A mention of the violin today is likely to conjure up images of a classical, orchestral, or jazz musician, whereas the word fiddle is more likely to suggest a traditional or folk musician, even though they’re essentially the same instrument, set up differently to suit different styles of playing. This class-based relegation of the term fiddle was not always so. Centuries before the creation of either the violin or the viola da gamba it eventually supplanted, there was the medieval fiddle, also known by its French name, the vielle. This brief introduction demonstrates that the playing style and sound of the medieval fiddle had more in common with the hurdy gurdy and the crwth (bowed lyre) than the modern violin. Includes illustrations and video examples.
This is one of two editions of this article, being a short introduction to the vielle, intended for the general reader. There is a longer version, The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle, which has a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth.
The importance of the vielle
The importance of the vielle in mid to late medieval European culture is clear from surviving historical artefacts, paintings and manuscripts. From the 12th century on, the vielle is associated in literature with both amateur and professional players (along with the citole and harp), as an instrument to play dance music; to accompany secular songs; and as an accompaniment to religious song.
The vielle found favour in royal and noble households. The seal of Bertan II, Count of Forcalquier, France, dated 1168, has him armed with a sword and shield on horseback on one side, and sat playing a vielle on the other; King Ottokar II of Bohemia, writing in the early 13th century, gave the names of 17 fiddlers at King Manfred of Sicily’s court, implying that there were many others; and Duchess Isabella, wife of Duke Philip the Good in 15th century Burgundy, employed two blind Portuguese lutenists who also played vielle and other “soft”, i.e. indoor, instruments.
The medieval fiddle is a regular element in decorated manuscripts and paintings of the period, and features in religious paintings played by angels or humans in attendance of the holy, sometimes on its own, often among other instruments.
Minstrels, musicians in the employ of wealthy households, used the fiddle to accompany others’ singing; and jongleurs, French musician-poets who performed both in the service of the wealthy and freelance, used it to accompany dancing and their own singing of chansons de geste, songs of heroic deeds, a popular genre in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The troubadours, French Provençal lyric poets and singers of the 11th to 13th centuries, now have the reputation of having the vielle as their favoured instrument, as do the trouvères, the epic poets and singers of northern France in the 11th to 14th centuries. While this idea is repeatedly cited, it is not backed up by the evidence, which does not tell us how troubadour and trouvère songs were accompanied, or indeed if they were. What seems most likely to have happened is that some modern writers have extrapolated from minstrels and jongleurs and presumed troubadours and trouvères to have the same performance practices.
Distinctive structural features
Looking at the many available images, a modern bowed string player would immediately notice some distinctive structural features.
The first is the option, on a 5 string vielle only, of a bourdon. Harps and psalteries had bourdons, too. In their case, it was a low pitched string, sometimes pitched several steps below the next string in the sequence, that acted as a drone string. In the case of the vielle, it was a low-pitched string placed off the fingerboard and attached to the side of the pegbox by passing through a hole, so it could only be played open. As we see from the angle at which the bourdon leaves the bridge to reach the pegbox on the angel in green painting on the right, this made it possible to play the bourdon by plucking with the left thumb. Dominican friar and music theorist, Jerome of Moravia, writing in c. 1280, made it clear that the bourdon could also be bowed.
The second and third features are a variety of body shapes, some very wide, and a variety of bridges. The bridge height was either less than its width or equal to its width (unlike on a violin), making for a low action (the relative height of the strings to the instrument). The iconography suggests most strongly that the bridge was often flat, unlike the marked arc of a violin bridge, severely limiting the angle at which strings can be bowed and positively necessitating drone playing on all strings at once. Of course, even on a completely flat bridge, string slots in the bridge could be made of various depths to create the string arc that violinists are used to, enabling single string playing; but the iconography and the logic of the tuning system do not suggest this.
Above we see the three types of bridge on a vielle. In all these cases, there is a separate string-holder which has a particular effect on string pressure, creating downward tension on the soundboard, whereas a fixed and glued bridge without string-holder creates an upward pressure on the soundboard.
