The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 8/8: The strange and continuing history of the minstrels’ neglect.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the last of eight articles about the iconography of Beverley Minster in Yorkshire: 71 musical minstrels carved in stone and wood in the 14th century; musical misericords of the 16th century; and neo-Gothic musicians carved in the early 20th century. Beverley Minster has more medieval musicians and more misericords than any other church in the world.

The first article gives a potted history of the building being established in the 8th century, then expanded in the 13th and 14th century, then the medieval minstrels being smashed by Puritans in the 16th-17th century and restored in the late 19th and early 20th century. The second, third and fourth articles describe all the 14th century carvings of musicians, and the fifth sought to answer the question: why are there so many more medieval minstrels in this church than anywhere else? The sixth article explains the meanings of the 14th century allegorical carvings; and the seventh describes the musical misericords of 1520 and the neo-Gothic organ screen of 1878–80 and 1919. This final article seeks to answer one central question: why, in the modern age, has the Minster’s medieval iconography been so poorly served?

Through a review of literature about Beverley Minster from the late 19th century to the present, we will see the repeated pattern of either ignoring the minstrels altogether or muddled misnaming of the medieval instruments. This has been widespread in academic journals, in specialist books, and in publications for the general reader. This is a situation which still persists today, perpetuated by literature published by Beverley Minster.

First we outline the Beverley Minster Project, which would have provided an accurate book about the minstrels with illustrative photographs, complete with music CD/downloads; a concert with all the instruments of the Minster being played by medieval music specialists; an audio-visual tour of the minstrels for visitors; education for guides; and a new website about the minstrels linked to the main Beverley Minster site. This proposal would have been fully-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, at no cost to the Minster – indeed they would have generated money from it – and it would have promoted the Minster as an educational attraction for schools and individuals on the subject of historical music. The project was turned down without any engagement.

The Beverley Minster Project

I first visited Beverley Minster in 2016, eager to see first hand the stone and wood carvings of musicians made between 1330 and 1390. I was forcibly struck by several things on my first trip.

First, the astonishing number of minstrel carvings in a single place. Almost everywhere you look, there are minstrels, 71 from the 14th century alone, not counting those from later eras.

Second, the amount of visible work put in by mason John Percy Baker was clear. In the late 19th and early 20th century, he made the minstrels come alive again after several centuries of neglect following the iconoclasm of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Third, it was obvious how misinformed the guides were. Pointing to a medieval fiddle, one guide said to me, “I bet you’ve never seen a violin like that before!” He then introduced me to a citole, telling me it was a guitar.

Fourth, I was struck by the profusion of minstrels in the Minster compared to how little there was about the minstrels in the gift shop. They had only two items dedicated to the minstrels, a folded A4 leaflet of photographs called Ten Musicians. Can you find them? and a CD of photographs, The Carved Musicians and Musical Instruments in Beverley Minster, inaccessible while in the Minster.

Fifth, I was disappointed by the inaccuracy of the leaflet. Of the ten labelled photographs, three are wrong – a gittern is called a citole, a trumpet is called a shawm, and a shawm is called a trumpet – and one description is puzzling – a square fiddle is called a “viol shaped fiddle”. Medieval fiddles went by several interchangeable names – vielle, viol, viola, fidel – so, in medieval terms, a “viol shaped fiddle” is a fiddle-shaped fiddle.

Lastly, on getting home and putting the CD of photographs into my computer, I was dismayed at the number of inaccurate labels on the 94 photographs of 14th, 16th, and 19th to early 20th century musicians. Of those 94 photographs with 96 instruments, 68 are correct; 10 have basically accurate but puzzling descriptions, such as the “viol shaped fiddle” and a citole labelled “citole or gittern” (two quite different instruments); and 18 are labelled wrongly, a 19% error rate. This includes the Minster’s 3 gitterns, all misnamed as lutes; 2 of the 3 citoles are called guitars; and 2 of the errors identify non-musical objects – a tree branch and a scroll – as musical instruments.

