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Instrument Biography: The Positive Organ

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Note: A LOT has been written on the subject of organs. In order to make a more digestible article, I’ve split out portative and positive organs into separate articles from the main pipe organ piece, along with short pieces on harmoniums (reed organs), regal organs (pump organs) and electric organs. You may find that some basic information is repeated in each for the purposes of clarity.

The positive is a small, usually one manual (a keyboard played with the hands), pipe organ built to be mobile. It was commonly used for both sacred and secular music between the 10th and the 18th century, and it was also popular as a chamber organ, used to play the basso continuo in ensemble works. The smallest positive is little more than keyboard-height, and is also called a chest or box organ. These are still popular for basso continuo work because you can move them into the suitable spot in a suitable chamber. Positives that were meant to be the center of attention were usually taller.

Despite its similarity to an ordinary English word, it’s actually French and is pronounced pos-ih-teev. It’s also called the  positiv, positif, portable organ, and chair organ. It comes from the Latin verb ponere, which means “to place.”

The positive is also a name for a large organ that had the pipes behind the organist’s back. This type is also known as a chair organ or Rūckpositive. Modern organs (after the Romantic era) often call a whole division of pipes the chair organ because they’re the most likely to be in the portable positive. The pipe organ came in many forms between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (see the Church Organ biography for more about those). By the Baroque, even processional and tabletop organs existed, although they were less popular than the larger positives. The Orgelbewegung (the guiding treatise to the 20th century revival of historical instruments) didn’t emphasize them much in the 20th century, though.

The earliest specifically instrumental music notation was for organ, probably because, since Carolingian times, an organist was likely to be musically literate—meaning that they could attach a letter name (see Odo of Cluny) or solmization (see Guido d’Arezzo) to specific notes. The small amount of instrumental music that survives from the 13th and 14th century is monophonic dances, with notation resembling that of vocal music. Keyboard sources, unlike vocal music, use a variety of types of score and tablature to document two or more parts for the convenience of a single player.

There is an obvious connection between the development of the bagpipe and the development of the pipe organ well into the 2nd century (because of the bellows) just as there’s an obvious connection between the panpipe and both the organ and the bagpipe (wind, passing through or across the pipes, makes them sound).

The invention of the organ dates from the 3rd century BCE and the instrument features prominently in musical life by medieval times. Small portative organs, with bellows operated by one of the player’s hands, are commonly depicted in the iconography of the period. By the 15th century, larger positive organs were placed in churches in at least a semi-permanent position near the singers and had their bellows operated by a second person. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged.

Positive Organ History

The key element of the organ dates back to Ctesibius of Alexandria (flourished 285-222 BCE), who is credited with inventing the hydraulis. The hydraulis used water to affect the air pressure in a tube and if that’s sounding familiar, that’s because it’s also the system on which pneumatics are based.

Ctesibius’ interest in the hydraulis had more to do with making music than with lifting things up. His organ used the same principle as the bagpipe, with its bellows and multiple pipes, most shaped like a flue, which were the precursors of the recorder’s fipple (a blog on recorders is in the works). Air was pumped into a cylinder that was half full of water. The cylinder had a hemispherical container inside it that forced the air to flow around it and, conveniently, kept debris in the water from gunking up the pipe. The water acted much as later versions’ wind-reservoir would, holding the air pressure steady. The pipes attached to a connecting tube that released the air into the appropriate pipe when a simple set of keys was depressed. Later instruments offered a series of pipes using this same system in various tunings that could be accessed by a series of plugs (called stops) on the side of the instrument.

The organ found its way to Rome in about 50 CE. It was used in theatrical performances and at gladiatorial contests, possibly with horns and tubas. There are mosaics showing portatives—then called a hydraulis—from the 1st and 2nd centuries CE in the Tripoli Museum. It was probably a domestic instrument as well, and was thought to have been played by Nero.

The hydraulis’ popularity waned and 1000 years later, when the hydraulis was brought into France from Byzantium, it was an unknown novelty. Sadly, by then, it was also missing its most important part, the water compressor.

