MIMFABB (iconography)

Introduction by Ian Pittaway

In July 2023 I was delighted and honoured to be contacted by Laurence Wright, an early music researcher most well-known for being the author of the ground-breaking The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity (The Galpin Society Journal, volume 30, May 1977). The article is cited several times on this website, as it clarified previous confusion about the identity of those two instruments using a range of medieval sources, and in so doing changed the course of medieval instrument organology.

Laurence’s reason for being in touch was to ask if, as author of earlymusicmuse.com, I would host his vast photograph collection of medieval iconography and his PhD thesis on medieval French minstrelsy and instruments. These resources deserve to be shared, and it is my privilege to do so.

Over to Laurence.


MIMFABB: Musical Iconography in Medieval French And British Buildings by Laurence Wright

MIMFABB (Musical Iconography in Medieval French And British Buildings up to about 1500) is a collection of photographs (over 6000 in black-and-white and 250 in colour) which I took in the years 1977-1983. I subsequently had to abandon the project to concentrate on other things. Nowadays, thanks to the internet and the ease with which data can be stored and transmitted, it has become much easier to share the material. Accordingly, I have now digitised all the photographs, in the hope that some of them may be useful to others.

Left: psaltery, Chartres Cathedral, south porch.
Right: giga (fiddle), Poitiers Cathedral.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in new window to further enlarge.)

Most of the photographs are of carvings in stone and wood, with some stained glass and wall-paintings. The subjects are nearly all musicians playing instruments, but there are some representations of dancers or acrobats, who often performed to the accompaniment of musical instruments, plus a few representations of singers and musical notation. Also, I have included some photographs of lovers, drunkards, misers, demons etc. where they occur next to representations of minstrels to provide context. Medieval churches, especially in France, seem generally to represent musicians either as good (angels, King David, Tubal, Musica) or bad (minstrels, who were condemned as ministers of the devil).

[For an article exploring the relationship of minstrels to the medieval church, click here.]

The collection does not cover every important site in France and Great Britain, only those places where I took photographs. There are obvious gaps such as Westminster Abbey and the whole of Scotland, also large areas of the South and East of France, omissions for which I apologise.

Left: bagpipe, Clifton Hampden parish church, Oxon (near Abingdon).
Right: harp in the east window (Jesse window), Saint Mary’s, Shrewsbury.   
How to use MIMFABB

Access to the photographs is easiest via the three indexes. Click on the blue links to go to:

Index of Instruments
Index of Places (France)
Index of Places (GB)

Occasionally, one of the three indexes may erroneously ask for a password. If so, close the page, click the link again, and you will see the document as intended.

If you find that your browser cannot search the text of the indexes, try downloading your own copies and they should work better. I apologise for this inconvenience, which I hope to resolve later.

Not all photographs are listed in the indexes. Many were omitted from the indexes, either because they are unsatisfactory (especially the early ones) or because they are very similar to those which are included in the index. Others were omitted from the index because they do not actually depict musicians, although they can provide context. The Index of Instruments also omits general views of buildings, etc.

All photographs, whether listed in the indexes or not, can be accessed by going directly to the complete collection of photographs via this link: MIMFABB all folders. The photographs are in 236 folders corresponding to the original B/W films plus some colour transparencies at the end. The links provided between square brackets in the indexes indicate film and frame numbers, e.g.

Angers (St-Serge) Roof boss in Jesse Tree (15c): David with harp [76-04 DDA-31]

In the above example, 76-04 indicates film 76, frame 4. If the photo reference begins with C or DDA, it is in colour.

Most of my photographs of stained glass are in black and white. Many windows can be seen in colour in the Medieval Stained Glass Photographic Archive which provides very useful overall views.

Regarding copying and publication, any photographs taken by me, with the exception of photographs taken in museums, can be copied for personal use, and published for non-commercial purposes. An acknowledgment is always appreciated. If you wish to make comments or suggestions, please email mimfabb@gmail.com.

Music in Old French poetry (PhD thesis)

To complement the MIMFABB photographs, I have also added my 1985 PhD thesis, Attitudes to minstrels and musical instruments in Old French narrative poetry, 1100-1400, and also a collection of References to music in Medieval French literature on which the thesis was based, but was which was too long to include in the thesis itself. The list of references to music can provide information such as when particular instruments were in use. More recent research may have rendered both documents outdated, but we wish to make them available them in case someone finds items of material in them which are useful.

Here is a summary of the thesis:

References to instrument‑playing in Old French narrative poems associate it with minstrelsy. The range of instruments increases in the 13th century. In the same period, a change in musical taste away from the chanson de geste causes the replacement of the term jogleor by menestrel, which then acquires a more specialised sense of ‘musician’. There is little evidence that menestrels were regarded as morally superior to jogleors.

Instruments are mentioned frequently in descriptions of feasts because they symbolise rejoicing and honour. They are also closely associated with the word deduit. Jouer (i.e. ‘to play an instrument’) is related in sense to deduire and other verbs used of minstrels; it combines the meanings of ‘to take recreation’ and ‘to entertain’.

Members of the nobility are rarely portrayed as playing any instrument other than the horn. However, some disguise themselves as minstrels, and the ability to play (but not the act of playing) is praised as a courtly attainment. A different attitude to instrument‑playing is found in a few texts, which are connected with Celtic areas (or England) and with the lai breton: performances by noble amateurs are described with exceptional respect and attentiveness to detail. Some features of the music can be related to what we know of the music of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.

The pastourelles not only readily attribute to shepherds the ability to play certain instruments (mainly woodwind) but frequently describe their playing.

Instrument‑playing becomes more widely accepted by the middle of the 14th century. As to whether the French nobility commonly played instruments prior to then, literary evidence is conflicting, and iconography inconclusive. However, it seems likely that some of the younger nobility, and students, played stringed instruments such as the harp, citole and gittern, although literary attitudes partly hide reality.


I would like to thank the following: the University of Bangor for a sabbatical term in 1977 which enabled me to start the project; the Centre d’études supérieures de civilisation médiévale of the University of Poitiers for providing access in 1977 to their excellent Photothèque which in those days was not available online; to Ian Pittaway for his help and advice, and for making this material available through the Early Music Muse website; and lastly my own family, for their patient support and encouragement.

Laurence Wright (Aberystwyth, 14 Feb 2024)