This monstrous ‘organ’ of squealing pigs was built at King Louis XI’s command

8 July 2022, 13:27

The monstrous medieval ‘organ’ of squealing pigs built at King Louis XI’s command
The monstrous medieval ‘organ’ of squealing pigs built at King Louis XI’s command. Picture: The British Museum

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Discover the extraordinary story of the ill-famed Louis XI of France, and his harmony of hogs.

This is the Piganino – a somewhat legendary instrument originating in 15th-century France.

Over the years it has earned a stream of satirical nicknames, from the ‘Sweinway’ and Hog Harmonium, to the Porko Forte or ‘Pigano’.

'La Piganino', one of history's grotesque musical inventions
'La Piganino', one of history's grotesque musical inventions. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

It was built for Louis XI, King of France (1461-83), nicknamed the Universal Spider or ‘l’universelle araignée’, as the King who trusted no one and spied on both his enemies and his own kingdom.

Thinking it impossible, the King challenged the Abbé the Baigne to create a “concert of swine’s voices” for his entertainment.

But the Abbot, well-known for his skill in inventing new musical instruments – as well as, coincidentally, his knowledge of pig breeds – completed the King’s request. He created a keyboard device on which each key was connected to a spike, which jabbed the rump of a live pig causing it to squeal. Each pig was positioned according to size and age, to guarantee an ascending melody line.

Read more: The medieval ‘Shame Flute’ was used to punish bad musicians in the Middle Ages

The Sweinway is part of a long, dark history of musical instrument-making (you can read about the supposed ‘cat organ’ here) and the use of animals for entertainment purposes. Dog fights, bear-baiting and cock fights were all common practice across Europe at the tail end of the Middle Ages and beyond.

This time also saw the birth of many musical instruments that are still loved and played today, including the lute, recorder, the Psaltery – and everyone’s favourite, the hurdy-gurdy, otherwise known as the zanfona, which can be heard in all its glory below:

Dark Medieval Ballad performed on Hurdy-Gurdy in YouTube clip