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It had been presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus in 228 CE. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes, three stopped ranks, one open rank, and 13 sliders with keys. The largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

An early positive is visible on a carving of Theodosius, commemorating his death, in the 4th century.

In the 7th century in the Christian world, Pope Vitalian is credited with introducing the much-evolved bellows organ to the Catholic church service. It served as support for singers, both as a foundation, playing lower notes than could be sung, and to offer timbre options in the higher registers. It’s ideally suited to accompany singing, whether by a congregation, a choir, cantor, or other soloists. Many church services still include organ accompaniment as well as a solo repertoire, often as a prelude at the beginning of the service and a postlude at the conclusion.

Early organs were preserved in Italy, Spain, and England, but the decisive stimulus to the development of the organ came from Byzantium through Franconia, during the reign of Pepin and Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th century. This organ wasn’t the hydraulis of history, because that didn’t really make it out of the first century CE. Instead of complicated water and air pumps, the new instrument used a bellows that could be worked by hands or feet. By the end of the 9th century, Franconian organ building was so highly esteemed that Pope John VIII summoned a master from the diocese of Friesing to build an organ for him in Rome.

Monastic churches had early organs by 1100, probably portatives and positives, and by 1300, positives were common in cathedrals as well. In the 12th century, substantial improvements were made. After that, proper keys were invented, but they were so heavy and stiff that it took a clenched fist to depress them.

Organ tablature (written music, but not on the staff) was probably invented in the late 13th century. The earliest organ tablature known is from the early 14th century, and is called the Robertsbridge fragment. In this British fragment, all 12 keys of the octave are already required (remember, music was predominantly modal (see The History of Music Notation and Musical Modes, Part 1 (Church Modes) for more on this). There are questions about whether the accidentals (sharps and flats that are not part of the key signature) are written in by the original documenter or by a later hand.

Until around 1400, the organ had a single keyboard with a range of one to three octaves, the keys were large and cumbersome or consisted of sliders that moved in and out, and there were no stops to allow the variety of color and tone that we’re used to today. The sound was a fixed, and fairly loud, mixture of several ranks of pipes. Pedals and a second manual were added in Germany and the Netherlands in the late Middle Ages, the second manual having its own pipe-work located behind the player (which is why it’s called Rūckpositive in German).

National preferences for organ building emerged during the Renaissance. German innovations included additional manuals and interesting new tone colors. Italian and English organs remained simpler, often with a single manual and a basic chorus of stops with only one or two individually distinctive colors. By the 16th century, distinctive regional schools of organ building and compositional style had already emerged. Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) wrote the richest source of knowledge about organs as part of Syntagma Musicum.

With the refinement of the keyboard and development of finger techniques in the 13th and 14th centuries, a small movable positive was devised, suitable for church or secular surroundings. In contrast with the church organ, it required only one person to work the bellows. The secular version later became the chamber organ found in English homes and used in consort music.

The Halberstadt positive organ is the first instrument known to cover the chromatic scale. A great many pipes would have been necessary and a great number of keys, and because the combination would have needed more space for this, it’s probable that the chromatic adaptation happened in the 14th century.

There are many miniatures that include positive images among the illuminated manuscripts at the British Museum from the Middle Ages, especially from the 14th and 15th centuries.

Because a second person was necessary to work the bellows, and because it was neither super portable like the portative nor grand like the Great Organ, the positive organ’s popularity also dwindled during the 16th century.

In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, positives were used at many civil and religious functions. They were used in the homes and chapels of the rich, at banquets and court events, in choirs and music schools, and in the small orchestras of composers as conspicuous as Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) (biography to come) at the beginning of musical drama (which would later become opera).

According to Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), the two middle manuals of the Halberstadt organ were designed for two-part playing. The two outer ones, the Descant manual, in which each key sounded as many as 32, 43, or even 56 pipes, and the pedal board, where each pedal key controlled 16, 20, or 24 pipes, were provided for powerful effects. Praetorius said it was quite loud.

