Medieval plectrums: the written, iconographical and material evidence. Part 2/2: Medieval and early renaissance plectrum technique.

Part 1 brought together the written, iconographical and material evidence for the characteristics of plectrums used to play the gittern, lute, psaltery, citole and cetra, made from quills, gut strings, metal, bone, and ivory.

In part 2 we examine the practical evidence for medieval plectrum technique. Iconography is presented to demonstrate medieval ways of holding a plectrum; suggestions are made for easy accompaniment of monophonic melodies; the myth that plectrum instruments could not play polyphony is disproven; and evidence is presented for an intermediate stage in the 15th century between playing with a plectrum and playing with fingertips, using both simultaneously. Finally, we answer the question: were plectrums always used to play medieval plucked chordophones?

This article includes 6 videos to illustrate medieval and early renaissance plectrum technique, beginning with citole and gittern playing an untitled polyphonic instrumental – probably a ductia – from British Library Harley 978, folio 8v-9r, c. 1261–65. 

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Medieval plectrums: the written, iconographical and material evidence. Part 1/2: Medieval plectrum materials and manufacture.

Studies of medieval musical instruments draw upon written testimony, iconography (manuscript art, painting, drawing, sculpture and stained glass windows) and surviving instruments to describe their characteristics and the way they developed over time. In my search for evidence about medieval plectrums, I was surprised to find not one dedicated paper, book chapter or webpage. This article is an attempt to bring the written, iconographical and material evidence together and present some new research, focussing on the characteristics of plectrums used to play the gittern, lute, psaltery, citole and cetra, made from quills, gut strings, metal, bone, and ivory. We begin with an illustrative video of La Uitime estampie Real (The Eighth Royal estampie), c. 1300, played on citole and gittern with plectrums of antler, horn and gut string. 

In the second article, we survey the evidence for plectrum playing technique, with practical applications for modern players of medieval music; and evaluate whether all medieval plucked instruments were played with plectrums.   

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The citole: from confusion to clarity. Part 1/2: What is a citole?

© Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The citole, a plucked fingerboard instrument of the 13th and 14th centuries, is today the most misunderstood of all medieval instruments. It is regularly wrongly identified as a plucked fiddle or a guitar, often confused with the cetra, and mistaken assumptions are made about its string material and its distinctive wedge neck with a thumb-hole.

Using the surviving British Museum citole, medieval iconography and medieval testimony, these two articles set out the evidence, drawing on the ground-breaking research of Lawrence Wright, Crawford Young and Alice Margerum, with some additional observations.

This first article describes the citole’s physical form, string material and tuning. The second article describes the playing style and repertoire of the instrument.

We begin this article with video of a copy of the British Museum citole playing music from c. 1300: La seconde Estampie RoyalThe second Royal Estampie. Read more

The medieval harp (2/3): harp symbolism

In the middle ages, musical instruments were not just important for the music they produced, but for what they symbolised. Using medieval art and the testimonies of medieval writers, this article describes the harp as the foremost symbolic instrument: an emblem of King David, Old Testament monarch and reputed writer of the Psalms; the harp as a representation of cosmic consonance, bringing harmony between heaven and earth; and the harp’s gut strings and wooden frame as a symbol of Christ on the cross.

This is the second of three articles about the medieval harp. The first describes harp development from ancient Egypt to the end of the medieval period; and the third seeks out evidence for medieval performance practice.

Each article begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to historically attested performance principles. This article begins with La Seste estampie RealThe Sixth Royal estampie.

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The medieval harp (1/3): origins and development

This article, the first of three about the medieval harp, sets out what we know about its earliest known development, looking at harp forms, decoration, stringing, and the problem of language in original sources. We see surviving instruments and manuscript illustrations from ancient Egypt to the middle ages – arched harps and angle harps, open harps and pillar harps – leading to the development of the bray harp and the Irish/Scottish cláirseach/clarsach of the early renaissance.

This is followed by a second article about medieval harp symbolism and a third about medieval harp performance practice.

Each article begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to historically attested performance principles. This article begins with La quarte Estampie RoyalThe fourth Royal Estampie.

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“the verray develes officeres”: minstrels and the medieval church

In the middle ages, minstrels were regularly accused by church commentators of vanity, idleness, inflaming carnal desire, lechery, and leading others into vice. In the 12th century, Bishop of Chartres John of Salisbury expressed the view that all minstrels should be exterminated. Because of this reputation, the church wanted to ensure that its most sacred music was different in kind to minstrel music, and restated several times that only the voice and organ were allowed in the liturgy, not instruments of minstrelsy. Still some writers complained bitterly of secular styles of music corrupting singers’ voices in sacred chant.

How can we account for the contradiction between clergy’s invectives against minstrels and the innumerable quantity of medieval and renaissance paintings in which gitterns, shawms, harps, fiddles, lutes – the instruments of minstrels – are shown in worship of the Virgin Mary and in praise of the infant Jesus? How can we reconcile the critiques of clerics against minstrels with their regular appearance in religious manuscripts, their likenesses carved in churches, and their employment by the church? This article seeks answers through the evidence of medieval Christian moralists; church councils; music treatises; religious paintings; records of church ceremonies; and the relationship of the church with organised minstrelsy.

Images from The Luttrell Psalter, 1325-1340 (BL Add MS 42130).
Top row, left to right: church singers (f. 171v); bishop (f. 31r); pilgrim (f. 32r); nun (f. 51v).
This row, left to right, players of: harp (f. 174v); pipe and tabor (f. 164v);
organistrum, also called the symphony (f. 176r); portative organ (f. 176r).

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Jheronimus Bosch and the music of hell. Part 2/3: The Garden of Earthly Delights

In part 1, we examined the repeated claim that the hell panel of Jheronimus Bosch’s painting of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, includes readable Gregorian notation painted on a sinner’s bottom, and provided evidence that this is not the case.

In part 2 we explore the message about music in the whole triptych. We will see Bosch’s preaching with paint, the symbolism of sin in his Garden, featuring Lucifer’s lutes, hell’s hurdy gurdy, Beelzebub’s bray harp, Diabolus’ drum, a recorder in the rectum, Satan’s shawm, a terrifying trumpet and triangle, a brazen bagpipe, and the unplayable music on the sinner’s bottom and in the book he is lying on.

This article makes reference to literature from Bosch’s Netherlands and beyond, from his lifetime and before, to explore the rich meaning of his imagery: the nakedness of his figures, a massive mussel, oversize strawberries, a bird-man on a commode devouring sinners, demonic serpents, giant instruments of music made into instruments of torture for musical sinners, and the choir of hell.

Finally, in part 3 we seek the answer to the question posed by this painting and by all of Bosch’s work: what did Bosch have against music, and against musicians?

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