitur (The Benefit of a Liberal Education), written by Richard Pace in 1517: “Now there happened to be a person there, a nobleman, or so we call them, who always carry horns hanging down their backs as though they were going to hunt while they ate.” In other words, noblemen carried hunting horns as a badge of identity. When the author tried to express to the nobleman the benefits of a liberal education, he retorted, “I’d rather see my son hanged than be a student. Sons of the nobility ought to blow the horn properly, hunt like experts, and carry a hawk gracefully.” He was of the view that academic learning was unmanly, that he would rather his son be given the death penalty than be a scholar, and that the role of his class was to be experts in masculine hunting, an integral part of which is horn-blowing. Male gentry and nobles passed such skills on down the generations, father to son, using differential blowing patterns to signal, for example, the direction of the quarry and the successful death of the animal. 

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

In the medieval and renaissance periods, there were three types of fool: a natural fool, with a cognitive disability; an ungodly fool, meaning an immoral and irreligious person; and an artificial fool, a professional comedian. Above is a misericord with three fools’ heads, signified left to right by the straight-fringed and tonsured hair of the natural fool; the ass-eared hood of the artificial fool; and the gurning face of either a natural or artificial fool. Below are two foolish lions, signified by their tongues hanging out, either side of a human artificial fool, signified by his ass-eared cap and gurning face. Since the lion typically represents Christ, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” of Revelation 5: 5, the iconography of lions as fools is likely a representation of Saint Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4: 10, “We are fools for Christ”. On another misericord are some musical fools, but first some explanation.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

The natural fool was someone who, in modern language, has a learning difficulty or developmental disability. They were usually signified in iconography by one or more of the following features, as we see on the right in an Apocalypse manuscript of 1240-50 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Français 403, folio 2v): tonsured hair with a straight fringe; partially undressed, without hose or shoes; and/or holding a bladder on a stick. The reason for the latter is that the word for fool in medieval Latin was follis, meaning a leather sack or bag filled with air.

Some natural fools were given a stable home at court and an allowance of fine livery by English royalty. Isabella, Queen with King Edward II, for example, sheltered Michael in 1311-12, called a fool in the royal accounts and given money described as alms rather than wages. Richard II kept two natural fools, both named William, providing them with much fine clothing during his reign of 1377-80. Henry VIII kept “Sexten the king’s fole”, also known as Patch, during his reign in 1509-47, and paid three men to look after him. Henry later sheltered “William Somer, oure foole”. Elizabeth I kept two natural fools during her reign of 1558-1603, Ippolyta the Tartarian and a Spaniard named Monarcho.

The Henry VIII Psalter (British Library Royal MS 2 A XVI, folio 63v), c. 1540, shows the
King playing a harp next to his natural fool, William Somer (also Somers or Sommers).

The ungodly or immoral fool is someone with the reasoning faculties to know God’s will, but who nonetheless acts against it. These ungodly fools were the subject of a genre of literature from the 13th century on, imagining a ship full of ungodly fools, each an embodiment of a different vice. The idea was expressed most famously in Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools), Germany, 1494, which versified ungodly foolishness in various categories, including the vain, the gluttonous, those who get rich by robbing the poor, the hypocritical, the arrogant, adulterers, the complacent, the envious, astrologers, blasphemers, the gullible, deceivers, and slanderers.

The cover of Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff (Ship of Fools), 1494.

In Brant’s Ship of Fools, each type of fool is illustrated by a woodcut. Since ungodly fools are difficult to show visually, in art they were given the clothing of the artificial fool, meaning the professional clown or comedian. When employed in royal service, artificial fools are now popularly known as jesters, regardless of the date, though historically the term jester for a professional fool was not introduced until the reign of Henry VIII.

The costume of the artificial or professional fool first appeared in the 14th century, originally the outfit of amateur members of the Sociétés Joyeuses (Happy Societies) who took part in fools’ plays and processions during the Feast of Fools. The Feast of Fools began in the Christmas season during the 11th century to enact the Magnificat of Luke’s Gospel 1: 46-55, in which the Virgin Mary says God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” through the birth of Jesus. For the Christmas season, high-ranking clergy changed places with junior clergy, and a fool bishop or boy bishop was elected to preside over worship until the Feast of the Circumcision on the 1st of January. The fool’s costume, later adopted by professionals, was a hood with stylised asses’ ears, sometimes tipped with bells, with the additional later development of a central protrusion representing a cockerel’s comb or coxcomb. The fabric was in pied colours, and they often carried a fool’s club, bauble/bladder on a stick, or marotte (stick topped with a miniature fool’s head). One of the earliest images is shown below: fool dancers of a Société Joyeuses in the Romans d’Alexandre, France, completed by the scribe in 1338 and by the illuminator, Jehan de Grise, in 1344 (Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 264, folio 84v).