Less appreciated during the Classical period than the Baroque, the positive was regarded as too rigid and lifeless. Both the portative and the positive gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the church organ remained in general use.

The positive was regarded as too rigid and lifeless during the Classical period than the Baroque,. Both portative and positive gradually disappeared during the second half of the 18th century, and only the Church organ remained in general use.

Positive Organ Structure

The positive organ was sized somewhere between the tiny portative and the huge church organ. You might think of it as about the same size as a spinet piano, although it would have been less wide and a little deeper, and possibly taller behind the keyboard.

The instrument is portable, but unlike the portative, it isn’t meant to be played while moving. It has a larger keyboard than the portative, usually having 49 notes or more (older instruments have slightly fewer), and a portative might have as few as 12 or 13 notes.

Many positives, both of the box and cupboard types, can be thought of as upper and lower parts that can be moved separately. The lower part contains the bellows, blower and treadle, and perhaps the largest of the pipes. The upper part contains the pipes and the manuals. Wheeled casters or a custom-made hand truck are used to move them.

The positive has more than one register, and because it was played with both hands, was satisfactory to play later music that used newfangled chords. The Orgelbewegung treatise (a 20th century revival of historical instruments) has created an interest in small positives that can be played with both hands. These small instruments are occasionally called portatives, especially if their pipes are arranged like those of the true portative.

The positive was usually used as accompaniment rather than as a solo instrument. It had a tender and gentle tone, and was popular during the Baroque period.

The hydraulis used water to determine the note played (see the Church Organ post for more). The positive developed from this ancient concept, where the pipes were sounded by moving air pressure that was maintained by the weight of water, and that could be stopped or unstopped by a mechanical device rather than by finger holes along the pipe. The air was moved by a bellows.

The earliest surviving organ is from the 3rd century CE, and was found at Aquincum near Budapest. It was presented by the Guild of Weavers to Alexander Severus in 228 CE. It’s a small domestic organ with four ranks of 13 flue-pipes (three stopped and one open) and 13 sliders with keys. The largest pipe is about 13 inches long.

The number of pipes controlled by individual keys and pedals was possible because of something called register-stops. These weren’t a new development in the Middle Ages but track back to antiquity. The Middle Ages appreciated the mixtures in which every note was accompanied by several fifths and octaves (overtones and harmonics), making the original note sound fuller and richer.

By the Middle Ages, it was understood that pipe structure affected the tone and color of the notes, and whole ranks of pipes were built with differing lengths but similar dimensions—some were wide, some were narrow, some conical, some inversely conical, some stopped, and some open—in order to get a certain uniformity of sound within the rank. In the 15th century, sharper and shriller reed pipes were invented, where the pitch was determined by a simple metal reed and the tone was colored by a belled mouth. All of these various groups of pipes could be connected by register-stops.

German organ builders drew on elements of French and Dutch organs just as German composers drew on musical styles of the Italians, French, and northern lands. The best known builders were Arp Schnitger (1648-1718) and Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). They adopted the Dutch practice of dividing the pipes into a main group and subsidiary groups, each with its own keyboard and pipes having a particular character and function. The main group, the Hauptwerk (Great Organ), sits high above the player. Other groups include Ruckpositive, mounted on the outside of the choir balcony rail behind the player’s back, a Brustwerk, directly above the music rack in front of the player, the Oberwerk, high above the Great, and the pedal organ, whose pipes are usually arranged symmetrically on both sides of the Great.

Only the largest German organs had all of these components. Yet even a modest two-manual instrument could create a great variety of sounds combining variously voiced principal, flute, and reed pipes as well as mixtures, in which pipes sounding upper harmonics add brilliance to the fundamental tone (the fundamental is the note you mean to sound and the harmonics and overtones are the other notes that make up that note).

The pipes were usually flue pipes in 4’ and 2’ and occasionally a 1’ tone. Positive organs with reed pipe registers were rare.