On the left, from Hans Memling, Angel Musicians, Antwerp, 1480s, we see a flat bridge and therefore strings of equal height. Often this would be a simple wooden block. In this case and in some other iconography, the block is castellated, possibly to allow tuning of individual strings. Luthier Chris Doddridge tells me that castellation also has a beneficial effect on string vibration and overall timbre. Castellated bridge or not, strings would generally have to be bowed as one humming block.
Top right is a detail of a vielle from the San Francesco Church, Giffoni Valle Piana, Italy, early 15th century. Here the strings disappear into the string holder on a supporting post. On such iconography, the strings again appear to be flat, though they could technically be made as an arc. On this design, the string holder is on the edge of the instrument, as we see here. On some iconography, the holder covers up to half the body of the fiddle.
The third bridge type, bottom right, shown next to the bow, is seen on the anonymous A ball in Augsburg, c. 1590-1595. This curved bridge is seen from the 14th century, allowing any string to be played individually, as on a modern violin.
Overall, historical images show us a range of sizes; a variety of shapes, most typically having a body shaped as an oblong box with rounded edges or with a gently curving waist; the neck was sometimes fretted with gut, more often unfretted; string numbers were usually 4 or 5, but sometimes 3 and possibly 6; it was played on the shoulder, or against the upper chest, or occasionally on the knee facing forward like the rebab or viola da gamba; and played with bows of various sizes, lengths and curvatures.
Left: Two details from The Way of Salvation fresco in the Spanish Chapel, Florence, by Andrea di Bonaiuto, 1365. Here we see the low, flat bridge and the use of a bourdon on a 5 string vielle. The position of the thumb implies the bourdon is plucked while the other strings are bowed. The illustration bottom right, from the Boethius manuscript, De Musica, 14th century, strongly suggests this, too. Compare the shape and the low height of the vielle bridge from the green angel in the Immaculate Conception Altarpiece above and from The Way of Salvation fresco with that on the detail of the baroque violin, top right, from Orazio Gentileschi, Young Woman Playing a Violin, c. 1612. The low, flat vielle bridge would facilitate playing all the strings as one sonic block, not possible on the curved violin bridge, and would make it much fuller-sounding but quieter than the violin.
A variety of sizes, shapes, strings, and bourdon / fret choices (click picture to open in new window).
From left to right:
Lincoln Cathedral, 13th century: 5 strings, no bourdon, fretless.
Gloucester Cathedral, c. 1280: 3 strings, fingerboard not visible.
From the Chapel of San Nicola in Tolentino, Italy, after 1305: 5 strings, bourdon, fretless.
Manuscript in Austria, c. 1300–1350 (Universitätsbibliothek Graz 32, fol. 106v): 4 apparent strings but 6 pegs, no bourdon, fretted. There are occasional depictions of 6 string vielles. Does this image suggest 6 strings in 3 or 4 courses, or is this artistic license we shouldn’t take literally?
Hans Memling, Antwerp, 1480s: 5 strings, no bourdon, fretted.
Surviving instruments I: the Elblag “fidel”?
In 1986–1989, during excavations in Elblag / Elbing, Poland (it’s been in both Polish and German territory, and so has two names), several instruments were found in the latrine of a wealthy house: two bone pipes and a recorder from the 14th–16th century; a koboz dated 1350–1450 (misidentified as a gittern, the western European counterpart to the eastern koboz); and, from the same era, an instrument carved from a single piece of linden wood with a spruce soundboard, described by excavators as “a very small fidel”, measuring 33.3cm long.
The lutherie of the instrument is extremely rough: the back of the asymmetrical body shows traces of hewing to carve the hollow bowl and the back and side of the radically uneven neck show gouge marks by the maker. It was not smoothed or polished. It must be significant that the area around Kowalska Street, where it was found, was inhabited by some of the poorer people of Elblag. The instrument, having fallen into the latrine and found 5 or 6 centuries later, is damaged but otherwise well preserved. It is missing the lower part of body, part of the soundboard, the bridge, and the peg heads. It has 4 broken peg stumps and 4 grooves in the nut of roughly equal spacing for 4 strings.
The excavators’ description, “similar to a baroque dance master violin”, likens it to a 17th century kit or pochette, similar in size and sometimes the shape of the rebec design. So is this a rebec or a vielle? I will conclude that, in all likelihood, it is neither, but before we arrive at that conclusion it is worth briefly exploring some iconography to explain why the distinction between vielle and rebec is not always easy to make.
