Musical pigs and their meaning

The fourth blog by Bryony Wilde exploring St Mary's curious carvings.  Bryony is a recent Art History graduate of the University of York. The focus of her master's dissertation in 2020 was the roof bosses in St Mary's nave.

Regional style & shared jokes

Why on earth are there pigs merrily serenading us from the roof? What could be the reason?

So far in this series the focus has been on carvings with quite obvious meanings and intentions. We’ve looked at kings, saints and cash-laden merchants, who most of the time helpfully tell us who they are with inscriptions or symbols. These represent tangible things that we as a modern audience can understand, such as power, religion and Beverley’s local history.

But not all the bosses are so straightforward. Some depict strange and funny scenes which seem to have no meaning. The next two blogs in this series will focus on some of the more bizarre parts of the ceiling at St Mary’s and will begin to shed light on how we might interpret these oddities.

What am I looking at?

Ok let’s start with the basics. In the nave of St Mary’s there are two bosses showing boars playing musical instruments. The first carving shows the animal with a set of bagpipes and ruffled shaggy hair standing up along its back. There is also a lovely bit of detailing with its totters clasping the ‘chanter’ on the bagpipes. The second carving is in the south nave aisle and shows a rather cute little boar clutching a harp.

The question is why are these here in a church? Well, the short answer is we really don’t know. But that isn’t a cop out and you shouldn’t stop reading there! The problem with many of these art works is that nothing from the medieval period survives to tells us why they are here, let alone what they even mean. Adding to the confusion this kind of sculpture dramatically contrasts with what we might expect to find in a place of holy worship.

But if we take a more detective approach and weighing up the evidence and facts, we can begin to put forward some explanations.

This boss could be a merchant travelling with his wares on a horse. Having your occupation represented in the church would have been an important status symbol.

Local jokes

The first possible reason for this decoration is to parody the popular and wealthy guild of musicians in Beverley. Great! So, we’ve established a connection between the town and musical instruments in the church.

The Minstrels Guild’s influence can be seen throughout St Mary’s with some members appearing on their own column sporting some rather fine clothes. Other players can also be seen on the ‘mouldings’ supporting the ceiling in rather less flattering fashion. The four of them look downright scary with red lips and eyes, grinning down at the unsuspecting visitor. But one of them, importantly, holds a set of bagpipes.

These vestry carvings and our little piggies might have been parodies of this guild. The medieval church was a central part of the community and was used for more things than just worship. It was a more open space then we might expect – full of surprisingly naughty jokes. Perhaps certain members weren’t so accomplished and sounded like farm animals. Or maybe it’s a joke at the expense of the piper himself as some medieval sources describe bagpipes as sounding like pigs snorting!

Wider imagery:

However, it might not be as simple as that. Interestingly this isn’t the only place this image appears. In fact, boars playing instruments can be found throughout the medieval churches in the north and midlands – including Ripon, Manchester and Beverley Minster. In these places, the images are not found in roof bosses but within misericords (carvings beneath pew seats).

So why do so many medieval churches include images of boars playing instruments?

It could be as simple as using the same images to work from. As we’ve discussed in a previous blog, (link to blog 3) craftsmen often found practical solutions to cut down on the amount of work they produced, sometimes working from templates. There have also been sourcebooks found where its likely reference images would have been used and shared across different workshops to help in design.

Shared jokes:

But that still doesn’t explain why this imagery appears in all these places. The most likely reason for boar pipers appearing in so many places is that more people were in on a larger joke.

The most plausible punchline can be traced to the fifteenth century writer Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories that were told throughout the country and often performed in traveling play groups. Many of the tales have a moral meaning but are so full of rude jokes to keep the audience entertained. Importantly for us, the character of the Miller is described as playing a set of bagpipes and looking like a pig!

His beard, as any sow or fox, was red,
And broad it was as if it were a spade.
Upon his nose right on the top he had A wart,
and thereon stood a tuft of hairs,
Red as the bristles in an old sow’s ears;

These attributes are intended to show his bawdy and ‘piggish’ behaviour. The boss would then be a reminder of this story for the congregation.

So, case closed? Is that the answer? Well unfortunately it’s never so simple with the medieval period. It could be all of these reasons or none of them! Part of the fun and frustration is that we will never truly know the past, but we can speculate and suggest meaning which gradually give us a better understanding of this society. It’s like looking through a keyhole into a locked room – we never see the whole picture, but we catch glimpses of tantalising light that give us fleeting insight into this wonderful world.

What do you think the bosses mean? Do any of these convince you or is it a combination of all three? In the next entry we will be discussing Nonsense Imagery and its Meaning further if you would like to read on!