A medieval fiddle and citole in Beverley Minster. Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to enlarge in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

The back of that photograph CD gives two references. The first is Gwynn and Mary McPeek’s Guide to the Carvings of Medieval Minstrels in Beverley, which will be described below. This is a paper from 1971, a time when our understanding of medieval instruments was, we now recognise, decidedly confused. Indeed, it is so confused that a forked tree branch is described as a trumpet, the error repeated on the photograph CD. The second reference is Joyce Shaw, Beverley Minster: The Minstrel Carvings of the North Aisle, a paper I have been unable to trace. Suffice for now to say that the compiler of the photograph CD, clearly not an early music specialist, was honestly misled by at least one significantly outdated source that is highly inaccurate, and of the second source I cannot comment.

After another visit in 2017 I felt sadness that the minstrels are served so poorly. Visitors are unable to easily find information, and the little they can find or will be told by guides is inaccurate. As a musician specialising in researching and playing medieval music, I realised I could do something about it. Not wanting to go to the Minster with vague possibilities, I understood that the greatest chance of making a practical difference was to approach them with a detailed and fully-funded project. I attended a consultation meeting with the Heritage Lottery Fund in April 2018 and learned the criteria for a successful bid, then approached the vicar and Friends of Beverley Minster with a fully funded proposal for them to have accurate and easily-accessible information about their medieval minstrel carvings, to promote them and attract those interested in historical music to visit the Minster. There would be no cost to them, only educational and financial benefits: indeed, they would make money from the project and its ongoing resources.    

My proposal was in 5 parts, formulated in collaboration with the Heritage Lottery Fund.

1. A book giving detailed descriptions of all the musical iconography which dominates the Minster, and of all of the medieval allegorical carvings. The book would have included many full-page, full-colour photographs, to represent the minstrels as they deserve, and would have come with a full-length music CD, also available as a download, featuring all the medieval instruments of the Minster, playing music contemporaneous with the 14th century carvings. For this I prospectively recruited a team of 5 musicians – myself and 4 others – who can collectively play every instrument represented in the church. The book would have been for sale in the Minster bookshop and online outlets. All profits would have helped maintain the Minster.

2. A concert with 5 musicians performing music on reproductions of the medieval instruments in the Minster. The concert would have brought visitors to the Minster and launched the book. The performance fees would have been paid by the Heritage Lottery Fund, all profits to the Minster.

3. An audio-visual tour of the minstrels, sold in the Minster gift shop, would have come with earphones or headphones and a leaflet. The leaflet would have featured pictures of the minstrels to identify them with the actual carvings. The audio would have given brief information for each instrument and a short clip of the instrument being played.

Left: A mock-up of the cover of the proposed book.
Right: A mock-up of the proposed audio-visual guide.
(Click on the picture to enlarge in a new window; click in the new window to further enlarge.)

4. To meet Heritage Lottery Fund stipulations about education and training, I would have provided training days for Minster volunteers about the instruments and allegorical carvings, so they could be correctly identified and described to visitors. These meetings would have formed the basis of the book, written collaboratively, as the Fund requires, with myself as overseer and editor.

5. At the suggestion of the Heritage Lottery Fund, a new website, linked to the main Beverley Minster site, would have featured excepts and photographs from the book, to promote and sell it, and would have featured all CD/download tracks, which the Heritage Lottery Fund stipulates must be freely available under a Creative Commons Licence. Also at the suggestion of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the website would also have been the place for schools to visit for downloadable teaching material, based on the Minster’s carvings, to learn about medieval music. This could have been arranged with a buyable log-in key for teachers which lasts, say, a week, so that schools buy access for a fee, which again helps to fund the Minster, or this could have been free if the Minster wished.

In response to my proposal, the vicar, the ultimate decision-maker, kept putting spurious obstacles in the way, erroneous stories about the workings of the Heritage Lottery Fund. I wondered why. When I removed every imaginary obstacle with the facts as given to me by employees of the Heritage Lottery Fund, he stopped responding to my emails. After three more ignored emails I gave up. I shared the correspondence with other members of the prospective band, and they made comments such as “It’s beginning to look as if he doesn’t really value or understand what they have”, and “I do get a distinct ‘can’t be bothered’ vibe, which is sad, since all they’re being asked to do is rubber-stamp the project.”