The problem with identification is that some bowed instruments in the rebec shape were clearly vielles. We see 4 examples of just such an instrument below. The first three show 5 string fiddles with a bourdon; the last, if it is to be taken literally (and all other evidence shows it should not), shows 3 strings plus a bourdon (which should be 5 strings in total, to have a bourdon). All are vielles, but all in the shape also associated with the rebec.
From left to right: a detail from an English psalter, first half of the 12th century (Bibliotheque Municipale, Lunel, France, MS. I, f. 6); a sculpture by Bennedeto Antelami, c. 1180, in the baptistry of Parma Cathedral, Italy; from the Lambertus Treatise, French, 13th century (King David with musicians on f. Av of Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, MS. lat. 6755(2)); and a 13th or 14th century illustration added to 10th century manuscript of De Musica by the Roman senator and philosopher, Boethius, originally written c. 510 (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy, Cod. C. 128).
Distinguishing with certainty between the rebec and vielle must therefore take into account a variety of factors. Both instruments were carved from solid wood. The vielle had a variety of body shapes and the rebec only one, a form also used by the vielle. The rebec had 3 strings and the vielle had between 3 and 5. The 5 string variety of fiddle often had a bourdon, the rebec never did. Vielles were sometimes fretted, often unfretted, and rebecs were always unfretted. This means that, in some cases, it would be only the tuning – not visible in iconography – and the rebec’s arced bridge which distinguish it from the vielle, a distinction made even finer by the fact that some vielles also had an arced bridge and the bridge, in any case, is often not visible in depictions. Christopher Page observes a further distinctive factor of instrument names built upon r-b – rubeba, rubeb, rubeba, rebecca, rebeccum, rebec: their small size. Jerome of Moravia in the 13th century, and Jean Charlier de Gerson and Johannes Tinctoris respectively in the 15th century, all describe the “rebeba” / “rebecca” / “rebecum” as small, or smaller than the vielle.
Rebec or fiddle? First on the right are details from a late 15th century manuscript, Le livre des échecs amoureux moralisés (The book of chess lovers moralised), produced for Louise de Savoy (1476-1531), mother of King Francis I of France, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. The mermaid’s instrument is shown with 3 lines for strings, clearly meant as 3 courses since there are 5 tuning pegs. This is a 3 course vielle with an arced bridge in the shape also associated with the rebec.
The next two images were painted by Melozzo da Forlì in c. 1480 in the Basilica dei Santi Apostoli, Rome. First, an instrument with an arced bridge and very much in the rebec shape, but with 4 strings and frets. Judging by the criteria established above, this is therefore a 4 string vielle. This is a particularly interesting example, as on the above ‘rebec-shaped vielles’ it has not been possible to see the shape of the back: this shows it to have a bowl identical to the rebec.
The next instrument is a clearly-depicted 4 string vielle with a flat bridge. The juxtaposition of these two Melozzo da Forlì instruments from the same source illustrates the contemporaneous multiplicity of vielle shapes.
Finally, the form of this 3 string fiddle, a detail from the painting of baby Jesus’ bath in Köln Cathedral, Germany, 13th–15th century, is the shape and larger size we would ordinarily expect of a vielle, and the typical shape luthiers now use for their reproduction instruments.
On this basis, the rebec is distinguished from the vielle of the same teardrop shape by having a combination of no frets, an arced bridge, a relatively small size, and 3 strings. The Elblag instrument was carved broadly in the rebec shape with no evidence of frets and no possibility of frets, due to the very rough and uneven shape of the neck, and it is only 33.3cm long. These factors in isolation might indicate a rebec, but other factors throw up a range of insurmountable problems preventing clear identification.
(i) The Elblag instrument has 4 nut grooves and 4 pegs for 4 strings. Together with the fact that it has a single sound hole in the centre of the soundboard, unknown on any rebec, it cannot be a rebec and is too small to be a vielle.
(ii) Identification of this “fidel” as a bowed instrument is uncertain. Neither an indicative bridge nor a bow was found with it. This does not mean it was not bowed, just that identification as a bow or plectrum instrument cannot therefore be made.
