Our second medieval instrument is the shawm. It’s another woodwind instrument and it makes the sound that you probably most associate with medieval music. It can be rather raucous and rough, but it can also be very sweet.
At first glance it looks like a cross between a recorder and a trumpet, but it’s not really like either of them. It’s a wooden tube, like the recorder, with a trumpet-like flare at the bottom. There are two reeds in the top of the tube and the player makes the reeds vibrate to produce the sound. It’s a precursor of the oboe.
These are modern double reeds used with a bassoon and you can see that there are two separate bits of reed in the bottom left of the photograph.
The tube of the shawm has quite a wide bore and it flares out at the bottom. At the top there is much narrower tube and this is where the reeds are inserted. This is called the pirouette. Although it looks as if it is stuck into the shawm like a cork into a bottle, the shawm was usually made from a single piece of wood. The pirouette has a small piece hollowed out from it and the reeds are inserted through it into the top of the tube. As you can see from the photograph at the top of the page, not much of the reeds stick out from the pirouette. There’s just enough for the player to get their lips around them and the lips rest on top of the pirouette. As with all wind instruments, the shape the lips make (the embouchure) is important in producing a good sound, because it changes the way in which the musician’s breath interacts with the part of the instrument that makes the sound.
Shawms were loud instruments, as you’ll hear, and were useful for playing outdoors.
Here is David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London demonstrating the shawm.
If you enjoyed that and would like to hear more, with a bit of an explanation about the shawm as an instrument and medieval music in general, here is another video demonstrating the versatility of the shawm.
Since everyone seemed to enjoy last week’s post complete with recordings of medieval music, I thought I’d continue with the theme and have a look at some of the instruments that were played in the fourteenth century.
I’m an amateur musician and my instrument is the recorder, so that’s where we’ll start. The recorder has been around since Neolithic times and was a fairly sophisticated instrument by the Middle Ages.
It’s essentially a wooden tube with holes for all the fingers, except the right thumb and the left little finger, to cover. There’s a hole at the back covered by the left thumb and seven holes on the front. The ways in which the holes are covered change the pitch of the notes played.
Medieval recorders were narrow tubes compared to those of the Renaissance (like the one in the photograph above), which meant they were, generally speaking, fairly quiet. You’ll notice that the Renaissance recorder is slightly flared at the bottom, but medieval recorders were straight. Medieval recorders didn’t have a beak like the Renaissance recorder, but were flat-topped. In most other respects, they were very like modern recorders. The player blows into the top of the tube, which is partially blocked by a piece of wood called, unsurprisingly, the block. There is a narrow gap between the wall of the tube and the block through which the player’s breath travels. This is the windway. The block comes to an end just above an opening, called the window, where the air is split by the labium, the piece of wood forming the bottom edge of the window. Some of the air continues down inside the recorder and some goes out of the window. The way that the air vibrates in the tube affects the sound that comes out of the window.
In the fourteenth century, as in the centuries that followed, music was rarely written for specific instruments. Groups played whichever instruments they had available. The music that I’ve chosen below could have been played on anything.
The first video is of two fourteenth-century tunes played on recorders. They’re not, as you’ll see, reproductions of medieval recorders, but the music is the important thing here. La Rotta is probably my favourite medieval tune.
The second track is taken from a recording that was made to demonstrate the sounds made by medieval and Renaissance instruments. This track is supposed to demonstrate the recorder, but the bells seem to take over just a bit.
You will notice in the list of sources below that I have, for once, used a reference from the internet. This is because Nicholas Lander’s website is the best place to start if you’re looking for information about the recorder.
In the last post we saw that people are taking to medieval style music in a big way at the moment. That made me reflect a little on the kind of music that was around in the Middle Ages.
Music was very much a part of medieval life. Then, as now (well, not right now, but usually), there was music in church and music for dancing. Performances of mystery plays were accompanied by music. Pilgrims often sang as they walked.
It’s difficult to know now what medieval music sounded like, or even what some of the instruments used in the Middle Ages were. Much of what is known about medieval instruments comes from pictures and sculptures, which don’t say anything about what the instruments were made of or how they were made. They don’t even provide much information about how they were played. Sculptors and artists weren’t necessarily accurate in the way they depicted musicians and their instruments. If they weren’t musicians themselves, their representations of the instruments and how they were held and played could be flawed. There were some treatises written about music, though, which help.
Fortunately, there are those who have done the work to try to replicate what medieval musicians might have played. They reproduce the instruments and work out what the musical notation means. Musicians research performance practice and the music is performed.
The examples below are fairly short and come mostly from the twelfth century. The first two are from the Carmina Burana. This was a collection of poems by various authors mostly written in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Most are in Medieval Latin, but some are in Middle High German. Many of them are very bawdy, so you’ll have to go elsewhere to find the lyrics. Carl Orff set some of the poems to music in the 1930s, so the name and some of the poems might be familiar to you. He wasn’t the first, though. Many of them are accompanied by music in the original manuscript.
