The Minstrels' Court

The wonderful medieval midsummer festival in Chester is fast approaching.  The Minstrels' Court will be taking place once again at St John's Church on Saturday 11th June, from 10.30am-4.30pm, a great celebration of the city's heritage, one of the world's largest medieval music festivals and one of only a handful of re-enactments to take place in its original and authentic location.

The tradition of the Minstrels' Court began back in 1204 when a ragged band of musicians and entertainers from Chester marched into Wales to save Earl Ranulf from a siege and thereafter gained his blessing and protection. There is a great legend around this.  This tradition continued with their gathering at the church of St John the Baptist each midsummer for over 500 years until it died out in 1756.  The tradition was revived back in 2008 by a group of musicians, re-enactors and community groups and has taken place each year since.

There are lots of living history displays in the church, recreating something of the bustling atmosphere of the medieval church where business transactions and meetings took place each day.  Scribes sit beside weavers and traders, soldiers and knights mingle with pilgrims and gamblers.  All the while music is performed by some of the finest medieval musicians in the land.

The church of St John the Baptist is surrounded by history, with the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre on one side, Grosvenor park on another, where a excavation is current in progress shedding light on lost buildings, and the river Dee to its rear.  St John's is the oldest church in Cheshire and the city's original cathedral.  Visitors can wander between huge Romanesque pillars and discover Saxon carvings alongside medieval effigies and even Civil War history.    It's a very atmospheric place and the perfect setting for the Minstrels' Court.

As well as the eye-catching medieval characters, storytelling and puppet shows provide lots of interest for families.  It's a free event too, making it a great day out for families.

At 1pm the minstrels leave St John's for a procession through the streets of the city, arriving back at the church at 1.30pm to collect their licences to perform in a recreation of the ancient ceremony.  

Living history displays and demonstrations take place through the day in the church, along with informal music sessions in the porch.  At the front of the church there are performances through the day.  The approximate timings are below.

10.30 - Maranella - Cheshire based medieval music ensemble
11.00 - Storytelling - medieval tales from Cheshire and North Wales
11.30 - Medieval Puppet theatre
12.00 - Trouvere - one of the finest medieval music groups in Britain
12.30 - Dressing a Knight demonstration
13.00 - Procession of Minstrels through the city
13.30 - Licensing of Minstrels
13.45 - The Time Bandits - Chester based group mixing music from 15th-18th centuries.
14.30 - Doucette - Renaissance recorder group
15.00 -Trouvere
15.30 - The Mulberry Tree - new music inspired by the Shakespeare 400 anniversary
16.00 - Maranella

There's so much to see, and it's all free.  Hope to see some of you there!

The Piper's Tale

As regular followers of this blog will know, we love traditional folk tales and we love bagpipes.  This year Tom will be out and about with his storytelling show - The Piper's Tale.  Here's the essence of the performance.  Do let us know if you'd like to see it near you...

Plucking a Noodle

Trawling through mentions of 19th century pipers in Chester and found this from the Chester Chronicle 26 April 1833, admittedly there's only a brief mention of bagpipes and the music, but the story is a familiar one from folk songs. And the epilogue shows a firm belief in witchcraft even at this date.
PLUCKING A NOODLE - A countryman named Francis Hanmer who said he came from Bryngwylla near Oswestry, charged Ruth Jones, a female of common repute, with stealing his watch. The complainant said he came to Chester on 27th February last, to sell a horse for his master, Mr. Lewis, of the Brook House, near Oswestry. In the evening he strolled out into Eastgate-street, where he met with Miss Jones, who invited her to accompany her to the Three Tuns in Frodsham-street. He, not liking to refuse Jones's request, went with her to the Tuns, where he found a number of Cyprians, engaged in a mazy dance. Aroused by the discordant squeakings of the Irish bag-pipes, on which a fellow was discoursing a most exhilarating music, he rose up from his seat and, as he expressed it, "had a bit of a hop - a three-handed reel with four females and during this time I lost my watch". He could not swear that she took it from him, but she was the nearest to him while engaged in the dance.
Alderman Morris (addressing Hanmer) asked him if he were married. Hanmer with a sheepish look replied "Oh yes Sir, I have a wife and five children". - Ald. Morris, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself for being in such company. What will your wife say when she hears of this transaction?" Hanmer, "I'll not tell her anything about it" - As there was no evidence to prove that Jones stole the watch, she was discharged.
Hanmer visited the police office on Sunday evening, and while there he told one of the officers, that if the magistrates did not commit Ruth Jones, there was a "cunning fellow" (a sorcerer) that lived in his neighbourhood, and that he would engage him to bewitch Ruth: and that he would bring her, watch and all, across hedge and ditch, flying from Chester to Bryngwylla. One thing is quite clear, poor Hanmer is no conjuror!  

