How reliable is medieval music iconography? Part 3/3: Making the Martini gittern

The first of these three articles focussed on understanding the nature of medieval art, its artistic conventions and relationship to reality. The second suggested 10 principles for a luthier or music historian to follow when gathering practical information about musical instruments from medieval iconography.

This third article applies the historical knowledge of the first article and the principles of the second to the reconstruction of a very special gittern, painted in 1312–18 by Simone Martini, part of a fresco in Cappella di San Martino (Chapel of Saint Martin), San Francesco, Assisi, Italy. The gittern reconstruction, commissioned by musician Ian Pittaway and made by luthier Paul Baker, could only have been made as a result of an historically-informed study of iconography. This article describes the process, the questions that were answered, the questions that remain, and the musical results, with a video of the Martini gittern being played.

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How reliable is medieval music iconography? Part 2/3: 10 principles for interpreting iconography

Our chief source of information for medieval musical instruments is iconography, meaning the art of manuscripts, paintings, and sculptures. That this art must be viewed critically is a commonplace understanding. Due to its highly stylised nature, some argue that all medieval iconography is suspect and of no value for gleaning real-world information. This series of articles argues that this conclusion is a mistake: if we come to iconography with an historically-informed approach, medieval art has much to teach us about historical musical instruments.

How do we judge medieval symbolism, artistic conventions and the limitations of the medium (manuscript, stone, paint) so as to gather information valuable to a luthier, a music historian and a modern player of medieval instruments? That is what this article sets out to describe, outlining 10 principles when viewing iconography for practical musical purposes.  

The first article introduced the topic by outlining the characteristics of medieval art. The third and final part puts the 10 principles of the present article into practice with the recreation of a gittern painted by Simone Martini in 1312-18.    

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How reliable is medieval music iconography? Part 1/3: Understanding medieval art

Medieval art or iconography is a rich resource for the researcher of medieval musical instruments, giving information about the physical features of gitterns, citoles, lutes, fiddles, and so on, the extent of their popularity and geographical reach, and design changes over time.

However, common features of medieval art, such as size distortion and perspective distortion, mean that an individual instrument cannot be reconstructed from the page, painting or sculpture uncritically. This has led some commentators to suggest that medieval art is wholly defective and unreliable for instrument makers and players.

Using examples from iconography, I aim to show that illustrations of medieval instruments yield valuable and practically applicable data if we have a considered and historically informed approach.

This article, the first of three, discusses:

the debate about representation and idolatry in the early church, and how this affected art;
how symbolism is fundamental to representation and meaning in medieval art;
how and why proportion in medieval art is often symbolic rather than naturalistic;
nonetheless, the case for realism in medieval art, that it gives important real-world information, with examples from farming and ornithology;
and that this real-world information extends to our knowledge of medieval instruments, with examples.

We begin with a video of medieval instruments – bray lute, citole, gittern, harp and bray harp – playing the three voice polyphonic Mariam Matrem Virginem attolite from El Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (The Red Book of Montserrat), 1396-99, with a commentary of instrument information. Further information about these instruments, gleaned from iconography, is summarised in this article.

Having made the case for the value of iconography in this first article, the second article continues by suggesting 10 principles for gaining musical instrument information from medieval art. These principles are then tested in the third and final article by the recreation of a gittern painted by Simone Martini in 1312-18.

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The evidence for straps used with medieval, renaissance and baroque musical instruments

To play a musical instrument comfortably, sometimes the player needs a strap to stabilise it. What is the historical evidence for the types of straps used for medieval, renaissance and baroque instruments?

As this article will show, in trying to discover the historical evidence for straps, we immediately encounter the conventions of artistic representation. Medieval artists until the 15th century typically did not show straps, even when an instrument was impossible to play without one; and renaissance and baroque artists showed straps inconsistently and often only partially.

This article takes a roughly chronological look, sifting the artistic conventions from the practical realities to discover if and how straps were used on a range of historical instruments: citole; gittern; harp; psaltery; portative organ; simfony; pipe and tabor; cittern; guitar; nakers; and lutes from the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 8/8: The strange and continuing history of the minstrels’ neglect.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the last of eight articles about the iconography of Beverley Minster in Yorkshire: 71 musical minstrels carved in stone and wood in the 14th century; musical misericords of the 16th century; and neo-Gothic musicians carved in the early 20th century. Beverley Minster has more medieval musicians and more misericords than any other church in the world.

The first article gives a potted history of the building being established in the 8th century, then expanded in the 13th and 14th century, then the medieval minstrels being smashed by Puritans in the 16th-17th century and restored in the late 19th and early 20th century. The second, third and fourth articles describe all the 14th century carvings of musicians, and the fifth sought to answer the question: why are there so many more medieval minstrels in this church than anywhere else? The sixth article explains the meanings of the 14th century allegorical carvings; and the seventh describes the musical misericords of 1520 and the neo-Gothic organ screen of 1878–80 and 1919. This final article seeks to answer one central question: why, in the modern age, has the Minster’s medieval iconography been so poorly served?