CC-BY-NC 4.0. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)
Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
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Above is a misericord in Beverley Minster featuring five fools with their ass-eared hoods. The fool on the left carries a bladder on a stick; and the fool on the right plays pipe and tabor. The three fools in the centre are dancers. The dancer on our left is sitting on the ground. The dancer on the right is carrying a scimitar (curved sword which widens towards the tip) behind his head, hidden from view in this photograph, the significance of which is explained below. The central dancer has the ass ears on his hood in common with the other four figures, with an additional representation of the cockerel’s crest, his cockscomb or coxcomb. Any viewer of a Shakespeare play will have heard ‘coxcomb’ many times as an insult, with the same verbal meaning as is visual on a jester’s hood: a vain, conceited fool who struts around like a cockerel. In Henry V, Fluellen describes all the meanings present in a fool’s cap in less than one sentence: “an ass, and a fool, and a prating coxcomb” (Act 4, Scene 1). All these elements together – fools, bladder on a stick, pipe and tabor, scimitar, dancers – indicate morris dancers. 

The earliest evidence of morris dancing is in the mid-15th century, known in Flanders as mooriske danse, in Germany as Moriskentanz, in France as morisques, in Croatia as moreška, in Italy and Spain as moresco, moresca or morisca, and in England as morys, moreys, or morisse daunce. It was originally a high status display dance of the courts which, by the mid-17th century, had moved down the social scale and was performed in English parishes.  

Early accounts of morris make clear that its name is derived from Moorish dancing. The illustration above is from an edition produced in 1463 of Speculum historiale (The Mirror of History) by 13th century Parisian Dominican friar, Vincent of Beauvais (Bibliothèque nationale de France Fr. 51, folio 171r). Just as one of the misericord morris dancers carries a scimitar, the dancer on the left above carries the same, a visual indication of eastern Moorishness. In the middle ages, the term Moor was used for Arabs generally, north Africans specifically, and European Muslims regardless of ethnicity. The imitations of tall sikke or kyula hats of camel wool, worn on turbans, also indicates that the dancers are emulating Moors: Moorish dancers = morris dancers. Unusually, on the misericord, all the morris dancers are fools. Above we see the usual constellation: four male dancers – including a singular fool with his ass-eared, coxcombed hood, pied colours and marotte – dance around a woman, variously called the Queen of May, judge, or goddess of luck. All wear bells on their calves and ankles, and all have bells on their wrists except for the fool, who instead has them on the tails and elbows of his doublet and the tip of his coxcomb.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

No musician is shown for the dancers in the Speculum historiale image, but the misericord shows the standard instrument for morris dancing, the pipe and tabor (detail above). In the second and third articles, we saw three 14th century taborers (pipe and tabor players) carved in stone. In the 15th century, the pipe and tabor became associated with the new courtly entertainment of morris dancing and therefore with the artificial fool, as the fool was a character integral to the dance. The opening lines of Act 3, Scene 1, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, 1602, confirm the ongoing connection between the artifical fool or clown and the pipe and tabor:

Enter Viola, and Clown with a tabor.

Viola: Save thee, friend, and thy music! Dost thou live by thy tabor?
Feste: No, sir, I live by the church.

The two most famous Elizabethan clowns or artificial fools were associated with the pipe and tabor. The first was Richard Tarleton (or Tarlton), who died suddenly in 1588 (about whom a rediscovered ballad is performed here). Dick Tarleton was a much-loved stage clown and playwright, whose pipe and tabor playing were an integral part of his act (as this article explores). His image is below left, from the cover of Tarltons iests, originally printed in 1600. This is the cover of the 1613 edition, the earliest to survive. The second Elizabethan fool associated with pipe and tabor is William Kemp (or Kempe), the artificial fool in William Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. As well as being a stage clown, Kemp was a morris dancer, famous for dancing the morris all the way from London to Norwich in 9 days (23 days if you count the days off) in 1600. His own account, published in the same year, has a woodcut on the cover showing him dancing accompanied by his taborer, Thomas Slye, shown below right.

