Performing medieval music. Part 1: Instrumentation

Double recorder (then called a pipe or flute), gittern and three singers in Saint Martin is knighted by Simone Martini, 1280-1344.

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the first of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

This first article discusses the use of instruments and instrument combinations in medieval music. The illustrations in two manuscripts are used as typical representative examples: the 13th century Iberian Cantigas de Santa Maria and the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter. The second article gives practical methods for making arrangements of medieval monophonic music according to historical principles, with an example to illustrate each method; and the third article discusses questions of style, including the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) music of the troubadours, ornamentation, and the medieval voice.

Matching instruments and music

Whereas modern music is usually written with a particular instrument in mind, in the medieval period this seems not, on the whole, to have been the case. Surviving medieval sources almost never indicate the instrument to be played, which suggests that they performed with any instrument, appropriate to the type of music and the skills of the musician. The music that was noted down as a single line melody must have been played not only on monophonic instruments such as recorder, pipe and tabor and shawm, but also on instruments capable of a second line of musical accompaniment, such as harps, gitterns, portative organs and so on, and many illustrations show musicians doing just this by, for example, showing a harpist playing with both hands. Neither monophonic nor polyphonic medieval vocal music indicates any method of instrumental accompaniment. The second article in this series of three explores the musical possibilities of accompaniment suggested by the evidence.

The iconographical and written evidence shows that secular musical performance was very often by one player. Where musicians did play in groups, they were small in number, usually 2, 3 or 4. In the 12th and 13th century, those most frequently shown or described playing together are a combination of vielle, harp, recorder, flute, pipe and tabor, gittern, and rota (a kind of two-row harp).

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

Above, left to right: vielle (CSM 100, Cantigas de Santa Maria E codex, Iberia, 1280-83), harp (Luttrell Psalter, BL Add. MS 42130, England, first half of the 14th century), and recorder (found in a latrine in 2005 in Tartu, Estonia, by Andres Tvauri, dated to the second half of the 14th century).

Below, left to right: flute (Codex Manesse or Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, the most comprehensive source of Minnesang poetry, Germany, c. 1304–c. 1340), pipe and tabor (British Library Yates Thompson MS 8, France, 1302-03), gittern (Jacopo di Cione, The Coronation of the Virgin, part of the San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece, Florence, 1370-71), and rota (église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Surgères, France, 12th century).

In modern ensemble playing we may see large numbers of diverse instruments playing together, but there is no evidence for anything similar in medieval music. Instruments came broadly in two categories, loud for outside and soft for inside. Some modern commentators say that the two never mixed, and there would have been good practical reasons for this. The shawm (loud predecessor of the oboe), the long trumpet (valveless, with its decorative pommels or bosses) and nakers (small kettledrums usually hung around the waist and usually played in pairs) were designed for impressive volume outdoors, and collectively would, in theory, overpower a soft instrument such as a gittern or citole. The shawm, trumpet and nakers were new to Europe in the 11th century, appropriated from the Arabian ceremonial loud band, which itself was adopted in Europe by the 13th century. Where we do see medieval depictions of ensembles which mix loud and soft instruments we are left with a puzzle: is this a realistic depiction, or is it meant to convey a message?

For myself, I am not convinced that loud and soft instruments never mixed. The iconography shows that they did –  for example, images from the Queen Mary Psalter further down the page show trumpets, loud instruments, playing with a citole, portative organ, vielle and harp, all soft instruments. The vexed question then is: do we believe the iconography? In this case, I see no reason not to. I remember seeing an early music group playing a bagpipe with 2 shawms, and the lutenist waiting to come in at the right musical point. I watched, thinking the lute would never be heard, but it was heard perfectly well, not because it can compete in terms of volume, but because of its timbre, occupying a different sonic space to the other instruments. My own performance experiences have included similar apparently unlikely combinations, with successful results, leading me to the conclusion that the musical ensembles in the Queen Mary Psalter are credible and based on life.      

