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The Medieval Musician Carvings in Beverley Minster: Fact or Fiction?

By Aletha Greathouse

Beverley Minster, located in Beverley, England, is a Parish church dedicated to St. John, St. Martin, and the diocese of York. The dates of Beverley Minster range back to the eighth century, when St. John of Beverley founded the Christian settlement. He retired from his monastery in 718, after his appointment as Bishop of York. After St. John’s death, the church became a place of pilgrimage, which drew King Athelstan to it in the year 937. As a thanksgiving for victory in battle, he converted the monastery into a college of Secular Canons, endowed it handsomely and granted the church the Right of Sanctuary. By this time Beverley was the tenth town in the kingdom (England) and such is noticeable by the size and richness of the church. Leading well into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Beverley was the center of secular music in England. This is evident by over seventy medieval minstrel carvings located around the church. These are believed to be the largest collection of carvings of medieval instruments in the world, dating back to around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As such, they offer significant evidence regarding the construction and use of medieval instruments. It is important when looking at material from churches to remember that no church is ever finished; Beverley Minster is no exception to the rule. Improvements are made, repairs are carried out and wholesale restoration takes place. In the late nineteenth century, John Percy Baker and his son undertook restorations of the carvings in the north aisle, because they were in reach of the hands of the curious and the hammers. While a contemporary of Baker’s stated that these two gentlemen were “exceptional in this regard, for their careful study and obvious affection and respect for the original carvings are revealed in almost all their works,” further study reveals that they made changes to the carvings that significantly altered the physiognomy of some of the instruments. In this paper, I will take a virtual trip around the north aisle of Beverley Minster to explore which carvings were originals, which were restorations, and what we can learn from these carvings in terms of instruments, environment (why Beverley?), and technique. Through this study, I will also consider the value of the carvings as historical documents for both the medieval period and the nineteenth century.


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