Neo-Gothic musicians

The term Gothic refers to the late medieval arts, and has different connotations in different contexts. In architecture, it refers to a style from the mid-12th to mid-16th century that included pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and ornamental gables. In the visual arts, it refers to the detailed and realistic painting and sculpture of the 13th to 15th centuries. In music, it refers to compositions from 1200 to 1450, taking in the styles of sacred polyphony during the period of ars antiqua (ancient art), 1170-1310, the greater expression and complexity of the ars nova (new art), 1310-77, and the Burgundian school of the 15th century, including composers such as Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois, and Antoine Busnois, all inspired by the English composer, John Dunstaple.

In the 1740s in England there was a movement to revive medieval styles of architecture. There were several waves of what became known as the Gothic Revival or neo-Gothic style, peaking in the late 19th century but lasting until the early 20th century. The final musicians of Beverley Minster are in the neo-Gothic or Gothic Revival style and period.   

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

Above we see two 14th century corbels (supporting projections on a wall) to the left of the Percy tomb (just visible on the right, explored in the fourth article). The corbel on the left features a bagpiper (described above) and, on the right, Saint John of Beverley with King Athelstan (whose association with Beverley is explained in the first article). On each corbel is a statue made in the late 19th or early 20th century as part of Canon Henry Nolloth’s campaign to restore and revive the Minster. On the left is Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music and musicians, with a portative organ; and, on the right, King David, reputed writer of the Psalms, with a harp

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

The choir stalls with their misericords are seen right and left in the photograph above, with the 19th century west side of the reredos or altar screen in the background. This area is called the choir, often spelt quire to differentiate the place from the people. Above the choir stalls left and right are 48 wooden statues of saints, kings and bishops in the niches, carved in 1911-13 by Robert Peter Baker, son of the mason John Percy Baker who did so much to bring the medieval minstrels back to life (described in the first article). Among those statues is Saint Cecilia playing a portative organ, seen below left in context between Saint Piran (or Pyran or Kieran) and Saint George, and below right close-up …

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
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… and a bearded harper (another King David?), below left in context and below right close-up.  

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

If we walk westward, away from the reredos and the choir stalls, then look back the way we came, we see the view above. This is the choir screen or organ screen, designed in 1878–80 by Sir Gilbert Scott and carved in oak by James Elwell of Beverley. In 1919, Mr. N. Hitch of Vauxhall carved figures in oak for the niches in its columns, most of them carrying or playing medieval instruments, as we see below.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
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Above we see the four figures on the left column, playing or holding a lyre, timbrel, harp and portative organ.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

On the centre left column, the four figures are holding a harp, a simfony, two cornetts, and a sceptre (the latter not shown above).

Below left is a detail of the angel’s two cornetts, the instrument also called a cornet, cornetto, or zink. All these words mean little horn, as the cornett developed from the use of an animal horn, modified to become a musical instrument. The form of cornett represented here was made of wood in a shape imitating horn, covered with leather, and played with a cup-shaped mouthpiece. In the picture below right, next to the Beverley organ screen cornetts, we see three types: a straight cornett, called a mute cornett, two of which are held by the Beverley angel; then the more usual curved cornett; and lastly the larger tenor cornett.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

The centre right column of the organ screen has figures with a gittern or koboz, a probable lute, a beehive, and a sceptre and globe. The first of these is shown above, and it is curious. Anyone familiar with medieval instruments might immediately identify an approximation of a gittern due to its overall shape and the strings attached to hitch pins on the end rather than the bridge. It has 3 strings, within the range of expectation for a gittern. It is without the frets we would expect on a gittern, but carvers did not always depict them in wood or stone on fretted instruments. All other details are anomalies. The peg-box is without pegs, shown facing upwards rather than backwards, in the way we would expect of the perspective distortion in medieval manuscript art, but not in a three-dimensional carving of any era. The strings end suddenly where the nut (not depicted) would be. The left stopping hand (on the viewer’s right) is in an ineffectual and unrealistic pose. The right hand with a plectrum is held in an unrealistic way that would make it impossible to play. There is a series of holes rather than a rose.

To help understand the possible source of this depiction, we need to take a detour to a method of advertising used in France between the mid-19th and mid-20th century: the advertising card. Below we see two examples of one side of an advertising card, for a confectionary shop on the left, and for a clothes shop on the right.

On the reverse side of the card was 1 of a series of 84 images of historical instruments from around the world, to make these cards collectible. Each card featured a drawing in colour and a short explanation. Among the impressively wide range of instruments included in the series was the xylophone, vielle (the French abbreviation of vielle à roue, meaning wheel fiddle or hurdy gurdy), viole d’amour (baroque viola with sympathetic strings), tubri (Indian wind instrument), horn trumpet, theorbo, tympanon (hammer dulcimer), sistre (ancient Egyptian rattle), schounga (Chinese plucked instrument) and, as we see below, “la guiterne”.

