Medieval Instruments VI c : Winds


To complete our study of reed instruments, we consider the three very different types of bagpipes represented in the Cantigas. The simplest version consists of a chanter only, a type widespread both in Europe and around the Mediterranean. The next may also be merely a chanter, but probably has a second pipe built into the double stock, playing either a second melody or, more likely, a high drone. The last may stand as a type of all pipers, with chanter and drones alike doubled. Whether this was literally true or whether it was symbolic affirmation is unknown.


The bagpipe on the left has only an elaborate chanter with a horn bell and was probably the simplest to play. Consequently, the players seem to be noble amateurs, performing indoors. The main piper (on the left) wears a noble capa, richly embroidered, sports the knight’s fringe beard, and has long hair. The other player is plainly dressed and seems not to have the blowpipe in his mouth. He could be singing, asking a question, or tuning. He also has the beauty spot on his left cheek mentioned above. Notice also the beautiful knotted covering and fringe for the bag.
The two musicians in the center, on the other hand, are standing–one in a jaunty, cross-legged pose–wearing outdoor cloaks, looking more professional. Once again, however, the subordinate figure on the right is not blowing and may be tuning. Both of these pipers have shorter hair under their coifs.
The last player is truly emblematic. It is no wonder this illustration is so popular: he is the personification of everything we love about pipers. He stands proudly with his great bag, covered by a reticulated cover, and every pipe seems to be doubled. The doubled drones could be believed, but one can’t help but wonder if the double chanter is meant to be literal. I prefer to think the artist who drew this was a particular fan of the instrument and was thinking: Behold, the Piper.

Trumpets & Horns

The words trumpet and horn are often used interchangeably and, in modern casual parlance, horn is even used to apply to any instrument one plays. But the classical distinction between them is important and relates to their origins and structure. Horns, originally made from animal horns, commonly have a conical shape and internal bore, while trumpets, originally made in sections from various materials, generally have a cylindrical shape and bore.

In the Middle Ages the trumpet par excellence was the long straight martial instrument introduced from the Middle East. Called añafil (from the Arabic al-nafir), it is shown in the Cantigas with pennons displaying the lion and castle arms of Leon and Castile, leaving no doubt as to its role as an instrument of power and prestige. It was traditionally played with shawms and drums, especially kettledrums, in an ensemble called nauba. The ensemble was the personal band of a caliph and accompanied military operations as a signals troop. 

Notice particularly the round bosses which reinforce the joints of the several sections. Also observe the clear flat mouthpiece and, at the other end, the bands of engraving around the flared bell. The inscriptions are the common Alfonsine stylized version of Arabic Kufic script. Similar decorations can be seen on the trumpets in the Maqamat and, if you’ve ever seen a modern brass instrument, the tradition continues. While the illustration from the Northern French bible doesn’t include any of these details, the limners did consider it appropriate that the procession of the Ark of the Tabernacle be accompanied by such prestigious instruments.



Another unusual instrument depicted in the Cantigas is the albogón, below left. This was derived from the Arabic al-buq, originally a generic word for horns and trumpets, but latterly restricted to horns. Supposedly, in the 10th century, during the reign of the Spanish Umayyad caliph, al-Hakam II, a horn was fitted with a double reed and fingerholes. This unlikely instrument seems to have survived, or have been revived, into the 13th century and Cantiga 300 shows a huge one being played, accompanied by an hourglass-shaped drum.
Unlike the female singer and bones player previously mentioned, this illustration seems the picture of domestic propriety. Both players are Muslim. The alboka player wears the noble box cap, birrete, and a richly embroidered full-sleeved oversaya with sleeve patches indicating his religion. The woman, with a hat and modest veil, likewise wears the identifying patches on her embroidered saya. She plays a drum with a narrow waist, rather unusual for the Islamic area but perhaps the tabl al-mukhannath mentioned by Farmer. If the instruments were of a quieter nature one could imagine a husband and wife having a musical soiree at home. Whatever the actual occasion, the picture reminds us that the religious and ethnic makeup of the peninsula was not as simple as our modern preconceptions would lead us to believe. [Don’t forget, Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, whose mother was Basque or Frankish and whose paternal grandmother was a Basque princess–that makes at least 3/4 non-Muslim–had fair hair and blue eyes. He used hair dye to darken his appearance.] With his fair skin and fashionable length blond hair, this Muslim grandee could have passed for Christian–and has to most modern observers.


The horns on the right bear a resemblance to the albogón but there are differences which seem important. Firstly, there are no apparent fingerholes. Second, the mouthpiece, which on the albogón has a pirouette and reed going into the mouth, seems only to be a disk–thus, perhaps, a trumpet type mouthpiece. Thirdly, the albogón is constructed in three sections which meet at obvious angles, while this instrument curves smoothely and appears to be in one piece, albeit with lateral decorative grooves. Lastly, this horn is portrayed as ivory-colored: could it be an oliphant? Not exactly a musical instrument, but a prestigious sound generator, nonetheless. The information arguing against this interpretation is the appearance of the players. One is wearing the separate detachable hood, caperón, while the other is still wearing an outdoor cloak. Neither looks particularly noble. Perhaps these are merely signalling horns of some sort: poor cousins of the knightly oliphant.