These comments sum up why the lack of accurate information about the Minster’s minstrels persists to this day, and explains why these remarkable medieval carvings, a national and international treasure, are so little known. It is a situation the Minster have been made aware of and clearly have no intention of remedying. The contents that would have been included in the book, and would have made money for the Minster, are in this series of 8 free articles, of which this is the last. They are as follows (click on the blue link to go to the article):

The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster.
Part 1: Foundation, destruction, and restoration.
Part 2: The minstrels of the arcades, triforium and capital.
Part 3: The minstrels of the west, north and south walls.
Part 4: The minstrels of the tombs, reredos, Saint Katherine’s chapel, and south transept.
Part 5: The “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls in Beverley”
Part 6: Medieval beasts and allegories.
Part 7: Tudor misericords and neo-Gothic musicians.
Part 8: The strange and continuing history of the minstrels’ neglect (this article).

The puzzling history of print publications about the Minster

Beverley Minster has so much to see, its history and architecture is so rich, that anyone who writes about it is virtually condemned to make choices that will not please those with a particular and different specialist interest. But since books and articles on other particularities of the Minster have appeared over a long period, the lack of a single paper or publication specifically about the medieval minstrels before 1971 is puzzling. More puzzling is that the brief 1971 paper by Gwynn and Mary McPeek, with multiple basic errors, is still used by the Minster as the basis for repeating those mistakes today.

There follows a brief chronological survey of literature about Beverley Minster with the medieval minstrels and allegorical carvings in mind. All blue text is a link to another web page.

Charles Hiatt (1898), Beverley Minster, an illustrated account of its history and fabric (London: George Bell & Sons) was published only 3 years after the completion of John Baker’s major restoration, repair and replacement work on the minstrels (described in the first article), and yet, in his 152 pages, the author makes not a single mention of them nor are they included in any of the photographs. Strange, then, that Mr. Hiatt chooses to describe the designs of the misericords of 1520 in great detail – which have to be sought out – but he omits the visibly obvious minstrels. Stranger still that, in a book about Beverley Minster, he devotes a whole chapter to the nearby church of Saint Mary, including a description of its wonderful minstrels’ pillar (below), while completely ignoring the newly-restored musicians of the church with its name on the cover of his book.

The musicians of the Minstrels’ Pillar in Saint Mary’s Church, Beverley, dated 1520–24.
For a description and commentary, click here and scroll down to the heading,
The church and organised minstrelsy. Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

Notes on Famous Churches and Abbeys: Beverley Minster was written by the then vicar, Revd. Canon Henry Edward Nolloth (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, undated, between 1897, since the date is mentioned, and the end of his office in 1921). It is a tiny booklet of 16 pages measuring only 12.2 cm by 9.3 cm, with 12 black and white photographs. There is a passing reference to the work of Robert Baker making oak figures for the canopies of the choir stalls (described in the seventh article), but oddly there is no mention of John Baker or the minstrel carvings and no photographs of them.

Beverley and its Minster, also by Canon Nolloth, first published in 1910 (London: George Allen & Unwin), is more substantial at 24 pages and 3 times the page size. Henry Nolloth gives an account of the life of Saint John of Beverley and the history of the building, internally and externally. Several parts of the building are briefly referred to, but the minstrels are not even mentioned.

Beverley Minster A Brief History by J. Reay Forster (printed by A. Brown & Sons of Hull for The Friends of Beverley Minster) was first published in 1945. Its 44 pages are so well laid out and accessible for the visitor or other interested reader, with excellent black and white photographs, that it is no surprise it went through 4 editions and 17 prints until 1962. Though it includes photographs of 8 of the medieval musicians, there is no commentary or description. There are 4 photographs of non-musical stone carvings on the north wall, which he collects together as “the medical set”. Below we see images he identified as representing (clockwise from top left) stomach ache, lumbago (lower back pain), sciatica (spinal compression causing pain in the back, hip, and outside of the leg), and toothache.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