Through a review of literature about Beverley Minster from the late 19th century to the present, we will see the repeated pattern of either ignoring the minstrels altogether or muddled misnaming of the medieval instruments. This has been widespread in academic journals, in specialist books, and in publications for the general reader. This is a situation which still persists today, perpetuated by literature published by Beverley Minster.

First we outline the Beverley Minster Project, which would have provided an accurate book about the minstrels with illustrative photographs, complete with music CD/downloads; a concert with all the instruments of the Minster being played by medieval music specialists; an audio-visual tour of the minstrels for visitors; education for guides; and a new website about the minstrels linked to the main Beverley Minster site. This proposal would have been fully-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, at no cost to the Minster – indeed they would have generated money from it – and it would have promoted the Minster as an educational attraction for schools and individuals on the subject of historical music. The project was turned down without any engagement.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 7/8: Tudor misericords and neo-Gothic musicians.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the seventh in a series of eight articles about the musical carvings in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are 71 14th century carvings of musicians, more than in any other medieval site, as well as more Tudor misericords than in any other church, some of them musical, and a neo-Gothic organ screen with medieval instruments.

Having given the story of the Minster’s foundation, flourishing, iconoclasm and repair in the first article; examined the medieval minstrels of the arcades in the second article; of the walls in the third; and of the tombs, altar screen, chapel and south transept in the fourth; the fifth article asks why there is such an abundance of medieval minstrelsy in the Minster, finding the answer in the “Order of the Ancient Company or Fraternity of Minstralls”, which had its headquarters in Beverley. The sixth article completes the description of 14th century iconography with the allegorical carvings.

This seventh article moves from the medieval period to the renaissance and describes musical aspects of the 16th century misericords – animal and human musicians, fools and morris dancers, playing bagpipes, harp, fiddle, hunting horns, and pipe and tabor – and the neo-Gothic imitations of medieval instruments on the 19th–20th century organ screen, with lyre, timbrel, harps, portative organs, simfony, cornetts, gittern or koboz, and lute.

The final article puzzles over the paucity of publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 3/8: The minstrels of the west, north and south walls.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

There are 71 images of 14th century musicians in stone and wood in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire, more than in any other medieval site. This is the third in a series of eight articles about the Minster’s medieval minstrels, surveying the musical life of 14th century England. This article explores the carved musicians of the west, north and south walls, who are depicted playing medieval fiddles (vielles or viellas), gitterns, timbrel (tambourine), bagpipes, portative organs, citoles, harps, pipes and tabors, horns, cymbals, simfony, psaltery, nakers, and trumpets. Each instrument is described, with a photograph and a link to a video of the instrument being played.

In this article, the carvings on the walls teach us about: the meaning of minstrel; fashions of the 14th century; a medieval menagerie of captive animals from overseas; a transition in the form of the portative organ; the fog of confusion in differentiating between the citole and gittern, only recently lifted; evidence of medieval fiddle tunings; and the difficult art of restoration and repair in both medieval art and medieval music.

This is followed in the fourth article with photographs and commentary on the minstrels in the tombs, altar screen, Saint Katherine’s chapel and south transept; and in the fifth article by a gathering of evidence to answer the question: why are there so many medieval minstrels in the Minster? The sixth article describes the 14th century allegorical carvings of real and mythical beasts; and the seventh article explores musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and 19th–20th century neo-Gothic organ screen. The final article puzzles over the paucity of print publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and Beverley Minster’s declared lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

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The medieval minstrels of Beverley Minster. Part 2/8: The minstrels of the arcades, triforium and capital.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

This is the second in a series of eight articles about the 14th century carvings of medieval minstrels in Beverley Minster, a church in the East Riding of Yorkshire. There are 71 images of musicians in stone and wood, more than in any other medieval site. This article explores the carved musicians of the arcades, triforium and a capital, depicted playing harps, fiddles, bagpipes, timbrels, shawms, gittern, citole, portative organ, psaltery, pipe and tabor, nakers, and a drum. Each instrument is described, accompanied by a photograph of the Minster minstrel carving, with a link to a video of the instrument being played. This article thereby acts as a survey of the musical life of 14th century England.

This is followed in the third and fourth articles with photographs and commentary on the minstrels in the rest of the church, and in the fifth article by a gathering of evidence to answer the fundamental question: why are there so many medieval minstrels in the Minster? The sixth article describes the 14th century allegorical carvings; and the seventh article focuses on musical aspects of the 16th century misericords and 19th–20th century neo-Gothic organ screen. The final article puzzles over the paucity of print publications about the magnificent medieval minstrels, and the Minster’s lack of interest in accurate information about their uniquely important iconography.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

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The Elbląg ‘gittern’: a case of mistaken identity. Part 2/2: Identifying the koboz.

