Blast from the Past - Part 1
Medieval Woodwind Instruments


Report of a talk given by Jonathan Weeks on 14 December 2010


“... to drive the cold winter away” was the refrain from the Christmas song of 1615 with which Jonathan ended his spellbinding talk. It could have served as an alternative title, all thought of seasonal weather banished as we were taken back to the world of the medieval musician.

Shawms, bagpipes, bladder pipes, crumhorns, cornemuses, curtals, gemshorns and organistums were just some of the early instruments with which we were regaled. First Jonathan introduced them and then he played them, reviving seldom heard early tunes in the process.

In tracing the development of his instruments Jonathan provided some surprising insights into the history of their times. Here are a few taken almost at random.

Nero was probably bagpiping rather than fiddling while Rome burned.

Far from being a Scottish invention, the bagpipes were at one time played across Europe, but by the time they reached Scotland they were losing popularity and eventually died out just about everywhere else.

The shawm, with which Jonathan opened proceedings, was introduced to Europe by the Crusaders who had confronted it in the Holy Land, where massed bands of this harsh-toned instrument were used by the Saracen armies as a psychological weapon.

The Bladder Pipe or Plattespiel offered a means of controlling the player’s breathing. A sheep’s bladder secured over the mouthpiece of a reeded pipe acted as a reservoir of air and allowed the player to snatch a breath whilst continuing to produce a note.

The troubadours of Medieval Europe, who popularised the idea of courtly love, performed songs whose content was often considered suggestive or immoral. These had to be sanctioned by the church and two and a half thousand of such items have been found in the Vatican Library.

An Abbot of Meaux in Yorkshire was a man of such musical sensibility that he had the bells of all the sheep on the Abbey’s estates tuned in fifths in order to create a harmonious atmosphere on the surrounding hills.

The pipe organ is a surprisingly early invention, dating back to classical times. There are accounts of an organ being installed at Winchester Cathedral in the year 990 which required seventy men to operate it.

Archaeology’s contribution to our understanding of musical instruments is considerable. Jonathan cited whistles fashioned from bone having been found dating back at least 35000 years. A simple set of reedpipes was found in a tomb in Ur from about 3000 BC. Amongst the many finds from The Mary Rose were a number of pipes and tabors. In Germany a recorder was excavated from a medieval privy pit.

The instruments in Jonathan’s collection were made from a variety of materials including reed, wood, horn and bone. He had made many of his own replica instruments and claimed a personal best of twenty three seconds for fashioning a simple workable reed pipe with a Stanley Knife!

This really was a splendid evening, for we proceeded from this stimulating talk to the wonderful and elaborate buffet prepared for us by Heather and Vivien and their hardworking assistants. Truly a feast for ears and stomach alike!

For anyone interested in finding out more about early instruments Jonathan thought it was hard to improve on the classic text by the pioneering musician:

David Munrow: Musical Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance”, published by OUP 1976.

There are also some fine recordings on CD by the same author.

Peter Johnson