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Bagpipes and Shawms

This page refers to both medieval & Tudor instruments

Zoom straight to SHAWMS


What did they look like? ... and what evidence is there for that?

Lots of people think bagpipes are Scottish.

They aren't.
Outline of bagpipes. Pipes in Medieval and Tudor times came in many shapes and sizes. We don't know all about them, and there aren't any left, so we have to rely on pictures and carvings from the time. To be bagpipes, they all have a bag, a chanter, where you play the tune, and usually one or more drones. Drones each play one note all the time.
(Probably not much fun being a drone, then.)
They also have a pipe to blow the air in, called the blowpipe.
link to bigger pipes pictures See pictures of modern re-constructions of bagpipes. link to bigger images of old pictures and carvings See images of old pictures and carvings.
IF you really want to show off, you call it ICONOGRAPHY !

P.S. Please be patient if you're not on broadband connection, these are quite big pictures and you may need to go and have a small snack while they download. But they're worth it!

How did they work? What were they made of?

Bagpipes, both old and modern, work by storing air in the bag. You squeeze the air out to make the reeds in the various tubes play. When the bag starts getting low on air, you blow some more in, but keep squeezing to keep the sound going.
The chanter reeds are usually like the ones in shawms, or modern oboes. The drone reeds are usually like the ones in clarinets - single reeds. The drones each play a single note, the chanter plays the tune. They're nearly always made of animal skin for the bag and wood for the tubes. Animal horn is often used too - often the end of the blow-pipe which goes in your mouth is made of horn. Wood would get soggy and chewed more quickly! Some pipes have horns like bell-shapes on the end to make the sound louder.

By the early 1600's, and quite possibly earlier, there were also pipes with bellows to pump air into the bag, instead of a mouth-blown blowpipe. This means you haven't got the hard work of blowing, but it takes a bit longer to learn to make them work.
Bellows pipes picture Click on this small picture to see a larger one.

Who played them?

Henry VIII owned at least one set... but that doesn't mean he played them. Many players were professional pipers. The pipes require a lot of blowing. This makes your face look less pretty than usual, so the gentry, (the posh, upper class people of the time,) didn't often play them.
SO why did King Henry have them? - probably so that professional musicians could play them for him.

Where did they come from?

No-one's quite sure just where they started, but European side of Asia or North Africa or Greece all seem likely places. The ancient Romans had pipes, calling them the Utriculus. The word means womb, and the bag is the right sort of shape to be named after it.
The Emperor Nero probably played them. The Greeks had them too, and they're mentioned by a Greek poet, around 400 years before Christ, as the pipes which are blown beneath the arm.
OK, that doesn't call them bagpipes, but what else can you think of to match that description?
So they're at least 2,000 years old.

Do people other than the Scots still play Bagpipes?

Very much so. For one example, in Brittany they have the tiny but incredibly loud bagpipes called the biniou. They normally play in duet with the bombarde, an equally loud small shawm.
It is said that when the musicians played in one village, they would be heard by the neighbouring villages.
During a recent trip to Brittany we saw this wedding. Most people were concentrating on the bride and groom while I took lots of shots of the musicians, though the newly-weds got into one:
Happy couple being deafened at own wedding
It's still traditional to have the biniou and bombarde duet at weddings.
biniou + bombarde
Click on the small picture to see a larger copy.
Another event where you may see them is at a Fest Noz, a Festival Night, where the whole town square may be filled with people of all ages (we saw babes in arms up to grandparents,) all dancing to the music, using traditional breton dances. Sadly I didn't have my camera with me that evening.

Lynx for links. I'm grateful to Julian Goodacre for allowing me to use his publications of the Durer piper print, and the Chaucer's piper print. Visit his website at:
There's also the Bagpipe Society at:
And the Northumberbrian Smallpipes semi-official site at


... back to the top

What did they look like? ... and what evidence is there for that?

link to more shawm pictures S link to Old picture of Shawms The shawm on the left is clearly a modern copy similar to the one in Michael Praetorius' book Syntagma Musicum - the one on the right Try clicking on either shawm.
I hope to assemble more pictures of old instruments.
They come in various sizes and shapes, but have the reed poking out at the top, usually from a bit called the pirouette, and generally have a bell shape at the bottom end.

There are two holes side by side, (a bit below the hand in the picture.) One is blocked with wax. If you want to change from right to left handed playing, you just swap the wax round. Neat!
See pictures of shawms new and old.

link to curtal pictures Then there was the bass curtal...

How did they work? What were they made of?

Whether it's a shawm or a curtal, or its relation the dulcian... or even the chanter of most bagpipes, it's the reed that does it:
Here you see a modern reed, and a 400-or-so year-old one - two blades of cane reed fastened together so they press together at one end, and make a tube at the other.
Top of Shawm If you don't yet know how to make a noise by blowing between your two thumbs with a grass stalk pressed together between them, you could get someone to show you, or you could keep quiet... and everyone will have a quieter life round you! (It makes a good shriek!)
The reed makes much the same noise. Stick it down the end of a wooden tube, and it gets a lot louder, and like a recorder, the finger holes make the right notes.
That is to say, when you've practised. Shawms are a LOT harder than recorders to keep in tune. As for bass curtals, people make a lot of unkind remarks about cows while you're practising. Just about all shawms are made from a round tube of wood. Some have metal or horn bells at the bottom end, to make them even louder.

Who played them?

See the answer to the same question for bagpipes, further up. Shawms make your face look as if it's doing seriously hard work. It is - blowing a shawm IS hard work!. So again, the gentry would probably leave it to the professional musicians to do the work for them. ... as you can see from this picture, taken in Dover cinema of all places! (Thanks greatly for being allowed to use this pic.)
Shawm and large cheeks

Where did they come from?

It's difficult to be precise. Prehistoric flute or whistle-type instruments made of animal and bird bones are still being dug up. Prehistoric people very likely had reed pipes using the end of the reed to make a noise, but reeds don't survive underground for thousands of years.
We know Ancient Greeks had the "Aulos" - two pipes played together, almost certainly shawm-type pipes - because we see them on Greek pottery.
I know of shawms by various names from China across Asia, down into India, across the Arabic world and North Africa, up into Europe, from Spain and Italy upwards... They may well have come to England with the Crusaders. If anyone reading this knows they were here before then, and can point me to the evidence, please tell me!
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