(iii) The instrument was found in Poland. As Alexander Lyczywek of the University of Gdansk laments in his study of the Elblag findings, research into musical history and instrument organology in eastern Europe is sparse. This, I have to conclude, is what led Polish researchers to identify the eastern koboz found in Elblag as a western gittern, an error repeated in all literature I have found on the Elblag instruments. The “fidel” may be a gudok, an eastern European bowed instrument similiar to a rebec, but its appearance in Elblag does not match gudoks played today, and I have found no research into its historical evolution, so this identification is similarly impossible.
In conclusion, we can identify criteria for distinguishing between the sometimes visually similar rebec and one form of the vielle, but we lack any reliable criteria for identifying the Elblag instrument, even whether it was played with a plectrum or a bow.
Surviving instruments II: Saint Catherine de Vigri
Saint Catherine de Vigri (1413–1463) was first lady-in-waiting to Margherita d’Este, and later joined the Order of Poor Clares of Corpus Domini at Ferrara before becoming Abbess of their first convent in Bologna, Italy. Canonised in 1712, Saint Catherine was a musician, and the vielle now on public display in the Corpus Domini Church at Bologna belonged to her. The body and neck of her 4 string vielle, 49cm long, are carved from a single piece of wood, and it has a flat bridge. Not only is the fiddle and bow on display in a glass case, so is she, sat on a chair, her skin now blackened with age.
Surviving instruments III: the Mary Rose
The only other two fiddles known to have survived are English. Ironically, they were not preserved through being in someone’s private collection, but because they sank to the bottom of the Solent – the strait between the Isle of Wight and mainland of England – on board Henry VIII’s ship, the Mary Rose, on 19th July 1545. It wasn’t until 1971 that the wreck was discovered, and not until 1978 that the initial excavation work began. Unsurprisingly, then, neither of the found fiddles have survived intact; but the remains do show that these vielles were also carved from solid wood.
Together with the other surviving fiddles and observations from iconography such as that from the Church of Sainte Pierre in Moissac, and from the Gate of Glory, Santiago de Compostela, shown above, this strongly suggests that all vielles, like rebecs and gitterns, were hewn from solid wood rather than made from wood glued together in separate sections, like lutes.
Three vielle tunings
The key source for medieval fiddle tuning is Tractatus de Musica, written in Paris in c. 1280 by Dominican friar and music theorist, Jerome of Moravia. It was written for inexperienced church musicians, for “the friars of our orders or of another”, to help them understand and perform ecclesiastical chant. In the final short chapter he moves his attention to bowed strings, including the “viella” and its tunings. It therefore follows that, in the church of Jerome’s day, the vielle was considered a suitable instrument for accompanying church music, such that Jerome was moved to give instruction on its religious (and secular) use, as indeed is testified by its regular depiction in religious settings.
Jerome’s writing is very special for early music researchers, being the earliest surviving record of the construction and tuning of medieval instruments. He wrote that the vielle “has, or should have, 5 strings.” Enough of the iconography shows both 4 string and 5 string vielles, and some with 3 strings, so therefore I take Jerome’s “should have” to be his personal preference.
The first string on the 5 string fiddle is used as a bourdon in the first and third of Jerome’s three tunings: it is placed off the fingerboard and attached to the side of the peghead so that it can only be plucked or bowed open. Since there is no evidence of bourdon practice on the 3 or 4 string fiddle, perhaps Jerome considered this option to be integral to the instrument.
The first two tunings consist entirely of notes d and g in different octaves, with mostly single strings and some doubled strings or courses, i.e. two strings paired in unison or in octaves. In other words, these tunings appear to have been intended as drones, i.e. all the strings are sounded at once, with the melody played on top of or in the middle of the droning open strings, hence the fiddle’s flat bridge. In the second tuning, almost all notes in medieval music theory are available in first position, so this tuning alone could be the ideal candidate for the curved bridge.
The implications of crwth technique and tuning
The third tuning is more mysterious: a G bourdon, then G, d, and 2 x c’, presumably as a unison pair. A modern bowed string player would find such a tuning baffling. I’m going to suggest that there is a historically-attested solution for this tuning, found in comparison with crwth technique.