Above: A shawm (with man above covering his ears!), a trumpet and a pair of nakers, carved in the 14th century in Beverley Minster, East Riding of Yorkshire. Photographs by Ian Pittaway. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Left: One of 76 illuminations in the Olomouc Bible, the earliest surviving Czech translation of the whole Bible, dated 1417 (Olomouc University Library MS III). The instruments in this scene, left to right, are nakers, vielle (medieval fiddle), oliphant (horn), triangle, koboz (fretless gittern) and bagpipes. Are we to understand this as showing an actual ensemble, or does this mean ‘here is the king surrounded by all his musicians’? Right: Folio 184v of The Breviary of Queen Isabella of Castile, made in Bruges, Netherlands, in c. 1497. This scene shows King David and his musicians on the 15 steps of the Temple, including pipe and tabor, triangle, shawms, trumpets, harp, lutes, bagpipe, psaltery, and portative organ. This is not a realistic combination or number of instruments and is clearly a mythical scene.

The evidence of the Cantigas de Santa Maria

The Iberian 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria comprises 4 manuscripts. The E codex (códice de los músicos, Biblioteca de El Escorial MS B.I.2, also known as MS J.B.2) has the largest number of songs of the Cantigas manuscripts and the famous illustrations of musicians. As we see above and below, the typical depiction is a pair of the same type: 2 harps, 2 gitterns, 2 ouds, 2 transverse flutes, 2 psalteries, 2 bagpipes, 2 pipe and tabors, and so on.

Occasionally there are different types played in pairs, such as oud and rebab, or citole and an unidentified plucked instrument with a skin resonating table, or soloists playing bells or portative organ, but such pairs of different instruments or solo players are in the minority in Cantigas iconography.

The problem with depictions in a manuscript such as the Cantigas is that it’s impossible to know how literally to take the images. Were the songs really meant to be played mostly by pairs of musicians with the same instrument type, or was this a stylistic representation? Should we rather believe the image for the Prologue (below), which shows a couple of paired instruments, 2 viellists playing opposite 2 citolers (and 4 people seated on the left, presumably singers)?

Or should we believe the illustration for Cantiga 1 (below), with 4 singers, 1 of them leading the others, accompanied by 2 viellists and 1 citoler? Are all alternatives true at different times for different songs, or are all depictions simply decorative? I’m more inclined to believe the illustration for Cantiga 1, as it has singers and the Cantigas are to be sung, but since all representations are highly stylised, certainty is impossible.

Oddly, though the Cantigas de Santa Maria is a book of songs, there are few depictions of singers. Besides the illustration for Cantiga 1, there are only two other Cantiga illustrations which unequivocally show a singer.

In the illustration for CSM 330 (below left), a woman is accompanied by a man playing an instrument which appears to be related to the later Spanish chirimía branch of the shawm family. She plays percussion while having her mouth open, indicating singing. Her percussion is tabulae, two rectangular pieces of wood in each hand, held between the fingers in such a way that a rapid movement of the wrists and arms causes them to make contact rhythmically. Medieval iconography shows both women and men playing various types of percussion, but it appears to be particular to women that their own percussion accompanies their singing, often with no melody instrument. The tabulae shown here operate in the same way as percussive bones used, for example, in traditional Irish music. The Cantigas artist didn’t understand how they were held, and so doesn’t show the hands correctly. Dutch engraver and painter Cornelis Massijs depicted the hands correctly in 1548, as we see in the middle below, accompanying a vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy) player. To see bones being played in this manner, click here. On the right, we see the only other Cantigas illustration which shows a vocalist: the illustration for CSM 120 depicts a Moor and a Christian playing an unidentified instrument with a skin resonating table, and the Christian is in the iconographic pose for singing.

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

The evidence for any contemporaneous performance of non-ecclesiastical music surviving in medieval manuscripts is slight. This is not to say it was not performed, only that we lack evidence as to how and in what context it was performed. We have both music and images of musicians in medieval manuscripts, but uniting the two, knowing what they may have been playing on their instruments, is impossibly elusive. So it is with the Cantigas. There are unanswerable questions about how the musical iconography relates to actual performance, and we know nothing of the performance context of the Cantigas: were they sung at court, at church, during religious festivals? The evidence is completely lacking. There is, however, a tantalising teaser about Cantigas performance only just beyond the life of the king whose dedication and work produced it.