In taberna quando sumus means ‘when we are in the tavern’. Need I say more?
Tempus est Iocundum (The time is pleasing) is a celebration of new love.
This next piece is the sort of thing that pilgrims sang on their way to Compostela to the shrine of St James. Dum Pater Familias tells the story of St. James and ends as a prayer to him.
Finally, here’s a piece by Hildegard von Bingen, an extraordinary woman who was a nun in the twelfth century. Ave generosa (Hail thee, noble one) is a song of praise to the Virgin Mary. I’m sorry about the picture that goes with it, but you could listen with your eyes closed.
And now, as they used to say on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, for something completely different.
There’s a bit of a YouTube phenomenon at the moment in which musicians make covers of popular songs in a (quasi) medieval style. Some of it’s quite fun, so I thought I’d share some of my favourites with you this week. As they also used to say a lot on 60s TV (at least in my part of the world), normal service will be resumed shortly.
Most of the covers aren’t terribly different from the original, because the performers have used a synthesizer to play what is more or less the same music and rhythms in a medievalish style. Others, the ones I prefer, have been arranged sympathetically and are recorded by musicians on medieval-sounding instruments in a fairly medieval style.
I’m not terribly familiar with modern popular music. There hasn’t been much that has appealed to me since the Beatles split up, so I hope you’ll forgive my idiosyncratic tastes, but these seemed to be good examples of the genre.
You can see from the number of views how popular some of these videos are. That’s not entirely surprising, since we’re living through a twenty-first century version of the Black Death, albeit with, so far, less death. Whilst concept itself is fairly light-hearted, the music produced isn’t always.
We’ll start with my favourite, and it’s not just because she plays the recorder and sings. Hildegard von Blingin’s videos are made by someone who knows a bit about the Middle Ages and is a good musician. If you listen to nothing else in this post, give this one a go, because it’s definitely worth it.
This next one is worth watching for the video, especially the last few seconds.
It’s the vocals and the lyrics on this one that I like.
This week we’re returning to The Canterbury Tales to look at another of the pilgrims. Unlike the situation with the pardoner and the summoner, I had a vague idea of what the man of law does. It was only when I read the General Prologue that I realised that he isn’t just a lawyer. He’s a serjeant-at-law, more familiar to us these days, or to me at least, in the (fictional) form of Matthew Shardlake, C. J. Sansom’s Tudor barrister and investigator. I have read all the Shardlake novels and never quite understood what he did and why it meant that he came to the attention of important people. I have taken this opportunity to fill that gap in my knowledge.
As with many odd-looking titles, serjeant-at-law a corruption of the Latin – serviens ad legem – law servant. Serjeant-at-law was the highest rank of English barrister and they were a very select group. In Chaucer’s time there were rarely more than twenty of them. The king appointed them after they had completed sixteen years of study and practice, and the justices of the court were chosen from among them.
They were the only barristers who were allowed to work in the Court of Common Pleas, the principal court in England, since they were the only ones who could take pleading cases.
The Court of Common Pleas was possibly established by Henry II in 1178 as a separate entity from the King’s Bench, or it might have been the other way round. No one is entirely sure how it happened, but it’s more or less certain that there were two types of court by the beginning of the thirteenth century. The King’s Bench heard cases that involved the crown and the Court of Common Pleas heard the ones that didn’t. Originally five members of the king’s council heard the cases, but this was later amended by Magna Carta, making the court independent of the king. It was given its own place to meet in Westminster Hall and by 1272 it had a chief justice.
If you’ve read any of the Shardlake novels, you’ll know that his rank is shown by his clothing and the same thing applied in the fourteenth century. Serjeants-at-law were known by their white coifs. This was a tight-fitting cap, as you’ll see in the illustration at the top of the post. They’re possibly more familiar to you as something that nuns wear under their wimples, but they were also worn by men in the Middle Ages.
Chaucer’s serjeant-at-law would, like his peers, have been very highly-regarded in fourteenth-century England. I’m interested to find out what he’ll get up to on the pilgrimage.
For the final post on medieval horses we’re looking at the crème de la crème: the war horse.
I’ve mentioned before that they were eye-wateringly expensive to buy, but they could also be a short-lived investment. Anything could happen to them while on campaign. Engaging with the enemy wasn’t just dangerous for a knight; it was dangerous for his horses as well.
Replacing a horse that was killed in a battle or a skirmish was expensive, but fortunately, during the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III, a knight didn’t have to bear all the cost himself. He had to provide his own horses, but the royal treasury compensated him if a horse was killed in the service of the king.