The “medical set” is an appealing idea, repeated in the modern Pitkin Guide published in 2000 (described below), but it is demonstrably erroneous. The first figure, supposedly representing stomach ache, is holding his chest, not his stomach, and he is an onocentaur, a mythical man-ass hybrid symbolising humanity’s dual nature as both rational/spiritual and lustful/sinful. (The onocentaurs of the Minster are described in the sixth article.) Mr. Forster’s interpretation of the middle two – lumbago and sciatica – can only be made through John Baker’s modern replacement arms and faces, since the original 14th century limbs were smashed. Not only is the imputed meaning of these figures interchangeable, the unfeasibly long replacement left arm of the ‘lumbago figure’ is all that indicates the ailment and the new Baker face of the ‘sciatica figure’ is the only indication of pain: take away these new elements and the meanings disappear. Both ‘dentistry’ figures are stripped to the waist, the one on our right has visible ribs, and both have arm hair hanging from their armpit to their elbows. Add to that the bulging eyes, grotesque features, and the fact that the uppermost man is not only pulling downwards on the other’s beard but also pulling up and back on his hair, and it becomes obvious that this is not dentistry but a fight for power between two devils (explained in the sixth article).

The title of Bruce Allsopp’s paper of 1959, A Note on the Arcading and Sculpture in the South Aisle of Beverley Minster in Architectural History (volume 2), is rather misleading in its vagueness. In the south aisle there are 6 or 7 minstrels, depending on whether we think the figure in bay M (below left) is a singer. However, the author’s attention is focussed largely on the possible royal identity of three of the heads in bay L (below), avoiding any mention of musicians in the south aisle.

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

The Statues of Beverley Minster, their position and identity, with short notes by Edward Benjamin Bull, M.A., Vicar of Beverley Minster, 1958–1968, is a 56 page book written in 1967 (printed by A. Brown & Sons of Hull for The Friends of Beverley Minster). Edward Bull dedicates half his pages to the exterior statues. In the half on the interior statues, the author mentions only one medieval carving, non-musical. Only one reference is made to musical iconography: King David playing a harp, a creation of the late 19th or early 20th century, shown on the right.

While there is more in the Minster than the minstrels, this avoidance of them and the allegorical carvings is so glaring that it needs an explanation. There could be several factors: the state of knowledge of medieval instruments until the mid 1970s was poor so, until then, clear identification could not have been made with security; and architects and architecture enthusiasts inhabit a different world of knowledge to musicologists who specialise in the medieval period. But since the minstrels predominate the Minster, it is a very strange omission.

The earliest work dedicated to the medieval musician carvings of Beverley Minster I am aware of is the aforementioned short paper by Professor Gwynn McPeek of Michigan University and Mary McPeek, A Guide to the Carvings of Medieval Minstrels in Beverley Minster. Published in 1971, it has not stood the test of time, as we would expect from a paper of this era. There are many identification errors, such as citoles named as guitars, gitterns named as lutes, and several other inaccuracies, with vielles described oddly as “viol shaped”, the source of the phrase in the Minster’s CD of photographs. In their descriptions, the McPeeks state that the citole “was also referred to as a cittern, cithern, gittern, or githern.” We know now that the citole, cittern, and gittern were three distinct instruments in visually obvious ways, and the cittern occupies a different period of history to the citole and gittern. These errors are no bad reflection on the authors: they were writing according to the poor state of early instrument knowledge at the time. The depth and breadth of our understanding of medieval instruments today bears no comparison to 1971, so it is most unfortunate that the Minster used this source for their photograph CD in the gift shop.

In his article, ‘Main divers acors’: Some instrument collections of the Ars Nova period, in the journal, Early Music, April 1977 (volume 3, number 2), Joscelyn Godwin described the Minster’s stone carvings on the north wall and the brass images of Schwerin Cathedral, Germany. As well as the Minster’s correctly identified fiddle, double horn, harp, organistrum, shawm and psaltery, there are the typical identification errors of the day – gitterns are called lutes or mandoras, citoles are called gitterns or guitars – mixed in with undue scepticism based on his own lack of knowledge. He assumes without evidence that widely-attested double instruments, such as the double horns and double pipe and tabor of the Minster, are unplayable, and that images of them in manuscripts are fantasies. This despite the fact that double wind instruments have been played and attested in iconography for millennia, as Barnaby Brown demonstrates in the video below on the Greek aulos.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.
Barnaby Brown demonstrates the aulos.
Examples of geminate (double) instruments in medieval iconography.
double duct flutes in a fresco by Simone Martini, Italy, 1312-18, Saint Martin is knighted.
Centre left: double duct flutes from folio 87v of The Luttrell Psalter
(British Library Add MS 42130), England, c. 1325-40.
Centre right: double shawms from folio 174r of The Luttrell Psalter.
Right: double trumpets from folio 126r of The Queen Mary Psalter
(British Library Royal 2 B VII), England, 1310-20.

