Alliterative animals making medieval music in Saint Mary’s Church, Cogges (14th century)

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Alliteration was a foundational feature of medieval verse. Animals playing musical instruments are regularly seen in medieval art. The 14th century stone-carved musicians of Saint Mary’s Church, Cogges, Oxfordshire, delightfully bring these two elements together: there are nine instruments played by eight alliterative animals (one plays two), including a sheep playing a citole and a boar playing a bagpipe (above). 

This article begins with examples of alliteration in medieval poetry (Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman), songs (Foweles in þe frith, Doll thi ale), and the medieval mystery plays; followed by illustrations of animals playing music in medieval and renaissance art. That is the background for a brief history of Saint Mary’s Church, Cogges, and an explanation of its eight alliterative animals playing medieval music, with photographs of every carving and a video of each instrument being played.  

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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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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 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 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

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 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 guitary-looking 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 guitary-sounding names. 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 2/3: Turning monophony into polyphony

Harp, vielle and citole in the
Peterborough Psalter, England, 1300-50.

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 second 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.

The first article focussed on historical instrument combinations, using the illustrations of two 13th century manuscripts as representative examples. This second article distinguishes the difference between modern harmony and medieval polyphony, and the main body of the article looks at styles of medieval accompaniment by referencing historical models. For simplicity and clarity, the same passage of music is used as the basis for exploring a variety of accompaniments. Arrangements of the first section of Cantiga de Santa Maria 10 illustrate heterophony, parallel movement, fifthing, the gymel, the importance of medieval modes, drones and drone-like accompaniments, the type of organum derided by a cleric as “minstrelish little notes”, the rota and ground bass, and the motet.

For each method, there is a sound clip of a short musical performance, composed in historically informed style by Ian Pittaway, performed by Kathryn Wheeler on recorder and vielle, and by Ian Pittaway on harp, gittern and oud. There are links to 15 illustrative videos, putting the techniques in this article into practice. Finally, the question of what to do if there isn’t a tune is addressed.

The key message of this article is: once informed, be creative.

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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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