At the beginning of a campaign the values of the horses would be agreed with and recorded by royal clerks. There were probably many arguments about this, with the owner wanting a high value recorded and the clerk wanting to keep it as low as possible. There was another problem, in that the value recorded would not necessarily reflect what it would cost to purchase a replacement, nor what it might cost to train the new horse. It was, however, better than losing the horse and receiving no compensation at all.
In the 1338-9 campaign in the Low Countries, the earl of Salisbury’s retinue lost 65 horses and were compensated on average a little under £20 for each one. A different retinue, however, lost 13 horses, which were valued on average at just over £30 each.
Destriers could cost up to £40, sometimes £80, to buy, but most of the horses for which Edward III paid compensation in 1338-40 were worth between £10 and £20. Both our example retinues were recompensed at the higher end of the scale.
We touched earlier on some of the costs involved in keeping a horse in the Middle Ages. In the fourteenth century, as now, farrier’s bills made up quite a bit of that cost.
Farriers did many things that were necessary for horses. Their activities included making horseshoes and nails (although blacksmiths could also do this); giving advice to customers about buying and caring for horses; looking after sick horses and shoeing horses. If they had a seal, it usually showed horseshoes, hammers or nails, or various combinations of these items.
The fourteenth-century farrier was known as a marshal. You might have come across the word in the context of the Earl Marshal, who was the king’s leading military man, or you might have heard of William (the) Marshal, the right-hand man to three successive kings of England. The Earl Marshal was originally the keeper of the king’s horses, but the position evolved over time.
Marshals knew how to care for sick horses. In London, at least, they were distinct from blacksmiths and had their own guild, although there was tension between the two trades, as blacksmiths were also able to make shoes and to shoe horses.
Farriers sometimes had their anvils in the street, in the hope of catching passing trade, which made them a bit of a nuisance. They often used a travis to restrain horses while they were being shoed or cared for when sick. This was an open wooden frame with bars to which the horse’s leg could be secured while the farrier was working on it. There’s a small picture of one in a manuscript illustration here. It’s on the bottom left.
Now that we know what horses cost to buy and keep in the fourteenth century, it’s worth thinking about how useful they were. How far could you go on horseback and how far could a horse pull a laden cart?
The distance a horse could travel in a day didn’t just depend on the weather and the state of the roads, although these were important. Roads quickly turned into mud in the rain, slowing both horses and carts. This meant that journeys made in the winter were generally slower than those made in the summer. Other elements that influenced speed were the length of the journey and the condition in which the horse would be at the end of the journey. The fourteenth century was a time of technological advances which also had an impact on how fast carts and horses could move.
Generally speaking, a man riding alone could cover 20-25 miles a day if he was on a long journey and wanted to look after the horse. If he didn’t care about the horse, he could double the distance. Rich men and officials would change horses each day and cover 30-40 miles. In exceptional cases, presumably involving changing horses more frequently, messengers could travel 100 miles in a day.
Groups of people travelling together would generally go more slowly in order to accommodate the slowest moving person or animal. They would probably be taking luggage, as well, which would slow them down. A packhorse could carry up to two hundredweight and they were capable of covering 30 miles a day in good weather and on the right kind of roads.
Carts went more slowly, covering about 12 miles a day, and only 5 to 8 miles in winter. There were developments during the fourteenth century, however, that made them faster, until they were capable of travelling up to 20 miles on a good day at the end of the century. Most carts had only two wheels. Improvements, including replacing the single shaft between two horses with two shafts between which the horses walked, meant that the cart was easier to pull and could be reversed. It also meant that the horses could be used as a brake when going downhill. The development of the spoked wheel meant that wheels were stronger and less likely to get stuck in mud.
Technological advances were also made with harness and shoes, which made horses more useful in agriculture, where they started to replace oxen.
Talking about oxen, which people were happy to eat, brings us to the eating of horseflesh. As it was associated with pagan rituals, it was banned by the pope in 732. The ban was widely ignored, but not in England. Even though most people don’t know why, it’s still something that’s regarded with distaste by the English.
Last week we looked at the different types of horses that were used in the fourteenth century; this week we’re going to look at what they cost, both to buy and to keep. Before I started looking into it, I assumed that more or less everyone had a horse, but that seems not to have been the case. Owning a horse then, as now, was an expensive business and you only had a horse if you needed one. If you lived in a town and rarely left it, you probably didn’t own a horse. Even if you had land to plough, you might not have a horse, as oxen were used for agricultural work for most of the century.
As a way of understanding the cost of buying and keeping a horse, I’m going to relate it to the daily wage of a skilled labourer, which was about 4d (four pennies). When we do some sums later, we must remember that a labourer would not work every day. Sunday was a rest day and there were frequent religious festivals on which no one worked.