Having performed with skilled musicians who play in exactly this way, I can report that double wind instruments are neither impossible nor fantastical. Without offering any justification, Joscelyn Godwin calls some of the instruments “freaks”, states that the carvings are a mixture of “fact and fantasy”, despite the fact that every single one of the instruments in the Minster is widely attested by medieval artists and writers, as I have shown in these previous articles on the Minster. He states without reference to any evidence that he has “doubt that medieval Beverley had even seen all the plausible instruments”, he did not understand that the appearance of the instruments in the Minster is itself likely evidence of their appearance in Beverley and the surrounding area, explicable by the existence of the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls in Beverley” (described in the fifth article), to which he makes no reference.

One of the most important articles to clarify the previous general confusion about medieval instruments is by Laurence Wright, The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity, published in The Galpin Society Journal, volume 30, May 1977. This seminal work led to the renaming of the Warwick Castle gittern as the citole it is, now known as the British Museum citole. This confusion between gittern and citole until 1977 was present in late 19th century restoration and repair work, leading to some beautifully executed but organologically incorrect attempts to replace missing parts of damaged carvings in Beverley Minster, as we have seen in the second and third articles. The confusion between gittern and citole was present in all work prior to Laurence Wright’s article, and also in much of the subsequent work by writers relying on out of date secondary sources.

The breakthroughs in understanding by musicologists have filtered unevenly into the non-specialist world. Beverley Minster Historical Notes is a revised version of J. Reay Forster’s Beverley Minster A Brief History, first published in 1945, described above. This new 1979 edition, fully revised with additional material by G. Philip Brown, is a beautifully presented and balanced work on many aspects of the Minster, with excellent black and white photographs, including the same 8 stone musicians and the so-called “medical set” in J. Reay Forster’s original. There is an additional short mention of the musicians but, writing only 2 years after Laurence Wright’s reordering of the medieval musical landscape, the book reproduces the instrument naming errors of the McPeeks in 1971.

In Beverley Minster Reconsidered by Gwen & Jeremy Montagu, in the journal, Early Music, volume 6, number 3, July 1978, there is increased accuracy and detail compared to the McPeeks and Joscelyn Godwin, but there are still many identification errors and several points to disagree with on the grounds of clear evidence to the contrary. One gittern is called a lute, another gittern is just a “plucked string instrument”, while a third gittern is correctly identified. Cup bells are called clappers, while two citoles are described confusingly as “plucked fiddle (guitar)”, and a third citole is correctly identified. Two onocentaurs – mythical man-ass hybrids – are shown eating a tree branch on a capital (below) and this photograph is labelled, “geminate trumpets or Jack-in-the-Green”.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

The idea that a tree branch – fed straight into the mouth, beyond the teeth, and with a fork below to another branch – is a geminate or double trumpet is taken from the McPeeks’ paper of 1971, described above. It is a baffling conclusion to draw, and Jeremy Montagu was not sure of his ground: “a pair of long trumpets played by one person, and is so listed by the McPeeks … I am not convinced that this is an instrument at all”. As I describe in the sixth article, this is a representation of two onocentaurs, symbol of humans’ dual nature as both rationally spiritual and irrationally lustful. The sixth article also explains that the Green Man or Jack-in-the-Green cluster of ideas referred to by the Montagus is a modern and easily debunked fantasy of Lady Julia Raglan, from an article of ‘fakelore’ she wrote in 1939.