Innovators made it easier to move the slides by creating keys that could be pressed and returned to the original stopping position by springs. The spring mechanism was first mentioned in Hero of Alexandria’s “Pneumatics” in the 1st century CE. His contemporary, Vitruvius (c80-c15 BCE) describes a more complicated instrument with double pumps and four, six, or eight canals that admitted or denied wind to a separate rank of pipes. Early images often depict a bagpipe rather than an organ to illustrate the principles on which this pneumatic system was based.

The earliest image of keys is in a 7-inch high terracotta model of an organ with its player from the 2nd century CE, found at Carthage. It had 18 broad keys that play three ranks each of 18 pipes. Two of these three ranks are flue pipes, built on the flute principle, not reeds). The player would have used both hands, the left hand for changing the drone note, and the right for playing the melody. This idea of playing against a drone wasn’t new; Roman philosopher Seneca (c4 BCE-65 CE) makes reference to consonance on stringed instruments in the 1st century CE. (This is an indication of simultaneous differing sounds rather than any kind of polyphony.)

The introduction of pedals was probably because the largest pipes were hard to sound—great pressure was needed to overcome the air-pressure and make the wind move in the pipes. The feet were simply stronger, and so a keyboard for the feet developed. Most positives offer only one keyboard and no foot pedals, although some use pedals to control stops.

In the 15th century, both portative and positive organs had only a few chromatic notes (B-flat, F-sharp, and C-sharp). The Halberstadt positive organ is the first instrument known to cover the chromatic scale. A great many pipes would have been necessary and also a great number of keys, and it’s probable that the chromatic adaptation happened in the 14th century when they were making other renovations.

The wind was supplied by a second person operating the bellows, but modern positives have electric blowers. In the Baroque period, they developed a reservoir to store air so that the bellows didn’t have to be pumped constantly. Air pumped from bellows passes through conduits into the wind-chest and goes from there into the soundboard, where the keyboard uses it to sound a note through the associated pipe.

The larger the organ, the more stops they can offer; some are specifically treble and some are divided, allowing each stop to be activated in the treble or bass portions of the keyboard. This makes it possible to play a melody and an accompaniment using different registrations at the same time.

Positives usually have few stops compared to larger organs. There are three that are standard—the 8’ stop, a 4’ flute, and 2’ principal (diapason). Somewhat larger positives might also have 2 2/3’ or other mutation stops and a small mixture of other pipes. Some have an 8’ reed stop, like a regal organ.

In a slider soundboards, the grooves underlying all the pipes are specific to a particular key. The sliders work across the grooves and are pierced with holes, admitting the wind to the pipes or cutting it off. The solid portions of the sliders close the pipes. When the register is to be included, the slider is pulled out until the holes are situated under the feet of the pipes so that the wind can enter unimpeded when the key is depressed. It was less likely to break than the spring version of stops, and was universally adopted in the Baroque period.

Positive Organ Name

I didn’t find anything to explain why the positive is named that way in English or any other language. It’s called a Rūckpositive in German, because the pipes were behind the player.

Positive Organ Players

Abt Georg Joseph Vogler (1749-1814) was a German who wandered all over Germany and England, and whose fame spread far beyond those boundaries. He opened three music schools and saw a lot of excellent musicians become professionals. He also did some work on changing the design of the organ. The English poet Robert Browning wrote a poem to him.

Cesar Franck (1822-1890) was a Belgian who came to study at the Paris Conservatoire and became a professor of organ there in 1871. His improvisatory style expanded on the repertoire of Bach and the French Baroque, and in the end, the design of the organ adapted to accommodate it as well. This style included lyrical themes, contrapuntal development, and orchestral color. He reportedly had huge hands  that could easily span 12 white notes on the keyboard (most people can reach eight), which may have affected his style. He only wrote 12 pieces for the organ (he was into improvisation), but was considered the best organ composer after Bach.

Gilles de Bins (c1400-1460), known as Binchois (biography to come), was a chorister and organist in France for three decades. He spent time working for William Pole, earl of Suffolk, who was in France with the English occupying forces. He also joined the chapel of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy sometime around 1427, and served at the Duke’s court until he retired in 1453. His involvement with English musicians affected the French music that he wrote.