We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up. A sumpter was a pack horse and cost anywhere between 5 and 10 shillings to buy. There were 12 pennies in a shilling, so a basic pack horse would cost our labourer 15 days’ wages. A top of the range one would cost 30 days. So, if our skilled labourer’s trade meant that he needed to transport heavy tools or goods, he could probably afford to buy a horse to carry them for him. Whether or not he could afford to keep it once he had it is another matter and we’ll come on to that later.
An ordinary riding horse (a hackney or a rouncey) cost from £3 to £10. There were 20 shillings in a pound, so a £3 horse would cost 180 days’ wages, which would take more than six months to earn. Our skilled labourer was unlikely to be able afford a horse of this kind and would have had to make do with riding his sumpter. He would equally have been unable to afford a palfrey for his wife to ride, as they cost £4 or £5.
Coursers were used for hunting and they cost about £10. Only the wealthy and people who worked for them hunted on horseback, so this was well beyond the reach of the skilled labourer. For the sake of comparison, though, it would cost him 600 days’ wages.
Destriers, the highly-trained warhorses, cost around £40, but there are records of some being bought for £80 and more. In 1331 Edward III paid £120 for one. In 1377 his grandson, Richard II, rode a charger worth £200 to his coronation. We’re beyond the realm of our skilled labourer, here, but a horse of £40 would have cost him 2,400 days’ work. That’s six and a half years if he worked every day including holidays. Interestingly, £40 was a year’s income for many knights, so a horse was a big investment even for them. They needed more than one, though. When they went on campaign, it was normal to take four warhorses and a knight would also need an ordinary riding horse and pack horses. Buying a horse was just the start, though.
Horses were expensive to keep as well as to buy. They ate the unattractively-named horse bread, which was made just from beans and peas. It cost ½d a loaf. Hay for one day cost another 2d. Oats cost up to 5½d a bushel. At the beginning of the fourteenth century feeding and stabling a good horse would cost its owner between 6¼d and 7½d per day. Even allowing that our skilled labourer wouldn’t have had a good horse, feeding it would take up a fair amount of his income. His costs wouldn’t end there, though.
In order to ride a horse, you need a saddle. That would be about 5 shillings. A halter would be from 6d to 12d and spurs cost about 2 shillings.
On top of that, horses require a lot of care. A set of shoes cost from 6d to 8d. Their feet have to be looked after by removing the shoes and cutting the hooves. Then the shoes have to be put on again. All of this cost 2d. I don’t know how often it was done in the fourteenth century, but it’s done about once every six weeks these days.
Horses also got sick and needed specialist care and medicine. Given their cost, owners were going to go to a lot of effort and expense to keep them alive.
There was an alternative to owning a horse if you didn’t need one very often. They could be hired. If you wanted to hire a horse to go from London to Canterbury, if you were a pilgrim, for example, it would cost 2 shillings. If you wanted to go from London to Dover, probably with the intention of going on to Calais, it would cost 2 shillings and 6d. It’s 55 miles from Southwark, where they would have started from, to Canterbury and 70 to Dover. It’s still a week’s wages, more or less, for our skilled labourer, but it’s a lot cheaper than owning a horse.
This is the first of a short series about horses, the engines of the fourteenth century. They were the car, the lorry and the van, but they weren’t necessarily the tractor. On the farm, the heavy work was usually done by oxen.
We’ll start with a look at the types of horses that were in use. There were quite a few of them, not just the trained warhorse and the farm horse.
At the top was the incredibly expensive destrier. It was also known as a charger or warhorse and the best ones came from Lombardy. Large enough to carry a fully-armed and armoured knight, they also wore their own armour at times. A knight would take up to four of them on campaign with him. Imagine a garage with four top of the range sports cars and you’re still not thinking about the right order of expense.
The courser was the fast horse used, by those that could afford them, for hunting.
A rouncey was an ordinary saddle horse. They were ridden by soldiers, but could also be used as pack horses.
Palfreys were small horses most often used by women.
Hackney was a place beyond London’s walls, about a mile from its centre, where horses were pastured. Eventually the word was used to describe the horses kept there for hire. Much later it was used to describe the two-wheeled cabs they pulled and today a hackney carriage is the black London taxi. Hackneys were used by the king’s messengers, but they could also be used as pack horses. They were of fairly low value.
An ambler was, as its name implies, a slow horse. They were trained to move both right legs together, then both left legs, which apparently made for a more comfortable ride. They were good for inexperienced riders. The wife of Bath rode one in The Canterbury Tales.
The sumpter (or caballus) was a pack horse. They could carry loads of up to 200 pounds. The were used in baggage trains.
The somier was also a pack horse.
A stot, or affer, was a basic farm horse. Its tasks were pulling the harrow or carrying sacks of grain to and from the mill. It was the kind of horse ridden by the reeve in The Canterbury Tales, although he could have afforded something much better. Even cheaper horses were expensive, though, as we’ll see next week.