The occasionally acerbic language of the Montagus isn’t helpful to the specialist or to those with a casual passing interest in medieval instruments. For example, “Compilers of guide books for the tourist have a liking for them [the Beverley minstrels] as illustrations, but generally take a perverse pleasure in using the Victorian restorations instead of the original figures.” The claim is groundless, based on the assumption that the compilers of guide books are aware of the organology of medieval musical instruments, therefore aware of what is 14th and what is 19th-20th century, and despite that knowledge they deliberately take “perverse pleasure” in choosing the modern carvings. Given the understanding of medieval music in the general populace and even among specialists until the late 1970s, including the Montagus themselves, it is far more likely – and far more charitable – to conclude that writers simply picked a minstrel they liked the look of, or one that looked in good condition, without any historical knowledge on which to base their choice. If we are to assist people in understanding medieval music (or any other branch of knowledge), we should not reasonably expect anyone to respect or listen to us if our attitude is scathing or dismissive. Productive dialogue is only possible with genuine positive engagement, and without assuming anything about the other person’s knowledge base.

Lost Treasures of Beverley Minster, a 12 page booklet by G. Philip Brown, privately printed in 1980, describes the history of its pews, altar rails, iron screens, iron gates, wood screens, and pulpit. The medieval musicians are not even mentioned.

Lawrence Hoey’s essay of 1984, Beverley Minster in Its 13th Century Context, in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (October 1984, volume 43, number 3) has extensive information about the places the minstrels are situated, but oddly makes no mention of them.

The best publication for our purposes is Beverley Minster: an illustrated history, edited by Rosemary Horrox (Beverley: The Friends of Beverley Minster), published in 2000. This outstanding book is the most comprehensive of all guides to the Minster, with 14 diverse chapters by different authors, including a little discussion of the minstrels and allegorical carvings, giving interesting background about the process of their creation but not always accurate about the symbolism. Most of the instruments are named correctly – fiddles, bagpipes, harps, pipe and tabor, psaltery, portative organ, single horn and geminate horns, tambourine –but still the citole is called a guitar, a large horn is called a serpent, the simfony/organistrum is given the anachronistic later name, hurdy-gurdy, and there is no description or discussion of the musical instruments. Only 6 of the 14th century instruments and 3 of the musical misericords of 1520 are illustrated with black and white photographs.

Jeremy and Gwen Montagu’s Minstrels & Angels. Carvings of Musicians in Medieval English Churches, published in 1998 (Berkeley: Fallen Leaf Press), is an impressive survey of English churches and their medieval musical iconography, illustrated with many black and white photographs (of mixed quality). For all but 1 of the 113 churches described, the Montagus name all the musical instruments and where in the church they can be found. The single exception is Beverley Minster. They refer the reader instead to the inventories of the McPeeks, Joscelyn Godwin, and themselves (Beverley Minster Reconsidered) – all referenced above – but, strangely, without reproducing those lists, making Beverley Minster the only church in the book without a full list of instruments and locations. When the Montagus do include the Minster’s instruments with photographs, they are always correctly named. This necessarily involved them amending their own previous errors, so it is puzzling that they refer the reader to previous inventories by themselves and others they knew by then to be incorrect. (The one remaining error they do make is in locating the player of a hunting horn on the tomb of the two sisters, which is actually on bay D of the north wall.)

Beverley Minster by David Palliser is a brief Pitkin Guide published in 2000 with photographs by Peter Smith, republished in 2008 with the same text and new photographs by Neil Jinkerson (Norwich: Jarrold Publishing). The text is informative and highly readable, but it mentions the minstrels in only two sentences, without description. The first edition has a photograph of a bagpiper on the north wall and the carving of Mary and Jesus on the inner roof of the reredos, without drawing attention to the one horn visible in the photograph. In the second edition, there are 10 small photographs of the musicians on the north wall, reredos, organ screen and misericords, and a long shot of the nave including musicians in the distance, all without description.

Who built Beverley Minster?, edited by P. S. Barnwell & Arnold Pacy, 2008 (Reading: Spire Books), is reading heaven for those whose special interest is the identity and working practices of the masons and carpenters who worked on the Minster over a period of seven centuries. There are no descriptions of the minstrel carvings but there is a lot of background information about the working environment of the craftsmen who created them, and the reasons there are no traces of the individual identities of the minstrel carvers.

Finally, Julia Perratore’s chapter, Beverley Minster’s 14th Century Architectural Sculptures in a Devotional Context, in a book edited by Elisa A. Foster, Julia Perratore, and Steven Rozenski, Devotional Interaction in Medieval England and its Afterlives (2018, Leiden: Brill), includes among her topics a discussion of what role the sculpted musicians might have played in the experience of medieval worshippers at the Minster. Julia Perratore is Assistant Curator of Medieval Art at The Met Museum and visiting Assistant Professor at Fordham University, both in New York. Since she specialises in western medieval sculpture from 1100 to 1500, we should expect the most up to date and accurate information.