Catalonian author Ramon Llull wrote his novel, Libre d’Evast e d’Aloma e de Blanquerna, circa 1283-85, just after the Cantigas were completed, at the end of or following the rule of Alfonso X, the Cantigas‘ instigator and chief author. In one of Llull’s scenes, a cleric enters a tavern and dances with the dancing, drinking, singing crowd, then he sings a song, A vós, dona verge santa Maria (To you, virgin woman holy Mary). The lyric says: “Everyone who wants to fall in love with you is given of you so strongly, I would not want anything else except your will … you are mother of love. Who does not want you cannot fall in love with anyone.” Such sentiments and expressions are typical of the troubadour-influenced religious love poetry that had become mainstream Catholicism, and which fundamentally influenced Alfonso’s Cantigas (as I explain in the first and second articles in the series about the Cantigas). The song is in the style of the Cantigas de loor, the songs of praise to the Virgin which punctuate the Cantigas every tenth song. In another scene in Llull’s book, “while a certain Cardinal was dining, there came into his court a minstrel … called ‘the Minstrel of Virtue’ … [he] sang songs which the emperor had composed in honour of Our Lady Saint Mary and of virtue, and he sounded his instruments, playing the bals [instrumental sung dances] and tunes which the emperor had made in honour of Our Lady.” Being from the time and region of Alfonso, and making reference to an emperor who composed “in honour of Our Lady”, the most obvious meaning is that the emperor is Alfonso and that “the bals and tunes” are the Cantigas de Santa Maria. There are three particularly interesting features here: this performance is not in Alfonso’s court, showing that his songs were known beyond the royal circle; the minstrel sings apparently solo and self-accompanies on unspecified instruments; and “playing the bals” suggests that some or all of the Cantigas were meant to be danced, as shown in the illustration for CSM 120.

An illustration for CSM 120: King Alfonso instructs his musicians and dancers to praise the Virgin and Child. The instruments are a rota (double row harp), what appears to be a shawm with various bulbous protrusions, psalteries, vielle and two people behind the musicians, presumably singers waiting to sing.
Trumpets and dancers illustrated in CSM 119.

Ramon Llull’s account and the rarity of such stories raises an important general point about our evidence for the performance of medieval music: it is patchy and partial, and what has survived does not necessarily represent what was most numerous or culturally important, only what was written down by the literate elite. If the indication above from Libre d’Evast e d’Aloma e de Blanquerna and CSM 119 (right) and 120 (above) is correct, then the Cantigas may have been thought of as carols or caroles (Latin: coreae), songs that were danced, performed at public festivities and at court. For 12th and 13th century commentators, the carol was simply synonymous with northern French secular music, yet little carol music and no dance choreography survives.

The evidence of the Queen Mary Psalter

A look at another single source will further illustrate the pleasures and problems of researching medieval instrument combinations and performance practice. The Queen Mary Psalter, c. 1310–1320, is so-called because it was in the possession of Mary I (1516–1558), Queen of England and Ireland. It may originally have been made for Queen Isabella of France (1295–1358), Queen of England, or for her husband, King Edward II (1284–1327). It has 464 remarkable bas-de-page scenes in folios 85v-318, including beautiful representations of instruments being played.

A few examples will suffice to gain the overall picture. The citole is shown paired with a vielle in 4 illustrations, and on other pages the citole is paired with a small trumpet, a psaltery, a bagpipe, or a harp. Twice the citole is shown played solo to accompany dancers, once in what appears to be a secular dance, and once the citoler plays for the Virgin Mary who leads 3 other saints in a dance. There appears to be no distinction between instruments used for religious and for secular music. The portative organ is twice shown being played alongside a double trumpet, one of those pictures showing the organist with his mouth open, the stylistic visual marker for singing, and in the iconographic pose for dancing. The largest number of musicians shown together is 4, playing trumpet, harp, vielle, and citole. Of these examples, the portative organ and trumpet pairing is perhaps surprising, but all these arrangements are musically credible, and may inform us about the mix of sounds medieval ears were used to.

