Medieval Instruments VI a : Winds


By all accounts the most popular wind instrument in both Muslim and Christian courts on the peninsula was the axabeba. While it is not uncommon for names to migrate to different instruments and, conversely, for the same name to be applied to dissimilar instruments, in the absence of evidence to the contrary the axabeba should be assumed to be the instrument known by this name in North Africa today. This is the smaller-sized version of the long end-blown cane flute, nay, of the Middle East and the qasaba of the Maghrib. The word axabeba, or ajabeba, comes directly from the Arabic, al-shabbaba (pronounced ash-shabbaba), meaning “the young (or small) one.” Unfortunately for medieval music, the instrument is not very pictogenic: it is a foot-long piece of cane, undecorated. It looks like a stick; it is a (hollow) stick. We should not really be surprised that there are no illustrations of it. Even after the nay became a prestigeous and much-used instrument, there are not as many pictures of it as other, more dramatic instruments: and it’s at least twice as long as the axabeba


On the other hand, the transverse flute, which seems to have been introduced into Europe from Byzantium, bypassing the Islamic world, enjoys a beautiful illumination of its own. Even though it, too, is a stick, it has a more dramatic playing position and is shown as a long, tenor or bass range, instrument. It is featured toward the beginning of the aerophone half of the pictures. It is not otherwise known on the peninsula at this early date and may be an exotic, probably French, import. One instrument is portrayed as gold and the other silver, which has oxidized to black. The colors were perhaps chosen for prestige or symbolic purposes.

Notice also that the musicians, like almost all the wind players, have long, curly, blond hair. The string players, in the first half, who are predominantly nobles, wear their hair short of shoulder length. Alfonso himself is the epitome of this hair style. It seems possible, then, that the “long-haired musicians” are professionals and not noble amateurs. Is this an indication of the relative status of the two families of instruments? Or just that the winds are harder to play (well)? One also thinks of the disfiguring of the cheeks associated with the aulos in antiquity and shawms today.

Double Reeds

The most important double reed instrument in the Islamic world was the flaring-belled shawm with its loud, outdoor, apotropaic associations. It was enthusiastically adopted by Europe where it flourished in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Afterwards, it fell on hard times, was castrated, and became the achingly sweet, but unthreatening oboe of the symphony orchestra. Concurrently with the masculine shawm there was another type of instrument about which we know very little. Though a double reed, it was considered very quiet. The Cantigas show no classic outdoor shawms, but at least three other (seemingly double reed) instruments with bulbous bells, implying a quieter sound. I will make no further attempt to explain the instrument, merely presenting the illustrations


Comments on the musicians, however, are relevant. Notice that the players in Cantiga 310 are wearing richly bordered, full-sleeved outer cloaks, and they have fashionably short hair. More enigmatic is the fact that the player on the right is sitting with his knee drawn up underneath him–and the sole of his bare foot is facing the viewer! In Mediterranean culture (and far beyond) this is considered a great insult. I have many thoughts, but no explanation, of this seeming breech of etiquette. It is worth noting that the only other barefooted musician is Muslim.
Cantiga 330 holds its own mysteries. The noble affecting the fringe beard of a knight, wears the noble capa with its fur lining and matching cap, but his hair is long and wavy. His shawm is accompanied by a simply-dressed woman playing percussion plaques (bones) and singing. Around the Mediterranean, from ancient times, women who performed in public were considered professionals, with all its implications. Thus, the woman is probably not a Christian, which makes the scene all the more enigmatic.
The two musicians in Cantiga 390 have long, marcelled hair, and hold shawms with a bulb at both ends. They also appear to hold their instruments in a “left-handed” position.
All the instruments have a pirouette, the flat disk pierced by the stem carrying the double reeds, which is diagnostic of the shawm type


What these instruments are is anyone’s guess. They seem to be a kind of trumpet with the characteristic round bosses at the joints of the sections, but they appear to go into the mouth with no mouthpiece. Are they some kind of shawm without a pirouette? To me they look more like the symbolic figures of the winds in the corners of medieval paintings of the world or the heavens. Besides, playing two instruments (as opposed to a designed double instrument) is uncommon and, usually, not very effective musically. I consider this illumination visual filler until proven otherwise, but striking nonetheless.