The Wedding Dance

Now here was a time to celebrate! A wedding to join two of the bonniest young people you would ever know. And all the village was there, and folk from further off too, all come for the festivities. And there had to be music for the dancing, so they called for a piper. He played such merry tunes that even the old aunts hopped to their feet to dance together with sober cousins.
All evening, one dance followed another, but then it drew close to midnight and the next day being the Sabbath, the piper told them he must stop. But the bride, she had gotten in a whirl with dancing see, finding such joy she’d never known before and didn’t want it to stop. She begged the piper keep playing saying he was the finest in the land.
Some warned her against this, how it was wrong to dance on the Sabbath, and others drifted off to their beds. But such is the folly of the young and such was the vanity of the piper at her flattery that there were many who continued in their dancing to the sound of the bagpipe.
And as it passed midnight, a cloud drew over the moon and the tune fell silent. When next the light shone, there were the dancers in a circle but standing still. They had been turned to stone, and the piper also.
And there they are today, as a reminder to all. So if you hear the hum of a drone, or a sweet melody as the wind whistles through the stones, you shall know why.
There are several stone circles which have this legendary origin, amongst them The Merry Maidens in Cornwall, The Pipers Stones in County Wicklow and Stanton Drew Stone Circle in Somerset.  This is my retelling of the tale.   


Of Pigs and Pipes

After “Are those Northumbrian pipes?”, probably the next most common question I get asked when playing in front of the general public is “That’s made from a pig’s bladder isn’t it?”. I’m sure many other bagpipers have experienced the same.

It seems there is quite a strong link between pigs and bagpipes in many people’s minds, even those who may not have much occasion to think of the instrument and I often wonder why this should be. To give an example, a few years ago I was at a fancy dress barbeque – and although I happily spend most of my working days in some historic costume or other I still cringe a little at this type of party – and a session was just starting. Someone arrived who happened to be dressed as a giant pink pig and spotting my smallpipes he immediately ran over to me and grabbed the bag wailing, “My brother, what have you done to my brother?!”

And it’s not just something that people think these days, the connection has been around for centuries. I’m sure many pipers will be aware of the medieval carving of the pig with the bagpipes at Melrose Abbey, one of the earliest images of bagpipes in Scotland. It is an iconic image, featuring on the abbey’s postcards and publicity. I even have a fridge magnet with a sculpted miniature of this carving.

There are plenty of bagpiping pigs to be found across England on misericords from the 14th and 15th century, often providing the music for piglets to dance to. These can be seen in churches in Richmond and Ripon in Yorkshire, Boston in Lincolnshire and Braddock in Cornwall, as well as Beverley Minster and Manchester Cathedral. These are fairly well known examples; I have a resin cast copy of the Ripon carving hanging on my living room wall. It is possible that some of these could be the work of one craftsman, but there are enough differences in the style and skill of the carvings to show that they are not all the work of the same individual. I’d suggest that this shows a general connection between pigs and bagpipes, rather than just being a favourite theme of a single woodcarver.

We can find other medieval woodcarvings of piping pigs. For example, a pulpit in St Leonard’s, Ribbesford, in Worcestershire has a pig playing a double chanter bagpipe which is very similar in design to the misericord at Ripon, though this version is a flatter relief as it was formerly part of the rood screen.

And it’s not just in England that we find this association. There is an example of Danish bagpiping bacon on a wall painting in Vestervig church as well as Dutch 15th century pewter badges of piping pigs that have been found in Utrecht and Amsterdam and in illuminated manuscript form in the exquisite Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry from early 15th century France.

It’s worth remembering that pigs are not the only members of the animal kingdom that play bagpipes in the imaginative work of medieval artists, there are also several examples of piping apes and a couple of asses too, though not so many in number as pigs. Similarly, pigs can be found playing other instruments on occasion, including organs and harps, though they seem to favour the bagpipes most of all.

If we look to other animals and other instruments, there is also quite an association between cats and fiddles. This is most commonly known through a nursery rhyme, but also through misericords and medieval manuscripts, as we find with our pigs and bagpipes. Perhaps here we have a connection with common misconceptions about how these particular instruments are constructed, so whilst people may think the bag is made from a pig’s bladder, then they may also believe the fiddle has strings made from cat gut. So the depictions could represent the animals playing the instruments made from parts of themselves, a visual pun.

However, there is perhaps more of a connection to the sound of these instruments when played badly. So we could imagine the scratching of the strings of a fiddle being reminiscent of a cat’s night-time wailing, or a bagpipe resembling the squealing of a pig. I could believe that there was once a well known folk tale or joke that ran along these lines, but that it is lost to us today.

I realise this Alfred Hitchcock quote has appeared in Chanter, (the journal of the Bagpipe Society), more than a couple of times, but may be worth repeating to illustrate this particular point. “I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equalled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig.”

A couple of years ago in Chanter, James Merryweather revealed the results of playing bagpipes to sheep, and I am well aware of the effects of bagpipes on cats – my playing had a laxative effect on our last cat and sets our present cat whining and heading out of the house. I wonder whether anyone has carried out an experiment playing bagpipes to pigs?

As to why pigs should be associated with bagpipes, there seem to be many opinions, often contradictory. For example in reading around the subject I have found people suggesting that it is because pigs are most like humans, they are intelligent and jolly and content with their life, whilst elsewhere there are those who say that pigs play bagpipes because they are symbols of greed, lust and idleness and so they should play such a base instrument so commonly linked with devils. I’m sure that fellow bagpipers would agree with the former – the pigs are clever and cheerful.

