Friday, May 27, 2011

More cowbell!

Gallensis Cod. sang. 21

Thanks to the good offices of Prof Maureen Miller in the UC Berkeley History Dept, who was kind enough to accept me to her graduate seminar "The Long Tenth Century" for next semester, I shuffled around in some obscure corners of e-codices last weekend and came up with this marvelous picture taken from a St Gall psalter dating from around 900.

You'll have to click on it to see it in detail, but there are some real surprises here. Just for starters, the guy at the upper left who looks like Richard Wagner is playing a rebec which has f-holes carved into it, and he does so with a long bow while holding it under the chin like a modern fiddler.

That may not appear especially earthshaking, but consider how often you've heard a rebec player in a medieval consort using a short bow and holding the instrument in her lap for reasons of alleged authenticity.

King David's instrument on the other hand seems altogether phantastical, except that I do remember seeing something similar elsewhere. Could that be a Swiss cowbell attached to it? In words familiar to a certain generation of Saturday Night Live viewers: MORE COWBELL!

What's clear however is that instrument builders at the beginning of the tenth century are experimenting with hour-glass-shaped instruments fitted to the player's knee, which will eventually morph into guitars.

The king's exotic headgear signifies perhaps that he is Jewish. The artist may be getting his Jews mixed up with his Byzantines, but that almost-conical hat looks somewhat like those worn by the ashkenazim (Rhineland Jews) in the 12th-13th c. (as amply depicted in Schreckenberg: The Jews in Christian Art.)

However, Erich Toch says in New Cambridge Medieval History there is no record of Jewish settlements in Francia before the mid-tenth c., so how in the world would this 9th c.German artist know about such things? (Rabbi Benjamin of Tuleda’s later census shows that there were precious few communities around the Mediterranean littoral, where Jew mainly co-existed harmoniously with Muslims as trading partners.)

Fancy headdress for prelates and monarchs in the medieval tradition are of course still worn, nowhere with more aplomb than by HH the Dalai Lama.


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