Above and below, the citole shown in the Queen Mary Psalter with a vielle, trumpet …
… psaltery, bagpipe …
… holy dancers and harp. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in new window.)
From the Queen Mary Psalter, a double trumpeter with a dancing and singing portative organist, a trumpeter with a dancing viellist …
… and a trumpeter, harpist, viellist and citoler play to lull an aspis to sleep, who has his tail in his ear to keep out the sound. (For a discussion on the identity of the aspis – which began, almost unbelievably, as a snake – and its place in medieval thinking about music, see the Beastly musical footnote at the bottom of the page, following the bibliography.)

Rules of thumb or laissez faire?

This short survey of representative examples shows minstrels (musical servants), angels and clergy playing the same instruments indiscriminately, and instrument types being mixed and played together at will, with no apparent schema.

One key question hangs over these and all such images. Parts of the Queen Mary Psalter are populated with mythical hybrid creatures: are the instrument combinations equally mythical and hybrid? Since the instruments are shown realistically, there is no reason to think so, but a definitive answer to the reality in principle of these musical ensembles is elusive.

Such practical questions would be answered if we knew that secular medieval musicians had rules of thumb for instrument combinations other than the separation of loud/soft indicated above, which the Queen Mary Psalter and practical experience indicates can be breached where musically plausible, or if we knew that medieval non-ecclesiastical musicians were completely laissez faire, experimenting freely. These illustrations suggest that the latter is the case. If so, then the scene is set for our own historically-informed experimentations with any instrument combinations.

There follows two further articles about performing medieval music. The second article gives practical methods for making arrangements of medieval monophonic music according to historical principles, with an example to illustrate each method; and the third article discusses questions of style, including the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) music of the troubadours, ornamentation, and the medieval voice.


Bibliography (for parts 1, 2 and 3)

Bell, Nicolas (2014) ‘Earliest’ polyphonic music discovered in British Library. [Online – click here to go to website.]

Biblioteca Nacional de España (2016) Cantigas de Santa María, digital facsimile of the Toledo (To) manuscript. [Online – click here to go to website.]

Casson, Andrew (2015) Cantigas de Santa Maria for singers. [Online – click here to go to website.]

Colton, Lisa (2016) Angel Song: Medieval English Music in History. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.

Cook, Ron (2013) The Early Medieval Harp: A Practical Guide. Columbus, Ohio: Dlanor Publications.

Cross, Lucy E. (2000) Musica ficta. In: Duffin, Ross W. (ed.), A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dyer, Joseph (1980). A Thirteenth-Century Choirmaster: The “Scientia Artis Musicae” of Elias Salomon. In: The Musical Quarterly, Volume 66, Number 1. [Available online by clicking here.]

Ferreira, Manuel Pedro (2013) Editing the Cantigas de Santa Maria: Notational Decisions. In: Portuguese Journal of Musicology, 1/1 (2014), pp. 33-52. [Available online by clicking here.]

Green, Robert (2000) Symphonia. In: Duffin, Ross W. (ed.), A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Haynes, Bruce (2007) The End of Early Music. A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holladay, Richard (1977) The Musica enchiriadis and Schola enchiriadis: a translation and commentary [Online – click here to go to website.]

Kelly, Thomas Forrest (2015) Capturing Music: the story of notation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Kulp-Hill, Kathleen (2000) Songs of Holy Mary of Alfonso X, The Wise. A translation of the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Lindahl, Greg (undated) The Cantigas de Santa Maria: Facsimiles. [Online – click here to go to website.]

Loewen, Peter (2013) Music in Early Franciscan Thought. Leiden: Brill.

Mahrt, William P. (2000) The Gamut, Solmisation & Modes. In: Duffin, Ross W. (ed.), A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mahrt, William P. (2000) Proportion. In: Duffin, Ross W. (ed.), A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McGee, Timothy J. (1990) Medieval Instrumental Dances. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Monks of Solesmes (1953) Chants of the Church. Selected Gregorian Chants, Edited and Compiled by the Monks of Solesmes. Interlinear Translations by Rt. Rev. Msgr. Charles E. Spence. Ohio: Gregorian Institute of America. [Available online by clicking here.]