The chapter starts promisingly: “the Gothic Minster’s nave interior preserves a significant amount of figural architectural sculpture in the form of label stops, capitals, and corbels. Though such sculpted elements often fall to the wayside in discussions of the visual culture of devotion, I consider these highly visible images as integral to devotional experience in Beverley.” At the end of the chapter, she includes a full inventory of all the figures at ground level – my bays A to R below under the heading, Beverley Minster floor plan and instrument inventory – including the minstrels described in my third article and the allegorical figures in the sixth. But her inventory, as recent as 2018, is riddled with errors, relying on the outdated identifications of Gwen & Jeremy Montagu’s Beverley Minster Reconsidered from 1978, described above. Furthermore, her descriptions of the allegorical figures show an extraordinary lack of knowledge for an Assistant Curator of Medieval Art specialising in medieval sculpture.

In bay A, she calls the gittern a lute (below left).

In bay B, she calls the citole a lute (below centre left); the leather bottle held by the man with a snake (centre right) she calls a money bag (why would he be lapping a money bag with his tongue?), and she fails to recognise the symbolism of the snake with a clothed man, as described in medieval bestiaries (explained in the sixth article). She fails to see the obvious timbrel held by the man on the lion (right), instead giving this figure the baffling and unexplained description, “Miser seated on lion head”.

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

In bay C, she does not recognise Satan in the form of a goat, which she describes as a demon (below left). She identifies the portative organ as a book (centre), and describes the man with a symbolic dove and dragon for good and evil as “falconer with dog”, i.e. she thinks the dragon is a dog. (The symbolism of the Satanic goat and the man with the dove and dragon are explained in the sixth article.)

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

In bay D, she thinks the man blowing a hunting horn has his thumb in his mouth (below left). She does not recognise the image of Canon Nolloth (centre left); she thinks the woodwose (described in the sixth article) is a demon (centre right); and she misidentifies the gittern as a lute (right).

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

In bay E, the citole (below left) is described as a “plucked fiddle” and she has only a vague recognition of the cup cymbals (centre left), calling the figure, “percussionist?”

In bay F, the simfony, also known as an organistrum (centre right), is anachronistically called a hurdy gurdy.

In bay G, the pilgrim (right) is called prosaically “Bearded figure with walking stick”, and neither his status as a pilgrim nor the medieval symbolism of beard-pulling (described in the sixth article) is recognised.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

In bays I, J and P, Julia Perratore calls the three figures below, “Upside-down acrobat with horse’s hooves for feet”, “Hunched, cloven-hooved figure with left hand on chest and right hand on hip”, and “Hybrid quadruped with hooded human head”. She does not recognise them as onocentaurs, the commonly seen symbolic ass-man hybrids of medieval iconography and bestiaries (described in the sixth article).

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

She considers the human figures which are clearly carrying asses in bays N and O (below) to be centaurs, human-horse hybrids, and offers no explanation for these symbolic figures (described in the sixth article).

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

In bay M, the author fails to recognise the remains of a portative organ (below left) or the figure of Triton (below right).

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This disheartening catalogue of errors is further demonstration of the need for medievalists in non-musical disciplines to become acquainted with the latest scholarship in the field of medieval music, and indeed in their own field. No doctor, looking for the solution to a patient’s unfamiliar ailment, would consult a medical journal from 1978 as a sole source. Knowing that knowledge is advancing all the time, they would fear reproducing the errors of the less-informed past and harming the patient. But, for some reason, this is acceptable in the field of medieval music for the Assistant Curator of Medieval Art at The Met Museum, and good enough to publish in a book. Surely the custodians of Beverley Minster itself should be proactive in promoting up to date knowledge about their unique and world-class medieval heritage, both to academics like Julia Perratore and to the general public. They have no intention of doing so.