The European bowed crwth (or crowd) was a development that emerged in AD 900–1000 from the plucked lyre, which dates back to 2000 BC. The crwth flourished in western Britain from the 11th century, and in the rest of Europe was known as the chrotta, crotta, or rotta. Pockets of crwth players continued to play in Wales right through to the 19th century.
In the 12th century we have the first evidence of a crwth with drone bourdon strings, 2 strings positioned across the bridge and then off the fingerboard, either plucked by the player’s left thumb or bowed, as on the vielle. Since this practice began in the 12th century and became commonplace in the mid to late 14th century, we can speculate that either the 5 string vielle with a bourdon took on a feature of the crwth, or conversely that the crwth took on a feature of the vielle. The bourdon was still used until the crwth’s demise in the 19th century.
British Library Add. MS 15020:91, dated 1768-9, with a copy in Wales now known as Aberystwyth MS 168:6, gives very clear crwth tuning instructions, which turn out to be practically identical to Jerome’s third fiddle tuning. Both tunings are designed around open strings g, c and d in different octaves; and both bring out different drones when a particular course is used to play the melody. On the crwth and on Jerome’s third vielle tuning, with the melody played on the d course, we have a g/c drone, nominally a C chord; and with the melody on the c course we have a g/d drone, nominally a G chord. You can see how this works in practice in the video below.
The string spacing on the crwth is such that gaps between strings of a course are smaller than between courses, as one would expect, enough to identify each pair of strings. At the same time, the gaps between the two strings of a course are enough that a player can easily chose to stop one or the other octave of a course, or stop both together. From a short distance a non-player could easily mistake this for equal string spacing, as we see in much of the vielle iconography. I suggest that both vielle and crwth were double-strung with string spacing that looked equal to a non-player, probably so as to be able to split a course when the player required it.
So both the 5 string vielle and the crwth employ a bourdon off the fingerboard; a flat bridge to effect a block of strings played as a drone; both use strings in courses tuned in octaves but with a wide string spacing within the course; and Jerome’s third vielle tuning is, for all practical purposes, identical to traditional crwth tuning.
It is tempting to suggest that these two instruments are so closely related that it cannot be a coincidence, that the vielle was a development of the crwth, just as the crwth was a development of the lyre.
Lessons from the wheel fiddle
The structure and tuning of the medieval fiddle suggests that it should not be thought of in the same musical category or soundworld as later bowed instruments such as the viola da gamba and violin, whose function is purely or primarily melodic. Rather, the fiddle should be more associated with the family of instruments which function as a melody played over or within a continuous drone, as with the crwth.
Characterised in this way, there is a group of instruments which, like the vielle, was used in church music: the family which evolved from organistrum to simfony to vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy). From the 10th century we have evidence of the organistrum, named after the church vocal style of organum, then meaning voices in parallel octaves, fourths or fifths. The organistrum is a large drone instrument played by two people, one to turn the crank for the rosined wheel which acts like a continuous bow against the two drone strings and single melody string, and one to play the tangents (keys) to play the melody string over the drones. By the 13th century, a smaller, one person version had been developed, the simfony; and by c. 1500 this had evolved further into the vielle à roue, literally the wheel fiddle, known in later times as the hurdy gurdy, with its rhythmically buzzing bridge.
I suggest that this naming of the vielle à roue or wheel fiddle is significant. Indeed, it seems sensible to assume that the vielle à roue gained its name, not just from the wheel acting like a continuous fiddle bow, but also that, and even primarily that, the drone playing created the same soundworld as the vielle. Certainly Jerome’s 13th century drone tunings are in a style of music that was fundamental in the 11th century, and the emergence of the vielle à roue in c. 1500 suggests that this style was still played on the vielle/fiddle then.
So today’s violin or fiddle and the medieval vielle or fiddle are very different instruments, designed for very different conceptions of music and worlds of sound. You can see and hear this in the video below (click on picture, opens in new window). Gabriel Alejandro Hernández plays a 5 string fiddle with some curvature on the bridge, so his drone playing is on adjacent strings only, and he demonstrates the plucked bourdon: Aurea personet lira, attributed to Fulbert de Chartres, France, 952/970–1028.
There is a longer version of this article, The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle, with a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth.