Performing medieval music. Part 1/3: Instrumentation

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.

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).

Ensemble size and instrument combinations

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.

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-12th century, appropriated from the Arabian ceremonial loud band, which itself was adopted in Europe by the 13th century.

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.)

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).

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.      

In modern ensemble playing we may see large numbers of diverse instruments playing together. Evidence for something similar in medieval sources is rare and inconclusive. One example is a poem by Guillaume de Machaut (1300–1377), Remède de Fortune, which lists 38 types of instruments played by a huge assembly of minstrels. (You can read the poem here. Go to lines 3963–3988 for the long list of instruments.) The poem does not make clear whether the players of harps, tabors, trumpets, nakers, portative organs, more than 10 pairs of horns, bagpipes, etc., etc., took it in turns, played consecutively in small groups, or played all together.

Two iconographical examples of larger ensembles are shown below. On the 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’? Below right is 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 does not appear to be a realistic combination or number of instruments and is probably not based on life, but certainty is impossible and one could use Guillaume de Machaut’s poem to argue the opposite. What is clear is that in written accounts and iconography the single player or group of 2, 3 or 4 is the norm, and large groups the exception.

The evidence of the Cantigas de Santa Maria

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

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. 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.

The female singer’s percussion is tabulae, two rectangular pieces of wood in each hand, held in the hand or 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. Two methods of playing are shown below. The Cantigas example on the left may look unlikely to a non-player, apparently preventing the tabulae from making contact by holding them together in the hand. That this is an iconographer’s inaccurate approximation would be the obvious conclusion – and wrong, as María Giménez Fernández kindly pointed out to me with this illustrative video. Dutch engraver and painter Cornelis Massijs depicted a different hand position in 1548, as we see in the middle below, accompanying a vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy) player. The tabulae shown here operate in the same way as percussive bones used, for example, in traditional Irish music, as we see in this video.

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

The evidence for the performance of any particular piece of music in a medieval manuscript is slight. We have both music and images of musicians in medieval manuscripts, but uniting the two, knowing what musicians 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. 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 illustrations for CSM 119 and 120.

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

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 and 120 (both 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 complete account of its 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.

General rules 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 general rules for instrument combinations other than the supposed 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.

Dick, Alastair (1984) The Earlier History of the Shawm in India. In: The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 37 (March 1984), pp. 80-98. [Available online by clicking here.]

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.]

Johannes de Grocheio (1270s–1300, modern publication 2011) Ars musice. Edited and translated by Constant J. Mews, John N. Crossley, Catherine Jeffreys, Leigh McKinnon, and Carol J. Williams. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications.

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, Herbert 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.

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

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.


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

17 thoughts on “Performing medieval music. Part 1/3: Instrumentation

  • 29th October 2018 at 10:37 am

    I have read with interest your Post, because I like very much how you can find musical clues from iconography. All this post is very very deep, well argumented, with a lot of bibliography and with information of sources of pictures. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge!

    Regarding the tabulae, there are in my region too, with another name (tarrañolas o tejoletas) and same way of playing, but I´ve seen in different concerts of popular music, one by Rajastan gypsies groupand another by un ensemble of chinese ancient music, this way of playing like the ilustration of CSM you show.

    I send a link because I have found someone who plays in this way.

    Always Micrologus ensemble performs CSM using this technique for tabulae.

    Un saludo and thank you!

    • 29th October 2018 at 8:09 pm

      I love it when someone posts to a page of this site and adds knowledge beyond my own research, so thank you so much for contributing, María. I would never have imagined tabulae could be played like that. There is always the danger of supposing that when iconography shows something very unfamiliar, a different way of doing things that looks wrong or awkward, then it must therefore be wrong. It may well be me, the viewer, who is wrong, lacking the knowledge of playing technique the iconographer had. Your point about tabulae is an excellent example of falling into just this trap. I will now change that part of the article and give you credit. Thank you!

      • 30th October 2018 at 10:25 am

        I have a friend, Pablo Carpintero, who is an expert in galician and iberian pipe and he has make one prototype taking as reference an image from CSM. In his opinion all that instruments images, but this specific pipe, are perfect in design, proportion, hand position,… It would be exceptional that justly in tabulae, the artist doesn´t understand the instrument…

        (I confess that i was worried about your reaction. I didn´t want to be wiseacre or pedantic.
        Thank you for your patience!)

        • 30th October 2018 at 11:29 pm

          María, I’m sorry to read you were worried – sometimes people on the web can be very defensive and rude, I know. On this site and with me you’ll always find a welcome and a love of learning about early music. I hope you like how I’ve changed the section of the article about tabulae. Thank you again. Ian

          • 31st October 2018 at 3:29 pm

            Hey!! Do you mention my name in your post!!?? But I’m not an eminence. I’m just a reader of your blog who casually found that video of Michael playing tabulae!!