The text reads, “LA GUITERNE. It is in this form that guitars were often built in the 16th and 17th centuries.” This reflects the misunderstanding of the time, as the guiterne or gittern pictured is an approximation of the medieval gittern that died out in c. 1500, rather than the renaissance 4 course guitar of the 16th century which, in France and England, was also known as the gittern. As the article about the guitar explains, the medieval gittern and the renaissance 4 course guitar also known as the gittern shared a name, but they were unrelated. Not only would someone dressed in the fashion of this picture card never have played a medieval gittern, and would not have used a plectrum, the gittern itself looks wrong: the outline of the instrument shows no distinct neck, making a very wide fingerboard, and no frets are shown. It therefore looks much more like the gittern’s fretless central and eastern European cousin, the koboz. For comparison, below we see copies of two surviving instruments, both reproducing the dimensions of the originals, both made by Paul Baker: above, the koboz found in a latrine in 1986 in the Polish medieval town of Elbląg, dated 1350-1450; below, a gittern by Hans Oth of Nuremburg, who made instruments from 1432 to 1463. The similarities between koboz and gittern are immediately obvious, as are the differences: unlike the gittern, the koboz is fretless and lacks a distinct neck, giving a much wider fingerboard that departs at an angle away from the line of the strings rather than following them.   

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
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Above left we see the instrument from the French advertising card of c. 1850-1950, centre the Beverley organ screen instrument, and right an instrument on a late 19th century neo-Gothic choir stall in Lincoln Cathedral. We can make the following observations. The overall shape of the instrument on the French advertising card and its fretlessness make it a koboz, not a gittern, and certainly not a guitar. Not only is the same true of the Beverley instrument, there is a clear reliance, one upon the other. Mr. N. Hitch of Vauxhall, who carved the Beverley figure in 1919, appears to have used this exact image as his template, reproducing in wood the instrument shape, the impossible hand positions, the impractical position of the plectrum, the series of circles to represent the rose, and even the strings stopping short. Mr. Hitch appears to have misunderstood the perspective of the peg-box in the illustration and, instead of seeing it go back at an angle, he saw it end vertically and carved it as such. The only significant difference is that the Beverley musician is an angel. Another angel, this time carved on the front of a neo-Gothic choir stall in Lincoln Cathedral, is shown on the right. This lute or gittern – the peg-box shape is halfway between the straight angled peg-box of the lute and the sickle shape of the gittern, so is unclear – obviously has a reliance on either the Beverley koboz, the French advertising card image, or both, as it is a very similar instrument and shows nearly identically impossible hand positions, the only difference being that this time there is no plectrum.

The relationship between them cannot be established with absolute certainty, but the following sequence seems credible.

The advertising card, printed circa 1850–1950, appears to be primary. The artist’s instrumental model for the depiction is unknown, but clearly the artist was confused: the artist may have had a koboz in a museum to draw on, thinking it was a renaissance or baroque guitar, or it may be an attempt at drawing a medieval gittern which, being badly-proportioned, looks like a koboz. The position of the player’s hands indicate either that the human model, if there was one, was a non-player, or that the artist was a non-musician without a model, guessing at hand positions, or that the artist used a genuine medieval model such as the gittern in bay D of Beverley Minster’s north wall, above left (described in the third article), or the French gittern, c. 1450–1500, now in The Met Fifth Avenue, New York (above right), both of which show similar and impossible fretting hand positions.

Since the organ screen koboz, made in 1919 by Mr. N. Hitch, repeats the exact mistakes of the advertising card and adds more based on a misunderstanding of perspective in that image, it is clear that the organ screen instrument is based directly on the advertising card. The Lincoln lute/gittern was made in the late 19th century, prior to and therefore not dependent on the Beverley koboz, but the hand positions indicate it was independently based on the advertising image, or perhaps on a prior image on which the advertising card was also based.

