Friday, May 20, 2016

Adderbury, Oxfordshire

A medieval band

Among the dozens of carvings on the outside aisle walls of the church at Adderbury in Oxfordshire are several representing musicians. Although time-worn (they’re 14th-century, after all), they still bear some detail, and it’s possible to make out what instruments are being played. And I know I have at least one reader who knows plenty more about early instruments than i do, who’ll no doubt put me right if I slip up.

My first picture (above) shows a woman playing a small organ – the kind that you can carry around and that is therefore called a portative organ (it’s also sometimes referred to as an organetto). It has a rank of small pipes, plainly visible in the carving, and at the bottom, there would be a tiny keyboard, which you play with one hand. The other hand operates bellows, on the back of the instrument, to supply the pipes with wind. Most people today think of organs as church instruments, but portative organs were also used in secular music in the Middle Ages.*
Next is a man playing a hurdy-gurdy. There’s not much clear detail left in the carving, but the instrument has a crank-handle, which the player turns using his right hand. This turns a wheel, which rubs against strings that run along the top of the hurdy-gurdy. Some of the strings sound whenever the wheel turns, to provide a continuous note or drone; another string is controlled by a keyboard, to play the melody. None of this is clear in the carving, but there’s a video here of a hurdy-gurdy player explaining how his instrument works – as well as the derivation of its curious name.

Another carving shows a string player. I think the instrument is a rebec, which is played with a bow, like a violin. It has a pear-shaped body that tapers into the neck and was held in various ways – along the arm or at the shoulder or even resting on the player’s leg.
Finally, the rhythm section is represented by this drummer. He plays a pair of drums, which the carver has shown quite large – bigger than the drummer’s head, anyway. Pairs of drums (including the small copper-bowled drums called nakers) were often played in the Middle Ages. These seem to be snare drums – the thin gut snare is clearly visible on the left-hand drum and I think I can see a trace of one on the right-hand drum too.

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* Although in many cases we don't know exactly which instruments played which pieces – medieval music manuscripts often give the notes without allocating them to a specific instrument. 


Billy Blue Eyes said...

I'll have to look out for them when I visit that church

Hels said...

I like the idea of the carvings on the outside walls of the Adderbury church that represent musicians. People playing church music is to be expected.

But people playing secular medieval music on, for example portative organs, was a delightful surprise. It suggests that a] secular music was common and popular back then, and b] the Church wanted to include all its citizens.

Sally Johnson said...

I like to think of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester looking at them too. But by the sound of things, the Countess had more time to do so.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Sally: Thank you. I'd forgotten that he was from that part of the world - he did get around, indeed!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Yes, the carvings on the outsides of medieval churches are often very inclusive, I think. I'm sure there was plenty of secular music around - a lot of dance tunes and traditional tunes and songs would be known by many people.