Positive Organ Composers:

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) wrote the “Fauvel” motets (the story of a horse’s exploits), some of which were to be played on the organ.

Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) documented the rapid development of the positive organ by documenting the Halberstadt Cathedral organ, placed on record in 1618. The instrument had been built in 1361 and renovated in 1495. It had three hand-claviers or manuals and one pedal board (for the feet).


“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.


Composer Biography: Carlo Gesualdo (c1560-1613)

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Don Carlo Gesualdo’s noble Naples family acquired the principality of Venosa in 1560. He was born around that same time and was an actual prince (as you will discover, only in title. His personality left a little to be desired). His uncle was Carlo Borromeo, who later became a saint, and his mother was Girolama, the niece of Pope Pius IV. Carlo came from a seriously well-connected and ridiculously wealthy family, and it’s no wonder that he may have felt a little entitlement here and there.

He was a late-Renaissance lutenist, and also played the harpsichord and guitar. From all records, it seems that other than a couple of marriages and a few offspring, he was interested in little other than music. He had few friends and was prone to excesses of food and libation.

But let’s pause for a moment and consider his marriages. Today’s soap operas have nothing on young Carlo.

In 1586, 26-ish Carlo married his first cousin Maria d’Avalos, the daughter of the Marquis of Pescara. When she began a secret love affair with Fabrizio Carafa, the Duke of Andria, she was able to hide it from Carlo for about two years, although everyone else seemed to know. On October 16, 1590, at the Palazzo San Severo in Naples, when Carlo was supposed to be away on a hunting trip, the two were sufficiently indiscreet that Carlo, who’d made wooden copies of the keys to the palace, caught them in bed and murdered them.

He left their mutilated bodies for all to see in front of the palace. Because he was a nobleman, he could not be prosecuted (imagine!), and to hide from the relatives of his wife or her lover, who were likely to want revenge, he fled to his castle at Venosa.

There’s plenty of information about the murders, and it’s clear that Carlo was aided by his servants, who might also have participated in the murders, but who, at the very least, made the copies of the keys. The story goes that Carlo, as he repeatedly stabbed his wife, shouted “She’s not dead yet!” The Duke of Andria died of many deep sword wounds and a shot to the head. When he was found, he was in Maria’s night dress and his own clean clothes were left neatly folded by the bed.

Many poets, such as Torquato Tasso in Naples, wrote salacious verse about the murders. You can see that the story lends itself nicely to such efforts.

After the murders, reports differed. Some say that he also murdered his second son by Maria, who was an infant, because he looked into the child’s eyes and doubted his paternity. (By one report, he swung the infant around until the breath left his body). Some sources say that he murdered his father-in-law as well, in self-defense when Papa d’Avolos sought revenge for his daughter’s murder. But Carlo had hired a bunch of body guards to protect himself, so this seems improbable.

His second wife, Leonora d’Este, was niece to Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara, and they married in 1593 or 1594. This was a fortuitous marriage in that it gave Carlo contacts with the musical circle of Ferrara and through them, he met the poet Tasso, who became a friend. Ferraro was the home of the d’Este court and one of the centers of progressive musical activity, most notably the madrigal, which became Carlo’s stock in trade.

The new couple moved back to Carlo’s estate in Venosa in 1597. One has to wonder if Leonora was a little nervous about the arrangement.

Back in Venosa, Carlo set up a group of resident musicians, a kind of academy, to sing his own compositions in the privacy of his own home. No other composers were invited to participate, and he rarely left his castle, making music most of the time. He did a lot of composing during this period, as most of his music was published between 1603 and 1611.

But still, his new marriage was bad news. She accused him of abuse, and the Este family tried to obtain a divorce for her. She spent a lot of time away from the estate (and you can’t help but wonder what kind of jealous psychosis that set off), and there are records of Carlo’s angry letters to her at Modena, where she often went to stay with her brother. One contemporary wrote “she seems to have been a very virtuous woman for there is no record of his having killed her.” Heh. Wry.