The value of the Minster’s medieval minstrels

This survey shows that, since the work of John Percy Baker, who repaired the minstrels with great skill and care between 1895 and 1912 under the leadership of the Minster’s vicar, Canon Henry Nolloth, the magnificent medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster have suffered from being either completely ignored or repeatedly misidentified. This cumulative lack of information, detail or, for the most part, any mention at all, is my reason for going into the detail in these 8 articles that I have seen nowhere else. I have aimed for an accuracy of description not available either to the early music enthusiast or to authors with an interest in buildings who need readily accessible and correct information about medieval musical instruments. Only in latter years have the minstrels’ instruments, when referenced at all, been identified correctly, and even now far from consistently. Until this series of articles, they have never been analysed in detail. They have been and continue to be poorly served and wrongly described. There remains not a single print publication of all the medieval minstrels, nor are they collectively described on any website until this series of articles.

The history of Beverley Minster tells vital stories. It has more iconography of medieval musicians than any other place in the world. For that alone, it surely deserves wider recognition. In addition to the minstrels, the allegorical carvings are lessons in rich visual symbolism, windows onto the medieval understanding of the world. The building and its people have persisted through the strife of religious zealotry and shattering iconoclasm, the carvings repaired after many generations by those who understood the significance of its history and heritage. The current custodians of the Minster evidently do not understand their value. It would be such a benefit to historians and musicians today if its history and heritage were more accurately presented and appreciated by Beverley Minster itself.

Thank you

Thank you to the many funders and restorers of Beverley Minster in past centuries, particularly John Baker, whose work and dedication turned some of its fragmented musical iconography back into a beautiful and fascinating window onto 14th century music-making.

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 second article. 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. Other minstrels are described in the fourth 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.

4 thoughts on “The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 8/8: The strange and continuing history of the minstrels’ neglect.

  • 23rd January 2024 at 8:06 pm

    You’ve described a bewilderingly depressing situation here, Ian. Is it not possible to go “above the vicar’s head”, and present your proposal to some more responsible figure in the church hierarchy?

    “Neglect” is certainly the crucial word here. These are unique relics that deserve to be presented in authoritative detail to the world at large, and the many particularly interested individuals who would benefit from the most accurate knowledge of those who share their appreciation of these corners of history.

    The Anglican Church itself must surely be aware that the historical value of its buildings needs to be emphasised and presented to the public accurately and accessibly.

    • 23rd January 2024 at 10:07 pm

      I appreciate your comments very much, Nikolas, and of course I share your frustration.

      I don’t know what going above the vicar’s head would look like: appealing to the bishop? If the bishop then sees the value in presenting the medieval iconography accurately in all the ways I describe in the article, is it then viable to work with the vicar against his will, who has been imposed upon from above? That doesn’t seem feasible to me, even if the bishop holds such power (and I don’t know if he does). I offered a fully-funded project that makes money for Beverley Minster and provides accurate historical information, correcting the errors they still repeat to the visiting public. Since that offer didn’t appeal to the vicar (who is still in post), then I can only conclude he cares nothing for the beauty and history of the church he is supposed to care for, and there is therefore nothing I could say that would make a difference. It’s sad, but we can’t make someone care.

      All 8 articles are public now. If anyone at the church, or anyone in the church hierarchy, were to see the articles, ask him why he turned down the offer, and I was to be approached by someone at Beverley Minster, I might consider picking up the abandoned project. But I can’t see any merit in approaching the vicar or the Friends of Beverley Minster again.

      With my best wishes.


  • 14th April 2024 at 2:16 pm

    I visited the Minster for the first time last Wednesday, 10th April 2024 and after spending a very enjoyable time discovering all the wonderful carvings, I hoped to find further information on the musicians in the gift shop. I was disappointed and very surprised to learn that there was no literature available and not even any postcards depicting these important carvings.
    When I asked the lady on duty there, she did seem to be rather embarrassed by the fact that that there were none !!!
    On returning home I’ve found your 8 articles and I’m very grateful to you for making them public.
    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading them. Thankyou so much.

    • 14th April 2024 at 10:02 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Julia. It’s a really shocking situation: one of the most important sites of medieval iconography in all of Europe, and they can’t even provide accurate information. Worse, they have actively refused the dissemination of accurate information to the public, which would not only cost them nothing, but actually make them money. If you’ve read all the articles, and especially the eighth article on this page, you’ll know the situation.

      All the best.



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