In the first article, I explained why the koboz (kobza, cobza) found in 1986 in a latrine in Elbląg, Poland (above left), dated to 1350–1450, cannot be a gittern, though it is always identified as such in modern literature.

In this second article we discover the difficulties of nomenclature in early eastern, medieval, and renaissance literature, with several quite different instruments named koboz or its variants; and that the same situation persists today. How then to establish the lineage and history of the Elbląg instrument from historical sources? First we define the characteristics of the Elbląg koboz and, having established the parameters of an instrument of the same type, we see such kobzas in iconography from the 14th to the 17th century in Turkey, Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), Hungary, France, Catalonia, England, Italy and Flanders, with possible further sightings in Romania.

I conclude that, this being the case, a new instrument can be added to the lexicon of medieval and renaissance instruments: the koboz, of which the Elbląg find of 1350-1450 is a surviving historical example. 

We begin with a video of the popular 16th and 17th century tune, Sellenger’s Round, played on a copy of the Polish Elbląg koboz.

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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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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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Polyphonic treasure in Lambeth Palace: three unique pieces from MS 457, c. 1200

Lambeth Palace Library, the national library and archive of the Church of England, has a collection of medieval and renaissance manuscripts which includes MS 457, a compilation of religious matters and, on one folio, four pieces of music from c. 1200, all unique to this source. Three are complete, and two have not been previously performed or recorded to my knowledge.

This article presents a video performance of the three complete and beautiful polyphonic pieces:

Miro genere (By a wondrous birth)
Astripotens famulos (Kind ruler of the stars)
Mater dei (Mother of God)

In the video, each piece is sung in two or three voices as in the manuscript, then played polyphonically on citole or gittern. The article then explains the principles of interpreting the medieval notation.

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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 Laurence 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

La prime Estampie Royal: completing the fragment of a medieval melody

The estampie was an internationally popular musical form of the late middle ages. Eight beautiful French estampies from circa 1300 are written in the Manuscrit du Roi, seven of which are complete. The first estampie is a fragment, due to the top half of the page being torn to remove illuminated letters, seen on the right.

After examining what we know about the estampie and the particular characteristics of French estampies, this article searches for historical principles upon which the fragment of La prime Estampie Royal can be made whole again.

The article begins with a video performance of the finished piece played on gittern, then explains the process of historically-informed construction, and ends with the completed music in modern notation.

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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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The guitar: a brief history from the renaissance to the modern day

A French 4 course renaissance guitar from c. 1570. The origins of the guitar are much-discussed and much-disputed, and some pretty wild and unsubstantiated claims are made for its heritage, based on vaguely guitar-like instruments in medieval and even pre-medieval iconography, about which we often know little or nothing beyond an indistinguishable drawing, painting or carving; or based on instruments which have names that sound like ‘guitar’. This article is an attempt to slice through the fog with a brief history of the instrument, charting its development from the renaissance, through the baroque period to the modern day, based only on what can be claimed with evidence. The article is illustrated with pictures, videos and sound recordings, beginning with a short video of guitar history.

This is an expanded version of an article originally published in 2015, with a new video.

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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

The beautiful Boissart mandore, part 3 of 3: Creating a new mandore inspired by the ‘Boissart’ design

mandore00It is difficult to describe the joy of a private viewing of the beautiful and tiny mandore in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The instrument, repaired in 1640 by the mysterious Monsieur Boissart and probably dated to c. 1570, is exquisite. You can view photographs and read my observations about it in the second of these three articles. The first article traces the history and pre-history of the mandore, with its origins in the lute and gittern familes. This, the third and final article, is a record of the design and making of a new mandore based on, but not a replica of, the V&A’s instrument. The affable and ever-accommodating maker was Paul Baker; the delighted and very lucky player is Ian Pittaway, the author of this piece. This was to be a new journey for us both: me never having played a mandore, Paul never having made one. The article includes a video of the completed mandore playing 3 pieces from the John Skene mandore book of 1625-1635, accompanied by photographs of its construction.

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The gittern: a short history

Angelic gittern player, from the Cathedral Saint Julien du Mans, France, c. 1300–1325. The gittern was one of the most important plucked fingerboard instruments of the late medieval period. Loved by all levels of society, it was played by royal appointment, in religious service, in taverns, for singing, for dancing, and in duets with the lute. Yet we know of no specific pieces played on this instrument. What we do have are many representations of it being played in a wide variety of contexts and one surviving instrument of the 15th century, and from this we can reconstruct something of the history and repertoire of this widely-loved instrument. This article begins with a video of a troubadour melody played on gittern.

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