The Elbląg ‘gittern’: a case of mistaken identity. Part 1/2: Why the koboz was misidentified.

In 1986, an instrument identified as a gittern was found in a latrine in Elbląg, Poland, dated to 1350–1450. Having commissioned luthier Paul Baker to create a replica, the instrument that emerged was a puzzle, taking Paul and I on a journey of discovery to reveal the true identity of the recovered instrument.

This is the story of the musician who commissioned a gittern and received a koboz (kobza, cobza, plural kobzok). To understand the true identity of the instrument, this article explores the Elbląg excavation; structural reasons the instrument cannot be a gittern; and a potted history of Elbląg and Poland, placing the instrument in its historical context, revealing why the scholarship so far has misidentified the instrument.

This is followed in part 2 by an exploration of the difficulties of language in medieval accounts, where the same word is used for a variety of instruments. The characteristics of the particular type of koboz found in Elbląg are established, and examples of its appearance given in eastern and western European literature and iconography, previously unrecognised, hidden in plain sight. Finally, the importance of the Elbląg find is evaluated.

We begin with a video of 15th century Polish music, Angelus ad virginem missus, played on a copy of the surviving Elbląg koboz.

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The vihuela and viola da mano: siblings of the lute

All players of early music will be familiar with the lute, the plucked polyphonic instrument par excellence of the European renaissance. In 16th century Spain, prime position was given not to the lute but to the vihuela da mano, depicted in Spanish iconography as the instrument of Orpheus, Arion, Venus, and the angels of heaven. The vihuela drew upon the polyphonic compositions of Europe for its intabulations, as well as having had its own repertoire in 7 books printed between 1536 and 1576 by such Spanish composers as Luis Milán, Luys de Narváez, and Alonso Mudarra. In 16th century Italy, where the lute was dominant, the vihuela was called the viola da mano, and was suggested as an alternative to the lute in two prints of the music of Francesco Canova da Milano, musician to three successive popes.

This article traces the vihuela/viola da mano through its medieval origins; explains its relationship to the lute; illustrates the connection between the bowed vihuela/viola and the plucked vihuela/viola; describes the three surviving instruments; shows, through iconography, the difference in plucking style between the Spanish vihuela and the Italian viola da mano and lute; discusses the evidence for octave or unison stringing of courses; outlines the available music; and describes its use in mythological imagery.

We begin with a video performance of fantasia del quarto Tono by Luys de Narváez on vihuela/viola da mano. To illustrate the process of intabulation (turning a polyphonic song into a polyphonic piece for plucked strings) there are three videos of Josquin des Prez’s Mille regretz (A thousand regrets): for 4 voices; for solo vihuela; then for voice and lute. A fourth video shows a viola da mano playing a recercare by Francesco Spinacino and Rossina by Hans Judenkünig. We conclude with links to facsimiles of all 16th century vihuela tablature prints.

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The citole: from confusion to clarity. Part 2/2: playing style and repertoire

Following on from the first article outlining the evidence for the citole’s multiple physical forms, string material and tuning, this second article examines the evidence for the citole’s playing style, repertoire, and the social contexts in which it was played. We examine the reliability of playing positions in iconography; overturn the modern myth that the thumb-hole restricts the fretting hand; show that the citole is easily capable of playing two voice polyphony; and give evidence for the musical genres citole players engaged in, including songs, jongleur (minstrel), troubadour and trouvère material, religious repertoire and dance music.

We begin this article with a video of La septime estampie RealThe seventh Royal estampie, c. 1300, played on a copy of the surviving British Museum citole.

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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 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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Performing medieval music. Part 1/3: Instrumentation

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the first of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

This first article discusses the use of instruments and instrument combinations in medieval music. The illustrations in two manuscripts are used as typical representative examples: the 13th century Iberian Cantigas de Santa Maria and the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter. The second article gives practical methods for making arrangements of medieval monophonic music according to historical principles, with an example to illustrate each method; and the third article discusses questions of style, including the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) music of the troubadours, ornamentation, and the medieval voice. Read more

Surprising songs of sentient statues: the Virgin, Venus, and Jason and the Argonauts (Cantigas de Santa Maria article 6/6)

Three statues which live and move in their stories:
the Virgin Mary and Jesus (c. 1260–80, made in Paris),
Talos (bronze giant in the Greek tale, Jason and the Argonauts)
and Venus (2nd century CE Roman copy of a Greek original).

In the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of 420 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary by King Alfonso X and his court, 1257–83, there is a large group of songs featuring statues of Mary which talk, move, give protection, heal, and enact terrible acts of violence.

This article, the last in a series of six exploring the Cantigas, describes these surprising songs of sentient statues, placing them in the context of medieval beliefs about holy effigies and the long history of mythical moving images, including the goddess Venus, the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, Pinocchio, and some current controversies.   

We begin with a performance of Cantiga 42 on voice and vielle (medieval fiddle), in which a jealous Mary, inhabiting her statue, sends a man running terrified from his bed on his wedding night.

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On the medieval fiddle: a short introduction to the vielle

WaltersMuseumW37f.20vA 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 the violin 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.  

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The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle

QueenMaryPsalter.Royal2BVIIf.174The vielle or medieval fiddle was the most popular instrument in its heyday for secular song accompaniment. It first appeared in western Europe in the 11th century and continued to be played until the middle of the 16th century, flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries. There is a wealth of vielle iconography, which can tell us a great deal about the variety of its form and the context of its use. There is a medieval source for its tuning, Jerome of Moravia in the 13th century, who gives 3 tunings for 5 strings, leaving us with some puzzles as to what exactly they mean in practice, and whether they can be applied to fiddles with fewer than 5 strings. Our only renaissance tuning source is Johannes Tinctoris in the 15th century, which isn’t entirely clear in its meaning.

This page provides 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 or bowed lyre, demonstrating that they were identical in style, having more in common with the hurdy gurdy family than modern bowed strings.

There are two editions of this article. This one includes detailed analysis. For a brief introduction, go to On the medieval fiddle: a short introduction to the vielle.

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