About Medieval Musa

It is essential to take note of an important point when studying the bagpipes which were used in the medieval period. 
Due to lack of evidence it is not possible to reconstruct a genuine medieval instrument. 
This is because up until now, no archeological site has ever turned a complete instrument of that type. Unfortunately because of this it is impossible to study, measure and reconstruct from that era.
The first reason for this lack of archeological evidence is probably due to the materials of wood and skin decaying over time which are used in making this instrument. Only in rare cases, thanks to some particular north european soil, just a few wind instruments have hailed from the past. This is the case of some recorders found dating from around the 14th century and in good condition in Germany, Holland, Poland and Estonia.
A second theory to justify the lack of any ancient remains is easily attributed to cultural reasons: it is very probable that because of huge instrumentary changes in the Renaissance, medieval instruments were disregarded, abandoned or destroyed. Ironically most of the recorders or pipes found, were located in toilet areas. 

Having said all this not everything is lost. There are however a lot of other historical resources available to help us.

Starting from literal references there is a large number of poetical tales and literature where bagpipes are cited frequently. Some of these examples include "Jeu de Robin et Marion" composed by Adam del la Halle in the 13th century where bagpipes are referred to as “muse au grant bourdon” or the “Decameron” of Boccaccio that to end the sixth day paints this picture of Tindaro:

"Ma il re, che in buona tempera era, fatto chiamar Tindaro, gli comandò che fuor traesse la sua cornamusa, al suono della quale esso fece fare molte danze. Ma, essendo già buona parte di notte passata, a ciascun disse ch'andasse a dormire.”


"But the king, being in a good humor, called for Tindaro, and commanded him to go and fetch his bagpipe, to play for many dances, and so they spent the better part of the night before each went to sleep.”

The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer presents the character of the Miller referring in particular to his ability of playing the bagpipes. The fact that the author mentions this instrument in the hands of this questionable character is not necessarily to our advantage, but his rich description is very amusing.

"He was a janglere and a goliardeys,

And that was most of sinne and harlotryes.
Wel coude he stelen corn, and tolled thryes;
And yet he hadde a thombe of gold pardee.
A whyt cote and a blew hood wered he.
A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne,
And therwithal he broghte us out of towne.

hese literal references like many others can rarely give us any indication on the structure and the criteria as to how these instruments described were actually built, but they are precious to help us to better understand the way they were used, their social status and the musical tastes of the time in every area of Europe.
A second and fundamental type of document to be consulted to reconstruct these ancient instruments and which form a rich heritage are iconographical references. There are hundreds of miniatures, frescos and sculptures from the medieval period that show musicians, angels or fantastical creatures intent on playing the bagpipes.

Here you can find some examples and many more you will find subscribing to Facebook group  "Iconografia della cornamusa in Italia" 

John II of France estabilishes The Order of the Star

Grandes Chroniques de France, 14th century

Playing and dancing
Theatrum Sanitatis, 14th century

"Joueur de chevrette"

Musée Saint Rémi, Reims, 13th century

These depictions and many others often show a great degree of precision and detail which are a great help to confirm the theories and guesswork or at the very least to show what they were not like.
Certainly these images cannot in any way show us the most important and detailed parts of this instrument like the inner bores of the pipes or the reeds shape.
Finally, it is important that all these sources need to be integrated and combined with a rich history of information about instrument making traditions, musical theory, acoustic laws and history of technology.

A last look is at the name with which we have decided to call our instruments. The term ‘Musa’ is of ancient origin and appears in one of the first medieval descriptions of this instrument written by the monk Johannes Cottonius. We believe that the warmth with which this instrument is described, other than the legacy of the poor Miller by Chaucer, is a precious way of understanding this often misunderstood instrument.

"Dicitur autem musica, ut quidam volunt, a musa, quae est instrumentum quoddam musicae decenter satis et iocunde clangens. Sed videamus, qua ratione, qua auctoritate a musa traxerit nomen musica. Musa, ut diximus instrumentum quoddam est omnia musicae superexcellens instrumenta, quippe quae omnium vim atque modum in se continet: humano siquidem inflatur spiritu ut tibia, manu temperatur ut phiala, folle excitatur ut organa. Unde et a Graeco quod est μεση mesa, id est media, musa dicitur, eo quod sicut in aliquo medio diversa coeunt spatia, ita et in musa multimoda conveniunt instrumenta. Non ergo incongrue a principali parte sua musica nomen sortita est.”


"It is called music, as some would have it, from musa [bagpipe], which is a certain musical instrument proper and pleasant enough in sound. But let us consider by what reasoning and what authority music derives its name from musa. Musa, has we have said, is a certain instrument far surpassing all other musical instruments, inasmuch as it contains in itself the power and methods of them all. For it is blown into by human breath like a pipe, it is regulated by the hand like the fiddle, and it is animated by a bellows like organs. Hence musa derives from Greek μεση (mese), that is, "central", for just as divers paths converge at some central point, so too do manifold instruments meet together in the musa. Therefore, the name "music" was not unfittingly taken from its main exponent.

(Johannes Cottonius, “De Musica cum Tonario”, Chapter III, around AD 1100)