            Yes, people is often angey in virtual life. I have seen in youtube comments how an innocent cantiga de loor can start a linguistical and political war among Spaniards, Portugheses and Brezilans… Terrific

            • 31st October 2018 at 4:33 pm

              I don’t allow vexatious comments on this site or on my videos. I think everyone deserves due credit, María, and you have taught me something I didn’t know, so I’ve given you yours. 🙂

  • 23rd March 2019 at 11:56 am

    Great article (as they all are) with interesting new information and perspectives.
    I have a question I hope you can answer or discuss:
    What evidence do we have that Europeans adopted instruments from the so called Arabian loud band? Was there even such a thing in the Arabic countries? We know that the Turkish Ottomans used military music with shawms, brass instruments and naqarah but this is much later than the European middle ages and a different cultural group than the Arabic one.

    Some instruments have a somewhat obvious connection to Middle Eastern ones, for example the nakers –> naqarah but as your article on the rebec suggests, maybe the similarities are superficial and random? In your article on the gittern (I think it was), you wrote that some historians would suggest that there is a continuity between the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds and the Middle Ages. Just as the kithara could have become lute instruments, could the Greek reed instruments such as the aulos have become the shawm?

    Personally, I don’t think that Europeans copied/borrowed instruments from the Arab world as much as some would suggest (as on Wikipedia) and that the picture is more varied. I don’t know for sure but are there even reliable information from the Middle East that are early enough that tell us anything definite on what instruments were in use before the extensive contact caused by the Crusades?

    I would love to read what you may know about this topic.

    • 23rd March 2019 at 4:48 pm

      Hello, Simon.

      You raise an absolutely critical question. With regularity, we find statements repeated in books and on websites that cannot be verified historically and for which there is no supporting evidence (and much contrary evidence) – that Henry VIII wrote ‘Greensleeves’, that ‘We be soldiers three’ is from the Hundred Years War, that vielles are identified as rebecs, that cetras are identified as citoles, etc.

      There are 3 problems, as I see it: (1) claims that cannot be evidenced being repeated; (2) claims based on a misreading of or assumptions about evidence, which are resistant to correction even when contrary evidence is presented; (3) an unwillingness to sit with partial evidence and therefore provisional claims open to new information and correction.

      There have been fashions – let’s say assumptions – periodically in early music organology, and one such has been ‘all our instruments were originally Arabian’ (similar to the old fashion in folk song research that ‘all British songs were originally Scandinavian’!). In the case of the oud becoming the lute, the evidence is clear since we can trace the development in iconography. In other cases such as the rebab allegedly becoming the rebec, this repeated claim does not stand up to scrutiny and indeed is contradicted by the evidence. I agree with you that sometimes the idea that occidental instruments come from oriental predecessors is overplayed. At the very least, we need evidence, and each case must be judged on its own merits. I’m coming to the conclusion in general that the grouping of instruments into families, progressing across time and place in evolutionary development, may be true if it can be evidenced, but the idea is not always helpful, and sometimes too neat to be true and lacking the all-important evidence.

      In the case of the shawm in its various forms, Alastair Dick, The Earlier History of the Shawm in India, The Galpin Society Journal (see link in the bibliography above), traces the instrument back to AD 600 in Persia and describes its use in middle eastern and Asian loud bands. He describes evidence of shawms and drums played together as martial instruments in 7th century Arabia (and mentions the aulos and other reed pipes as potential early relatives), and shawms in Sanskrit texts of the 10th to 13th centuries.

      Dick goes to some length to describe his sources. In the case of iconography, the article would benefit from illustrations so we can see for ourselves (there are none), but I’m willing to take his word for it since he appears meticulous. He cites other authors saying there is “little doubt” that loud bands spread from the east to the west in the 12th century, but the implication of your question is right: “little doubt” is not substantiation. But the existence of loud bands in the east, and their appearance in the west during a time of considerable east-west contact, does suggest a real connection. This, I think, is the meaning of “little doubt”: it is not substantiation, but all the circumstantial evidence points in that direction.

      With best wishes.


      • 24th March 2019 at 8:00 am

        Hi Ian

        Thanks for your thorough reply.
        When we can’t go back in time and check for ourselves, it of course becomes hard to know the exact details when we don’t have iconography or written details about any exchange of instruments between East and West. It does seem, however, that instruments such as shawm and nakers have direct relations in the zurna and naqara. So it would seem to very the hypothesis of Europeans bringing home Eastern instruments.

        I do think that it would interesting to investigate the Ancient Continuity hypothesis (if we can call it that). Ancient Romans and Greek used reed instruments, wind instruments of metal (cornu and tuba) and various types of percussion and this musical culture spread throughout the same area that the Arabs later expanded into. Also, many urban areas of the Middle Eastern that were taken over by the Muslim Arabs were either Greek colonies or had been Hellenised or Romanised. Could the Arabian ceremonial band simply be a continuation of pre-existing traditions of the Greco-Roman world? This idea does not of course take into account the use of similar instruments further East but I also do not know of ancient Indian sources that are particular reliable.

