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Ancient Bagpipe Carving Discovered
Posted December 17, 2005

Ancient misericord carving discovered by Sean Stewart
Ancient misericord carving discovered by Sean Stewart
Detail, see following photos for entire carving.
Photo Copyright 2005 Sean Stewart


Our man in England, piper Sean "Hawkeye" Stewart, has discovered a charming and important carving of a piper in a church, "Beverley Minster," in the market town of Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire.

We use the term "discovered" because while the existence of the carving itself is generally known, the piper was unrecognized. Sean, his eye sharpened by several years of searching for images of bagpipes on postage stamps (an obsession instigated by myself, as discussed on this web site and in the New York Times), spotted the carving virtually in his own back yard. It is one of 68 carvings on an equal number of "misericord" (mercy) seats in the church. (A misericord is a folding chair which has a little shelf on the underside of the seat, so that when standing for long periods, in front of the folded-up seat, one's, um, afterparts have a bit of a place to settle. Seems like cheating, somehow, but perhaps it was either that or put up with the thud of falling bodies during long services...)

We also use the term "important" advisedly. There are quite a few wood and stone carvings of bagpipes and pipers to be found in the churches and cathedrals of the British Isles, most dating back hundreds of years. Some are well known and have been used by modern pipemakers in replicating early pipes, because in many cases these carvings are just about the only thing we know about the pipes depicted in them. But in spite of much scholarly work dealing with cathedral and church carvings in general, it seems that some bagpipe carvings, like this one, have been overlooked or misidentified. Curiously, at least two other pipers are found in the misericord carvings of Beverly Minster. That this one was missed is perhaps in part due to the blowpipe being absent - the wood has lost a chip right between the bag and the piper's mouth - and in part because the carving is incorrectly described in an unpublished but circulated reference work, which identifies the figure not as a piper but rather as a woman applying medication to a sheep's hooves.

Ancient misericord carving discovered by Sean Stewart
Piper on misericord carving discovered by Sean Stewart
The carving dates to 1520.
Photo Copyright 2005 Sean Stewart


Early bagpipe images of any kind (or for that matter written descriptions) are far and few between. Dozens if not hundreds of different varieties of bagpipes have disappeared from view over the centuries, leaving only the slightest traces (and no actual specimens). Furthermore, not only have the instruments vanished, but the contexts in which they were played are largely forgotten. Bagpipes were at one time or another the primary musical instrument heard by large segments of the populations of the British Isles and of the European continent, from the far north down to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic east to Asia. By the time modern ethnographers, anthropologists, musicologists and their kin began cataloging popular cultures the bagpipe had already faded from many places. Thus depictions of the settings in which bagpipes were used are of special interest. In this carving it appears that the sheep are being called by the pipes - at least they're not running the other way as they likely would if the sound were not familiar. This argues that the piper didn't play only now and then, but that his piping was a regular activity and had a function in his work.

Two things have conspired to create a persistent fog that obscures the view of early bagpipes. One is that contemporary artists and writers did not often include bagpipes in their works, because in most cultures and times these were secular instruments of the common folk, a group in which the patrons of art and literature, who paid the artists' bills, had little interest. The other factor, to some extent a result of this lack of historical information, is that many modern "experts" in fields that should include formal studies of bagpipes understand neither the instruments nor their former cultural importance. This sort of institutional ignorance is self-perpetrating; without solid and accessible reference works, the safe thing to do when writing about early music and/or early musical instruments has been, and to some extent remains, to ignore bagpipes altogether.

Ancient misericord carving discovered by Sean Stewart
Sean Stewart, who unearthed this carving, writes:
"The Minster has the highest number of misericord or mercy seats in any church in the country (68 in total!) which were carved in 1520, probably by the Ripon School of carvers from North Yorkshire."
Photo Copyright 2005 Sean Stewart

This style of bagpipe, with two chanters, sometimes with and sometimes without a drone, is found on other wood and stone carvings in the UK. See this page on Aron Garceau's Bagpipe Iconography site for twenty examples (link opens a new window). No surviving specimens of such pipes are known, but a similar looking (though probably not similar-sounding) drone-less double chanter pipe, the Surle, is still found today in Northern Croatia (see this page here on this site) .

While we bemoan the scarcity of organized information about early bagpipes, a pleasant side effect is that anyone who keeps a sharp lookout, as Sean Stewart did in this instance, has a chance of turning up something new. Should you make such a discovery, let us know and we'll toss it in the pot here! ~ Oliver Seeler, December 2005


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