In summary, all the modern carvers in wood and stone appear to have based their imitation medieval work on an erroneous modern advertisement.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

The lute in the same column (above) is also curious. It has the overall lute shape, but with only 3 strings, 2 holes either side of the soundboard instead of a rose and, instead of the strings being tied on the bridge, they travel over the bridge and then stop short before the tail, apparently not attached to anything. I have been unable to find a source for the unusual depiction of this lute – if that’s what it is – but the angel’s manner of holding the instrument is reminiscent of the way holy figures occasionally hold instruments in monumental carvings of the Elders of the Apocalypse. We see this, for example, with the three bowed instruments below. On the left, we see three held by Elders on the Pórtico da Gloria (Portico of Glory) in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, completed in 1188. The posture of the lute-holding Beverley figure is especially reminiscent of the Elder holding the instrument below right, in Chartres Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres), dated 1194–1220.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
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The final organ screen column has a woman (probably another Saint Cecilia) holding an unrealistic portative organ, with a much too large bottom section in imitation of a church building; a man with a pen and scroll, with a harp behind him; a bishop with a music book; and a figure holding a bishop’s crook and miniature church (all but the last shown above).

History and veracity   

These articles have focused largely on the medieval minstrels in Beverley Minster, with a detour for one article to view the too-good-to-miss 14th century carved allegories and, to complete the musical iconography of the Minster, this article on the 16th century misericords and 20th century Gothic Revival carvings.

The mistakes and misconceptions of both the neo-Gothic carvings and John Baker’s dedicated but erroneous work on the medieval stone figures (described in the first article and amply seen in the others) demonstrate that our view of history is not about the past, but always about the present, about our current state of knowledge.

History is not a set of unchanging ideas about what really happened: our view of history, including historical music, is always predicated on both the evidence to hand and the contingent conclusions we draw from that data. If we have less evidence and incomplete knowledge, then we are far more prone to make errors. In that sense, history and science are alike. They are both methods of asking questions, testing accounts to find them either confirmed or falsified. Therefore, when a conclusion in the field of history or science is shown to be false, it does not ‘disprove’ either history or science as a discipline, but indeed shows that the method is working well, that new information has led to a re-evaluation of what we thought we knew.

From Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle.

It is important, therefore, not to be judgemental of those who, in the past, made honest mistakes in their view of medieval musical instruments. It is true that some people are more or less careful, more or less rigorous in their research, more or less meticulous in their conclusions, but inevitably we will all make honest mistakes, so humility is in order. Most of us are lucky that our mistakes are not carved in wood or stone for generations after to see.

Since new discoveries are regularly made and there are always areas of research we were previously unaware of, we are repeatedly given opportunities to re-examine what we think we know in a particular discipline. When playing La Volta to an audience, for example, I used to introduce it as Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite dance, as I had read so in books, heard other players of early music say so, and had never thought to question it. One day I did question it, and wondered what the evidence was for the claim: I found none, only repeated hearsay with solid grounds for undermining its veracity (as I describe in this article). Similarly, I had sung the earliest surviving secular song in English, Mirie it is while sumer ilast, c. 1225, to the familiar tune everyone else sings it to, until I went to the original manuscript and discovered the melody could not be justified and was a 20th century invention (as I describe in this article). The enjoyment of investigation and the excitement of making such discoveries is a major motivation for researching and playing medieval and renaissance music. It is a process that never ends.

It is therefore puzzling to me when a person or institution has their honest mistakes demonstrated and they show no interest in correcting them. That, unfortunately, is the case with Beverley Minster in relation to its medieval minstrels. The purpose of the final article is to survey the past and present literature about the Minster’s carved 14th century minstrels. I show that the books and pamphlets published by Beverley Minster repeat the basic errors of the 1970s, when knowledge of medieval musical instruments was in its infancy. I therefore offered a book, a concert and interactive educational materials with up to date information on all the Minster’s musical iconography. It would have been fully funded and cost them nothing. Indeed, it would have made money for the Minster. The offer was turned down without discussion. Beverley Minster’s minstrels, a globally unique survival, continue to be unpublicised, largely unexamined, and demonstrably misrepresented.


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


Thank you

Thank you to Assistant Verger of Beverley Minster, George Oakes, for his courtesy and assistance with viewing the misericords.  



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

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Barber, Richard (1992) Bestiary, MS Bodley 764. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.

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Historic England (2021) Cathedral Church of St. Mary and cloisters and chapter house and libraries. Available online by clicking here.

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

Hutton, Ronald (1994) The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Koehlinger, Jordan (2021) A Brief History of the Trumpet. Available online by clicking here.

Morris Ring (undated) Morris History – Before the Restoration. Morris Before The Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Available online by clicking here.

Southworth, John (1998) Fools and Jesters at the English Court. Stroud: Sutton Publishing.

Welsford, Enid (1935) The Fool: His Social and Literary History. New York: Faber & Faber.

Wilson, Christopher R. and Calore, Michela (2014) Music in Shakespeare: A Dictionary. London: Bloomsbury Press.

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