Myers, Hubert W. (2000) Reeds & Brass. In: Duffin, Ross W. (ed.), A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Page, Christopher (1980) Fourteenth-Century Instruments and Tunings: A Treatise by Jean Vaillant? (Berkeley, MS 744). In: The Galpin Society Journal 33, March 1980. [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.

Parrish, Carl (1957) The Notation of Medieval Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Planchart, Alejandro Enrique (2000) Sacred Music: Organum. In: Duffin, Ross W. (ed.), A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sherman, Bernard D. (2003) Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Simó, Ester Peretó (2017) A vós, Dona Verge Santa Maria. [Online – click here to go to website.]

Smith, Douglas Alton (2002) A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Massachusetts: Lute Society of America.

Solez, Kevin (2002) Lyrecraft: The Origins and Adoption of the Greek Word Kitharis. [Online – click here to go to website.]

Thornton, Barbara (2000) The Voice in the Middle Ages. In: Duffin, Ross W. (ed.), A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Beastly musical footnote

The image above from folio 125v of the Queen Mary Psalter is curious: 4 musicians play for an aspis lying under a tree. The aspis is an asp, a snake, and yet it looks like a lion. Being a psalter, the illustration is purely decorative and the text on the same page makes no reference to it. Other medieval illustrations of the asp clearly show a serpent, but not of the sort we might expect: it is shown with the body of a snake, with or without a pair of legs, with or without a pair of ears, and with or without a pair of wings. 

Three 13th century illustrations of an asp or aspis from medieval manuscripts, all in the care of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Above: fr. 1444b, bestiary of Guillaume le Clerc, France, end of the 13th century, folio 252r, showing 2 legs, 2 ears and the tail in an ear.  
Below left: lat. 14429, France, 1250–60, folio 116r, showing 2 legs, a reptilian neck frill, and the tail in an ear to prevent it hearing the enchanting music of the vielle player.
Below right: lat. 3630, folio 93v, England, third quarter of the 13th century, showing a legless, wingless snake with ears, with its tail inserted into an ear so as not to hear the reader of incantations. (The theme of the asp’s enchantment by music or incantations is explored below.)

In medieval bestiaries, animals are never described as a naturalist would describe them today, based on observation and research to test hypotheses about habits. The bestiaries take their information entirely from prior authorities, being other Christian writings, often several centuries before, mixed in with literalist references to Greek and Roman mythology and teachings from the Bible. Their purpose is not to understand animals but to understand God’s purpose for humanity: every animal is an allegory, a moral message from God about how we should or should not lead our lives.        

Of the asp, the English bestiary MS Bodley 764, c. 1250, says “if an asp notices a snake charmer trying to entice it with melodies intended for that purpose and lure it out of its hole [some sources have it residing in a cave], and it does not want to come out, it will lay one ear on the ground and stop up the other with its tail so that it cannot hear the magic sounds and is not forced to go where the snake-charmer wants. The asp is like the men of this world, who stop up one ear with the desires of the world. They other they stop up with the sins they have committed, in order not to hear the voice of the Lord.”

Some of the earlier authorities drawn upon by bestiaries describe a reader of enchantments (as we see in the illustration above right) luring the aspis from a cave. Asp enchantment stories are found, for example, in the writing of the 5th century Bishop Augustine of Hippo (Sermon 316: 2, In Solemnitate Stephani Martyris; Duri Iudaei in Stephanum) and the 7th century Bishop Isidore of Seville (Etymologies, Book 12, 4: 12-16).

French writer Pierre – about whom nothing is known – is given the additional name de Beauvais or le Picard by modern writers to distinguish him. Pierre compiled his translation of authorities to create his bestiary before 1218, and was the first to portray the asp guarding a tree that drips balm, a theme taken up by later bestiary compilers. Pierre seems to have taken two Greek sources with snake stories and applied them to the asp: Herodotus, Greek historian of the 5th century BC, describes spice-bearing trees guarded by winged snakes (The Histories, Book 3, Chapter 107), and Pausanias, Greek traveller of the 2nd century AD, describes vipers in Arabia nesting around a balsam tree (Description of Greece, Book 28, Chapter 2–4).

