Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Elkstone, Gloucestershire

Making a rackett?

Many medieval churches have gargoyles or grotesques along the parapet and at the top of the tower. Elkstone, a Norman church with a later medieval (Perpendicular Gothic) tower has these, but there are also grotesques halfway up the corner buttresses, adding an extra element to this building’s varied adornment.* Two of these grotesques are musicians and one of these in particular provoked my curiosity. What, exactly, is the instrument that this figure is playing?

I know a little bit about medieval instruments, but not enough. One source describes the instrument as a shawm, which is an early reed instrument and ancestor of the oboe. This seems unlikely. A shawm, like most wind instruments, has a single row of holes along the body. This instrument has a double row of holes, which puzzled me. Two rows of holes in a single tube? How would that work? I asked some musician friends and various suggestions emerged. One idea was that there were actually two tubes, and that this is some kind of double flute or pipe – but the sculpture seems to have only one tube. The other was that this could be an instrument like the rackett.¶ Racketts are fat woodwind instruments with an internal tube that doubles and redoubles back on itself, allowing for a long column of air in a short space. A rackett is a reed instrument, and on some racketts the reed is visible from the outside – but not necessarily when it is being played. So I think what we have here is a depiction of a rackett.

The carving may not be totally accurate but, as one of my musician friends put it, it was probably carved by someone with poor knowledge of musical instruments. Or perhaps by someone for whom literal accuracy was not the main aim. After all, the people in medieval carvings aren’t always very realistic – literal realism was not always the goal. For example, many medieval carved musicians are angels, in which case any talk of realism has to be on a very different level. Some provincial medieval carvers probably couldn’t achieve precise accuracy anyway; others were after something else – qualities of vigour, humour, piety, whatever. If an orchestra of angels playing among the timbers of a church roof stands for harmony among the company of heaven, a human musician or two on the exterior of a church might be seen to extend that harmony into the earthly realm outside the building; or they may simply be caricatures, designed as much as anything to make the beholder smile.

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* For more on Elkstone, see this post.

¶ Or racket: the second ’t’ is optional. There are pictures of rackets here (the text is in German, but the images alone are informative) and a video clip of racketts being played here


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I think the last one - making the beholder smile - is the most likely - together with a puzzle to arouse discussion in beholders many centuries later! The sculptor is laughing in heaven and saying, "Gotchya! Another victim talking about my double row of holes!"

Joe Treasure said...

Nice strong shadows in this picture, which make the details clear. There's something lively, and lifelike, about the way he holds the instrument. I'm glad to know it's a rackett.