        My university major was in Religious Studies and while it is not directly connected to music, it does give an insight into the vast lack of reliable historical sources from the Arabic culture that details their culture during their expansion into the former Roman territories, making it hard to say whether they borrowed from the local cultures or brought new elements with them. Something we do know is that Islamic philosophy was in many regards seen as a continuation of Hellenistic philosophy, which may be explained by the conquest of the urban centres of the Greeks in the Middle East. Maybe something similar was happening with music? Again, this does not take into account the Persian, Indian or Chinese cultures.

        One interesting thing about music culture in Greece and Turkey is the modern similarity between the Greek tambouras and the Turkish baglama saz. Today, they are built identically but according to iconography this is a modern phenomenon and apparently reflects a convergence of design and building methods. The Greeks also adopted the name baglama for a small bouzouki but other than the name is not directly related to the saz. Maybe (and this is a big maybe) the various similarities in design and name of many instruments of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Europe reflects a similar phenomenon of gradually adopting features from neighbouring cultures and finally becoming very similar rather than one culture providing the musical tools of another.

        Of course – all of this is pure speculation on my part.

        • 24th March 2019 at 8:30 am

          Like you, Simon, I wish we could fill the holes in the evidence that links medieval instruments potentially back to ancient Romans and Greek counterparts. Written links are lacking, for obvious reasons, but there certainly are Roman and Greek instruments that look visually like lutes/ouds and gitterns, for example. Unfortunately, we need information we don’t have to build a theory or a family history on such visual similarities. We know for sure that the medieval Islamic love of learning meant they had Arabic translations of Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Artistotle, so your musical suggestion of a link from western instruments back to eastern and then back to Greek or Roman counterparts seems entirely possible. Like you, I’m keen to know the evidence before making a claim, so it’s frustrating when tantalising possibilities can be imagined circumstantially but cannot be verified positively.

          With my best wishes.


    • 14th May 2019 at 10:19 pm

      That’s excellent! Thank you, María. Since that is a much better quality video than the link I previously used in the article, I have used this new video in the article above. Thank you for sending it.

      Best wishes.


  • 25th May 2023 at 8:19 pm


    About your page that lists your articles – at the top is a line of medieval musicians. Can you please tell me where it comes from. My interest is particularly in the pipe and tabor. I doubt whether they played in such a large band. But on the other hand the pipe carries over the top of other instruments and the tabor can definitely be heard through the middle of a large band. So who knows?

    (My website is under construction and will be for years yet, there is so much to find out.)



    • 26th May 2023 at 8:39 am

      Hello, Frances.

      Permanently at the top of the page that lists articles is a line of three people wearing glasses. The picture above that, at the very top of any page, is a randomly selected picture from the Early Music Muse picture library. If you refresh any page you’ll see what I mean, as the picture will change. I’d therefore need more information or a screenshot to know exactly which picture you saw and locate the source. I’ve had a look through my library and think it is likely to be folio 114r of the Anglo-Catalan Great Canterbury Psalter (BnF Latin 8846), decorated in the first half of the 14th century, which you can find on this page under the heading, Minstrels in paintings. If it isn’t that, let me know and I’ll have another look.

      With art it isn’t always possible to tell how much licence the artist is taking to make a symbolic point. While most written accounts are of one, two, maybe three musicians together, there are certainly written accounts of larger bands, too. I’ve played myself in combinations that seem unlikely but work perfectly well, and iconography appears to back this up.

      There’s a series of 4 articles about Tudor taborer Richard Tarlton on this site that may interest you, the first of which is here and the third article here concentrates on Tarlton the musician.

      Later this year a series of 8 articles will go live about Beverley Minster, a church with more medieval music iconography than any other site, including some pipe and tabor imagery and commentary.

      All the best.


      • 27th May 2023 at 12:15 pm

        Thank you for replying Ian,

        You were right, it was the Canterbury Psalter that has the pipe and tabor player in a pink outfit. Can I ask one thing though. You mentioned in your email that it was made in the 14th century. On the British Library site it says 12th century.

        I spend some time correcting museum descriptions regarding identification of instruments so know not to believe them necessarily. Which one of these dates is the correct one?




        • 28th May 2023 at 12:01 am

          Hello, Frances.

          I’m glad I located the image you wanted right away. The Canterbury Psalter (also called the Great Canterbury Psalter or the Anglo-Catalan Psalter, now shelf-marked Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 8846), was made in two stages, 1176–1200 and 1285–1348, so 12th, 13th and 14th century are all correct dates. What really matters, for the purpose of iconography, is the date of the decoration of the pages, which was completed in Catalonia in the first half of the 14th century. You can find the manuscript in its entirety here:



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