This new theme of balsam tree guarding was further developed in Richart de Fournival’s Bestiaire d’amour, c. 1250, in which the asp is introduced as “the serpent which guards the balsam.” For the first time, Richart describes how to lull the serpent to sleep, with harps or other instruments, and this theme was taken up by other illustrators of bestiaries, as we have seen above in the illustration from BNF lat. 14429, 1250–60, showing an asp with its tail in an ear to prevent it being lulled by the vielle. As we see in this illustration, the tail in the ear now has the purpose of maintaining defence of the balsam tree by blocking out the music that would otherwise lull it off-guard.

Left: The asp illustrated in folio 81v of the Worksop Bestiary (MS M.81, Pierpont Morgan Library), made in Lincoln or York, c. 1185, shows a serpent with 2 ears, 2 legs and 2 wings, with its tail in its ear, being clubbed by a man with a shield.
Right: In the edition of Richart de Fournival’s bestiary in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 412, made in 1285, folio 231r shows an asp as a large eared, 4 legged, non-winged hairy animal with its tail in its ear, trying not to be lulled to sleep by the playing of a harpist. Richart was the first to introduce this musical element. 

The narrative of playing music to make the asp sleep to safely reach a tree of balm does fit the image in question in the English Queen Mary Psalter, c. 1310–1320, since the creature lies under a tree, surrounded by musicians, with its tail in its ear. The fact that the animal has the features of a lion rather than a serpent would be puzzling, were it not for the fact that there was a precedent a few decades earlier in Richart de Fournival’s bestiary (above). But how can this be the same animal? How can a serpent have fur and 4 legs?

The Queen Mary Psalter, folio 125v above, with folio 126r below, which completes the story.

There are several anomalies in this pair of images. At first sight, the 2 pictures appear not to be related save for the presence of an animal beneath a tree. On closer inspection, the 4 musicians are the same, but in different places. While the harpist and citolist have abandoned their instruments to reach the tree, the trumpet player in the first scene is playing a portative organ in the second, and the viellist has switched to a double trumpet! Not only that, the apparent lion in the first scene, with a tail long enough to put in its ear, in the way we would expect a serpentine asp to according to bestiaries, has now changed into an animal without a mane, with different ears, a different head, and a tail much too short to reach any part of its body, and certainly not its ears, and it is not covering its ears with anything. Whereas the first animal is like a lion, the second is like a wolf, or one of the short-tailed subgenera of jackal.   

What are we to make of this? How we identify the Queen Mary Psalter animals depends on whether we think a four legged fury animal with a distinct body and tail falls within or outside the ambit of allowable differences in representing a snake, and whether we think an asp can change its appearance completely within the space of one frame.

On the first question of an asp as a furry, four legged serpent, the earliest example is in two fragments of a didactic Christian text known as a Physiologus, dated c. 1200 and written in Iceland. This Physiologus illustrates the asp as three quadrupeds in a cave with their tails in their ears. The illustrator was very confused, not only about the identity of the asp, but about the meaning in the text of “er marsus”, who stands outside the cave singing to lure the asps out. In classical antiquity, the Marsi were an Italian tribe who could enchant snakes – not furry quadrupeds – but instead the illustrator drew “er marsus”, not as an Italian man, but as another four legged animal singing to the asps. Was this Icelandic visual mishap known of and copied in England? From Richart de Fournival’s Bestiaire d’amour a few decades later and the Queen Mary Psalter a few decades after that, it appears so.

