Pilgrims and Bagpipes

You'll usually find bagpipes making an appearance in our workshops and presentations.  There is a close connection between pilgrimage and bagpipes.  It seems likely that the instrument itself reached England as a result of people returning from travels to the holy land where it was more commonly played.

Amongst the medieval stone carvings of musicians in churches across the land, bagpipers are perhaps the most commonly found.

Bagpiper carving in St Mary's Church, Astbury, Cheshire

Then we have Chaucer's description of the miller in his Canterbury Tales,

"A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne,
and therwithal he broghte us out of towne"

A bagpipe is the perfect instrument to lead a group of pilgrims.  To begin with, by using the bag rather than blowing directly down a shawm or other pipe it is possible to play for a long time without tiring.  If a tune is played over and over again with followers in procession then the effect can almost put the followers in a trance, helping establish a contemplative state for prayer.  Then, more practically, it is at least easy to stay as a group moving through the crowds of a city if there is a loud noise and a drone sticking up above the throng for you to follow.

Whilst pilgrims enjoyed what the sound of the bagpipes added to their experience of their journey, at the height of the pilgrim season around midsummer we might imagine residents living near a shrine becoming somewhat irritated by the noise made by these passing pilgrims.  Then, there were those who complained of the attitudes of the pilgrims in enjoying themselves perhaps too much rather than concentrating on their more pious objectives.  In 1407 the Lollard priest William Thorpe was on trial for heresy and being examined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel;

Thorpe:   “Also, Sir, I know well, that when divers men and women will go thus after their own wills, and finding out one pilgrimage, they will ordain with them before[hand] to have with them both men and women that can well sing wanton songs; and some other pilgrims will have with them bagpipes: so that every town that they come through, what with the noise of their singing, and with the sound of their piping, and with the jangling of their Canterbury bells, and with the barking out of dogs after them, they make more noise than if the King came there away, with all his clarions and many other minstrels. And if these men and women be a month out in their pilgrimage, many of them shall be, a half year after, great janglers, tale−tellers, and liars.”  
Arundel:  “Lewd losell! thou seest not far enough in this matter! for thou considerest not the great travail of pilgrims; therefore thou blamest that thing that is praisable! I say to thee, that it is right well done; that pilgrims have with them both singers and also pipers: that when one of them that goeth barefoot striketh his toe upon a stone and hurteth him sore and maketh him to bleed; it is well done, that he or his fellow, begin then a song or else take out of his bosom a bagpipe for to drive away with such mirth, the hurt of his fellow.

So, it seems that bagpipers had the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury! 

We certainly find that the sound makes an impact when people hear it for the first time, being wonderfully evocative of the medieval era as well as being colourful and cheery.  That's why we include music as part of our historical interpretation.  Come and meet us to hear more!
Piping at a pilgrimage themed event at Hailes Abbey church, Gloucestershire