So, let’s celebrate these porky pipers, and next time we’re asked about the pigs’ bladders we can explain the long heritage our instrument has with our animal friends.

The Piper in the Mill

As followers of the blog will know, I do love bagpipes and storytelling, (it's Tom writing this post), and there is no shortage of traditional tales featuring pipers.  Having just discovered that demons in mills in the night are common in Serbian folklore just as they are in Britain, I'm prompted to share my version of fairies and a piper in a watermill at night.  This is my retelling of a tale found along the Wales/England border and which I always enjoyed telling at Stretton Watermill in Cheshire.  The picture is myself and Joan Rogers of FayrePlay, piping there to start our Cheshire events for the first ever International Bagpipe Day a few years back.

Well, if you don’t like, don’t listen, but there was this miller see, and he would be sitting in his cottage, just across the lane from his watermill, and when it got to the edge o’night he would hear the wheel turning and the gears rumbling inside the mill. But he weren’t afeart, he’d known it all his life and same had happened in his father’s time and his grandfer’s afore that. He was wiser than to go inside the mill, mind, he knew it was the little folk who were about their milling during the night. And each morning all would be clean and tidy, they’d caused none trouble.

This one evening the miller was sat at the corner table in the alehouse with the blacksmith and a bagpiper and he chanced to tell about the little folk in the mill. “Well now,” says the piper, “you shunner let them grind their meal without paying as others mun do.” But the smith and the miller insisted it was foolish to interfere with the ways of the little folk. “Fairies be beggared!” says the piper, “I’m not so tickle-stomached as you. I’ll bet you tha new green weskit I can spend the night playing my pipes to them, I’ll get them dancing to my tune, I will, thump!”

Now the miller and smith were about telling the piper not to be such a maggot-pate, that he never knew what would happen if he went in the mill that night. But after another tankard of ale, their minds had altered, see, and were for letting him get agate his piping. So, here’s all three setting off down the pad-road across the field to the mill. The wheel was turning and there was a dim light at the window. And here’s the piper striking up his bagpipes and making his way into the mill. Well, the miller and the smith, they listened a while, then off they went back to the alehouse. After some more beer they were thinking on how the piper had been away a pretty tidy time and was most likely he’d returned home.

The next morning the miller made his way into the watermill. It was the same as ever, not a thing out of place, but no sign of the piper. He set off to the piper’s tumbledown cot, but he wasn’t there, and the hearth was cold. And the smith and the miller never did see the piper again, but if they ever walked past the tump at the end of the lane as it was fetching dark, both of them reckoned on how they could hear the sound of pipes under the ground.

So it’s a queer thing isn’t it, but that’s as I heard it, so take from it what you wish and give the rest back to me.

The Witches' Piper

Bagpipes and storytelling are both a big part of what we do.  I've been collecting folk tales of pipers for several years now, it seems that there are more stories connected to the pipes than any other instrument though, as bagpipes in their various forms have a very wide geographic spread, that's probably not too surprising.  I sometimes perform a whole set of bagpipe tales, and other times just find an excuse to squeeze in a little piper story.  This is one of those short ones.  I found it in Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, where it's a Bulgarian story.  I told it a few times like that but didn't quite feel right, so I tweaked it a bit and moved it to my native Cheshire, along with a bit of dialect. 

You’ve heard how my elder brother plays the bagpipes?  Well, he was called to play for a party at Carden Hall, it must’ve been the day before Ash Wednesday.  And another feller from aback o’ Malpas was called to play his pipes for the children, Uncle Diccen his name is, he still lives in that village.

Now, at around eleven o’clock, Uncle Diccen was paid for his troubles and set off home.  But he was only betwixt Barton and Stretton when he was met by three women, all dressed in grey they were, and they said “Uncle Diccen, Uncle Diccen, come to play for us!” and dragged him away to a house at the end of the lane and set him on a bench there to play.  Well, other folk kept coming in and soon enough the place was thrunk and coins came crashing at Uncle Diccen’s feet until he thought it was as if he had the rent of the Dee Mills, until it turned midnight. 

Then, with a crash, Uncle Diccen found himself at the top of the poplar by Tilston stocks, and the night as black as a bag.  “Odd rot it! How did I get here?” thought Uncle Diccen.  On the lane below there was a chap coming from Shocklach way, and Uncle Diccen called to him to fetch him down, but this feller took boggart at some devil atop a tree at midnight and rushed off.  Soon enough though, there was a horse and cart coming from the Leche’s place and in it was Thomas Hulme.  “Is that you Uncle Diccen?” says Thomas.  “Damn it, of course it’s me! Now help me down.”

As soon as he was on the ground, Uncle Diccen began to look in the hem of his cloak where he’d hidden the coins he’d gathered, but it was full of nothing but broken crockery and chips of glass.  Such strange things sometimes still happen.

There are a couple of bagpipers in this 17th century picture of a Witches' Sabbath.  I've never been asked to perform at a gig like this by the way.