On the second question of whether an asp can change its appearance, the answer is clearly negative, and so the only feasible resolutions are: (a) that the artist was careless and drew different beasts for the same story, which does not seem credible given the talent and care of the artist who replicated the tree and the 4 musicians in the second scene, and whose work generally in this manuscript is exquisite; or (b) that the two pictures do not form a continuous narrative, and may not represent asps, but the context indicates they do on both counts; or (c) that, to the medieval illustrator, appearance was not important, and could be changed, like swapping the actor in a play half-way through: it’s not the actors who matter, but the function they perform in the story, making it to some extent irrelevant what the aspis looks like.

In a medieval milieu, this last idea isn’t entirely outlandish. Medieval illustrators were by no means trying to recreate actuality. Images were there to convey meaning, not to replicate reality. This is obvious to any historian familiar with the oddities and visual distortions of medieval illustrations, musical and otherwise.

Left: Citole from the Peterborough Psalter, 1300-1350, with red strings and tailgut. In reality they would not have been, and there is no message in this other than the illustrator’s convenience that this was the colour ink he had handy at the time. The citole neck has a carved animal head which, when playing, does seem to peer at the player: this artist has bent the neck impossibly to make this literally so.
Above right: Chess players in folio 60r of Roman d’Alexandre, MS Bodleian 264, 1338-44, with the board helpfully floating vertically in mid-air for the viewer to see.
Below right: Lutenist in Le livre des échecs amoureux moralisés (The book of chess lovers moralised), a late 15th century manuscript by Evrart de Conty, illuminated by Robinet Testard, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (BNF Fr 143). The lute has a bridge impossibly near the end of the soundboard, a very uneven body shape (the strings are not even near to running centrally down the body), 6 pegs but only 4 strings, and only 3 triple frets (triple frets are possible, only 3 is not), making this an instrument literally impossible to play.

The citole, chess board and lute in the above illustrations are factually wrong in different ways, but they look recognisably and obviously like a citole, chess board and lute respectively. We know what the artist was getting at. The storyline of the aspis guarding a balm tree, made safe by the playing of music, is visually present in the Queen Mary Psalter, and it is this context alone which tells us the animal must be an asp, however it looks, and however different it looks in the second scene.

A parallel contemporary example might be Spiderman. Since his first appearance in 1962, he has gone through a great many visual changes, from a red and blue costume to black and white, with costumes of different designs, colour schemes and materials, one outfit even made of iron. Though the visual changes are considerable, the context and the character’s role in the story leaves us in no doubt that, whatever the appearance, this is Spiderman. As with Spiderman, so with the many incarnations of Dr. Who, and the many actors who have played Sherlock Holmes, and Hamlet, and so on: as with the asp, form and appearance take second place to context and function to signify identity and character.

The visual identity of the asp is remarkably varied, but one key theme emerges with Richart de Fournival, continuing with BNF lat. 14429 and the Queen Mary Psalter: the magical, enchanting effect of music on mood and behaviour. This is a common subject in medieval writings. The words of 7th century Bishop Isidore of Seville about music were much cited by other medieval writers, “Music sways the emotions, leading and changing the disposition of feelings” (originally in Etymologies, Book 20). Also much cited by medieval theorists was 6th century Roman senator and philosopher Boethius, who wrote that it is proper to human nature “to be soothed by pleasant modes” and “disturbed by their opposites”, and that mourning and weeping are made sweeter through song (Book 1 of his De institutione musica). Of the musical modes (explored in the next article), 5th century Bishop Augustine of Hippo wrote that “because of their diversity, all the feelings of our spirit have their proper modes in song and voice, according to which they are stimulated, due to some mysterious relationship” (Confessions, Book 13).  

With thanks to Alice Margerum for pointing me on a journey to identify the significance of the aspis. 

Beastly bibliography

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

Cannon, Christopher & Nolan, Maura (2011) Medieval Latin and Middle English Literature: Essays in Honour of Jill Mann. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

McCulloch, Florence (1959) The Metamorphoses of the Asp in Latin and French Bestiaries. In: Studies in Philology, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan. 1959), pp. 7-13. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. [Available online by clicking here.]

Warner, George (1912) Queen Mary’s Psalter. Miniatures and drawings by an English artist of the 14th century reproduced from Royal MS. 2 B. VII in the British Museum. London: British Museum. [Available online by clicking here.]

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