When Carlo’s second son by his second marriage died in 1600, he had a large painting commissioned with images of his son, his second wife, and his uncle Carlo pictured underneath some angelic figures. It tidily implies familial bliss in with a nice death threat hanging over them all.

It’s likely that he studied with Pomponio Nenna, a renowned madrigalist in Naples. He studied with other iconic musicians in Venosa, too, including the nobleman lutenist Ettorre de la Marra.

His visits to Ferrara and his friend Tasso linked him to the “mannerist” madrigalists of northern Italy. This was a style committed to humanism and naturalism and was popular across all the arts. Other mannerists that you might have heard of include Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo in his early works.

Gesualdo wrote six volumes of five-part madrigals that were published starting in 1594. He also wrote two books of motets, a book of responsories, and a few keyboard works. There are three distinctive categories for his music: sacred vocal music, secular vocal music, and instrumental music.

His music is distinctive. The melodies vary wildly from fast to slow, and the harmonies are like chromatic scales (all the notes including the half steps, not just a major or minor scale) against the melodies. There’s a lot of passion in the work, and his experiments with chromaticism foreshadow the music that came much later—in the 20th century!

For lyrics, he was fond of contemporary poetry that had strong images, and which he dramatized and intensified with the music. He made sharp contrasts between diatonic (the eight notes of a scale, say, all the white keys between one C and the next on the piano) and chromatic (the 12 notes between one C and the next, including all the black keys). He played with the concepts of dissonance and consonance, waffled between chordal and imitative textures, and used slow-moving and active rhythms against one another. He particularly seemed to enjoy breaking up poetic lines to isolate certain words with the music.

He harbored certain obsessions, and a lot of Carlo’s  music features the words love, pain, death, ecstasy, and agony. Word painting was common at the time, although Carlo kind of took it a bit further than most. The texts he chose are closely wedded to the music, and in each piece, certain individual words are made considerably more conspicuous than the rest.

Unlike other composers of the time, Carlo expected all lines to be sung. Other composers of his time doubled or replaced a voice with an instrument. Yah, that might be part of what I like about his music. He knew what a voice could and couldn’t do, and he wrote for it.

Carlo’s work was occasionally imitated by composers such as Sigismondo d’India and Girolamo Frescobaldi in terms of polyphonic (multiple interesting melodic lines) madrigals. The chromatic nature of his compositions wasn’t heard again until the late 19th century. I suppose in one sense, he’s not the father of the twelve-tone system, but he’s certainly an ancestor.

For the most part, Carlo Gesualdo fell into obscurity until the late 20th century and when there was a resurgence of interest in the madrigal form.

Late in life, Carlo suffered from depression, possibly caused by a combination of guilt about the murders and the isolation he inflicted on himself. There are records about him ordering his servants to beat him daily, and he also tried to obtain various religious relics that were thought to help with mental disorders. Efforts to obtain absolution for his crimes through the church were unsuccessful.

Carlo died in isolation, at castle Gesualdo in Avellino, three weeks after the death of his son Emanuel, his first son by his first wife. Some biographers suggest that his second wife murdered him.

He was buried in the chapel of Saint Ignatius in the church of the Gesu’ Nuovo in Naples. The sepulcher was destroyed in the earthquake of 1688 and the rebuilt church covered over the tomb. They left the burial plaque visible, though.

Several novels and more than a handful of operas have been written based on his life. There was a short TV film made about his life (“Death for Five Voices”), and there are rumors of a biopic yet to come. Interestingly, 21st century jazz musicians consider him one of their own, and have um, re-interpreted the madrigals from books I, IV, and VI of his publications.



A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi, by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981

A History of Western Music, by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010


I Love a Good List

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It all began as a kind of a joke. We were sitting in my parent’s backyard on a warm summer evening, sipping lemonade made from the fruit of the ancient tree in the corner. My brother had said something about being harassed by bees, and my father had teased him about there only being one truly persistent little fellow.

