Oliver Seeler's
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The Lost Basque Bagpipe?
Posted July 4, 2007

Woodcut: Basque Whalers, ca. 1573, with piper
Basque Whalers working on their catch after the hunt, to the tunes of a piper.
Woodcut from page 689 of the 1st edition of "Des Monstres" by Ambroise Pare (France, 1573)
Scan Copyright 2007, Universe of Bagpipes

We recently purchased this dramatic woodcut from a naval antiques dealer in France, as an addition to our collection of original early woodcuts, engravings and etchings depicting bagpipes and/or pipers. At the time we did not realize that this image may have some particular historical significance.

The Basques are well known as early whalers and fishermen. There are numerous early accounts of sightings of Basque vessels by various famous explorers as they cruised the far north and far west Atlantic. It seems, in fact, that some "discoveries" of new lands included such encounters, which opens questions about exactly who discovered what. Fortunately, the sometimes heated arguments about such matters are not our concern here.

What interests us is that while there are many sorts of bagpipes in Spain, there seems to be very little solid documentation of piping among the Basque people. It can be presumed that there must have been bagpipes in that culture, since bordering groups had pipes at one time or another. Usually there are at least some traces of extinct piping traditions to be found in places where they once thrived, if not in literature then in paintings, carvings, or other iconography. That seems to be lacking in regard to Basque piping, with researchers left just about completely in the dark by the lack of reliable references.

Which brings us to this woodcut. Ambroise Pare, the author of this first French book about monsters, was not just some enterprising publisher looking to cash in on the new popularity of the printed book. He was a famous surgeon, often cited as the father of modern surgery, and a keen naturalist. While some of the things in his works exist only in the worlds of mythology, he was generally accurate in details. Thus in this woodcut we see neatly depicted tools and equipment, clothing, and the processing of the whale carcass. And, of course, the piper.

Detail: Basque Whalers, ca. 1573, with piper
Enlarged detail of the possibly Basque piper
Scan Copyright 2007, Universe of Bagpipes

With no reason to think anything contrary, it seems safe to suppose that this piper is, as are his companions, Basque. His bagpipe is depicted correctly from a functional standpoint (which is not always the case in early art) - that is, it has an appropriate bag, a chanter (conical, with visible fingerholes), a blowpipe (not uncommonly missing in old pictures) and believable drones. The drones are of a style seen in many early graphics, but are unusual in that they both appear to be the same length. The bagpipe is believably proportioned and is being held by the piper in a way often seen elsewhere. Overall, this pipe does not differ much in appearance from pipes often seen in the iconography from many areas of Western Europe.

There is rumor - and that's about all, rumor - of an extinct Basque bagpipe called a "Xaranbel." Whether this is what our whaling piper is playing is unknown - perhaps the artist referred to a generic source for his model. But the fact remains that we have here an undeniably Basque scene that includes a bagpipe.

We will continue to look into this interesting matter, and will be happy to accept any help. Below is the top half of the leaf, with the French text; we would appreciate a rough translation into English . We would also welcome comments about the piper's clothing - his pants and hat are not typical of anything we've seen.

Text above woodcut
The rest of the leaf, above the woodcut
Scan Copyright 2007, Universe of Bagpipes

We hope you've enjoyed having a look into yet another dramatic and mysterious corner of The Universe of Bagpipes! ~ Oliver Seeler, July, 2007

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