I don’t know who said it, but someone said there was a bunch of bees lurking, waiting evilly to sting my poor brother without mercy. I picked up on the expression “a bunch of bees” and started listing all the other kinds of collectives that it could be. A bunch of bees, a bevy of bees, a bale, a band, a crowd of bees, a crew, a club, a flock, a fleet, a flotilla, a group of bees, a gaggle, a gang, and a herd of bees, a pod, a throng, a smattering, heck, I even went to a murder, an unkindness, and a business of bees. (Those last three go with crows, ravens, and ferrets, in case you were wondering.)

It became a thing with us, especially my dad and me. I’d spend hours trying to track down the name of a group of turtles (a bale). This was long before the Internet was much more than a bunch of forums. I even tripped over an old high school boyfriend on one of those forums in my mad quest to collect collectives. Later, I discovered that there are whole societies of people like me who collect these words.

It does seem like those people are all kooks, though. Hmmm.

My collection grew, and more than a decade later, my father requested the list, so I posted it to my website. (

When I was doing my research on Hildegard of Bingen, I was curious about why she began listing the local flora and fauna. I mean, it was a great idea but a rather enormous undertaking. Her motives seem to be about providing medical information. If you read some of her advice, well, it’s downright scary. She’d have you ingesting bits of iron ore that had been “soaked” in wine. Yikes. But I digress.

The point is, as I researched, I could see that it was fashionable to make lists in her lifetime. The greatest list ever written had been completed a little over a decade before she was born (the Domesday Book). It’s not clear whether this census of England and Wales (completed in 1086 for William the Conqueror, and meant to account for all of Britain’s assets) was the beginning of that fad or just the epitome of it. But it certainly triggered the tradition of applying a surname, which spread across Europe—they had to say WHICH John or Tom it was: the smith, the dark-haired one, or the one from Leadenham.

But there were tons of other lists. Scientists listed stars and planets and such (as they knew them), mathematicians listed equations and formulas, botanists listed plants, doctors listed bones and cures, women listed fabrics, ribbons, and other sewing notions, and so on, each according to his or her interests. For more than a century, Europe was compiling lists of things.

It’s a wonderful snapshot, really. Domesday set the trend for inventorying, and businesses made lists and itemized for customers, taxes, and their own reckoning of personal wealth. Private citizens listed their belongings and their friends, public figures listed their accomplishments and their supporters. Even lists of lists were in vogue.

The good news is that scientists and historians alike have a wonderful insight into the Middle Ages because of this fad. If you spend some time at your local university library, you can even see some of these lists in action. My personal favorite is the bestiary. These lists of animals (real and imaginary) included stories and fables, attributions of traits (so that when you made your family crest you had the right traits highlighted), and sometimes illustrations or attributions to who might have made the association. There’s a good online bestiary at

During the Middle Ages, the age of chivalry, you might recall, if you were an aristocratic family, you came up with a family crest. This was made into stained glass windows for your castle, emblazoned on the doors, cutlery, and household tapestries, and most certainly could be found on your sword’s hilt and front and center on your shield. 

If you were royalty, for instance, you might choose a lion because it’s the king of the other beasts. It is thought to be wily, wary, and fair in judgements. A lion’s strength is in its chest, its firmness in its head, and its courage in its forehead and tail. The roar of a lion makes other animals weak with fear. The lion is thought to represent Jesus to Christians, to illustrate both irrational fear and irrational courage to readers of Aesop’s Fables, and Pliny the Elder’s readers think of the lion as a kind of self-regulating study in moderation. Rampant (reared up on its hind legs), standing, and lying down lions were options, as were forked tails, two heads, two bodies (with a single head), three or even four bodies, wings, webbed feet, and a fish tail from the waist down.

You and your family leaders would choose the suitable heraldic beast and design something that was meaningful to you. So you consulted a list and later, your crest was added to a list of crests.

In short (is it too late for that?), my interest in lists may SEEM innate, but really, it is yet another outcropping of my interest in the Middle Ages. Put it on the list of things I’m inadvertently consistent about.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 31, 2011 at 5:37 pm