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.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.
La seconde Estampie Royal played on citole by Ian Pittaway.
The piece is from Manuscrit du Roi, a manuscript of troubadour songs
written c. 1250, with instrumental pieces such as this estampie added c. 1300.

A history of confusion: citole, gittern and cetra   

“citole  Plucked lute of the 13th and 14th cents. A forerunner of the Renaissance cittern.”
Michael & Joyce Kennedy & Tim Rutherford-Johnson (2013) Oxford Dictionary of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 169.

“The citole … is a plucked instrument of guitar type and roughly of guitar dimensions. It is often formed in a characteristic ‘holly-leaf’ shape, has frets and metal strings, and is played with a quill plectrum.”
Nigel Wilkins (1995) Music in the Age of Chaucer. Second Edition. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. p. 150.

These two modern descriptions are typical examples of how poorly understood the citole is. Even among musicologists, out of date misunderstandings from writers of the early 20th century to the first half of the 1970s are still perpetuated today in books and on websites, half a century after they were corrected. Contrary to the descriptions above, the citole was not a lute; not the forerunner of the cittern; not a guitar; not of guitar dimensions; and it did not have metal strings. The accuracies in the descriptions above are that it was plucked, played in the 13th and 14th centuries, sometimes had a holly leaf shape, had frets, and was sometimes plucked with a quill, among a range of other citole plectrum materials. (A dedicated article on the plectrum material of citoles and other medieval instruments will be available on this site from 18th January 2023.)

Other common misrepresentations include its description as a gittern, a plucked fiddle, a “guitar-fiddle”, a guitar, and the predecessor of the guitar. The distinctive thumb-hole at the back of the neck is often presumed to restrict movement to first position. None of this is true. Modern instruments called citoles by their makers but with metal strings, or with tied gut frets, or with thumb-holes that extend the whole length of the neck, are contrary to the historical evidence.

This first section describes how we got here, and why many interested in medieval instruments are still in such a general muddle about the citole.

Among the very few surviving medieval instruments is one citole, dating from the late 13th or early 14th century. It is described in detail in 1776 by Sir John Hawkins in his A General History of the Science and Practice of Music. Not recognising it as a citole – and, at this point, information was lacking for anyone to have done so – he assumed it to be an odd example of a 16th century violin, the instrument it had been converted into at the request of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, as a gift to Queen Elizabeth in 1578.

An engraving of the one surviving citole in Sir John Hawkins, A General History of the Science and Practice of Music, 1776. The citole dates from 1280–1330, but was then identified as a violin dated 1578 due to its conversion at the request of Robert Dudley, with a metal plate giving that date.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

In the third volume of A General History of Music from the Earliest Stages to the Present, 1789, Charles Burney mentions that this strange “violin” was owned by the publisher Robert Bremner (who also owned the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book). The instrument was later owned by the Honourable John Smith-Barry, and on his death in 1803 it was auctioned at Christie’s. In 1806 it appeared as “Queen Elizabeth’s violin” in Warwick Castle’s inventory. In 1903 the Countess of Warwick described it as “Queen Elizabeth’s Viol”. In 1910 previous suspicions of its medieval origin were confirmed by renowned musicologist Canon Francis Galpin, who confused its identity. In Old English Instruments of Music, he designated waisted plucked chordophones – citoles – as gitterns and those with a pear-shape body – gitterns – as citoles, and concluded that the citole was an early form of cittern. Others followed Galpin’s taxonomy, and thus the surviving instrument was given the name it would have until 1977: the Warwick Castle gittern. In 1963 the British Museum acquired the ‘Warwick Castle gittern’ with the help of external funding.

Knowledge had not advanced by 1971 when, in their paper, A Guide to the Carvings of Medieval Minstrels in Beverley Minster, Professor Gwynn McPeek and Mary McPeek wrote that the citole “was also referred to as a cittern, cithern, gittern, or githern”, and they misidentified citoles in Beverley Minster as guitars. We know now that the citole, cittern, and gittern were three distinct instruments, that the cittern was played historically after the citole and gittern had died out, and that there were no medieval guitars. These errors are no bad reflection on the authors: they were writing according to the state of early instrument knowledge in 1971.

The confusion began to be cleared up in 1977 with Lawrence Wright’s ground-breaking article, The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity, in which he distinguished the gittern from the citole. He made his case to identify the gittern as an instrument with “a sickle-shaped peg box and a body approximately pear-shaped” with historical references such as Johannes Tinctoris, De inventione et usu musice (The invention and use of music), c. 1481–87. Tinctoris stated that an “instrument invented by the Catalans, which is called by some a ghiterra, by others a ghiterna … like the lute (although far smaller than it), assumes both the tortoise-like shape and the disposition and touch [method of playing] of the strings.” The citole, stated Wright, “was the instrument which Galpin and many others called the gittern.” Part of his evidence for the identity of the citole was in the Franco-Flemish Brussels manuscript, c. 1390 (Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, ms 21069, a Flemish copy of Alanus de Insulis, de Planctu Naturae). On folio 39r there is a marginal gloss explaining that the “lira” in the main text “is a certain type of cithara or is a sitola”, together with a rough illustration of the instrument and its plectrum attached by a cord, shown below.

The gloss needs a little explanation. The Latin cithara, Greek kithára, and Assyrian chetarah are names for a lyre for which there is evidence dating back to the 9th or 8th century BCE. However, in ancient usage the word was used not just for lyres in their various forms, but for any plucked stringed instrument. From the beginning of the medieval period and into the renaissance, musicians and writers followed the same practice. For example, in his Etymologiae, Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) described psalteria, lyrae and other stringed instruments as different types of cithara (3:22). Wishing to link their musical instrument names to ancient Greek and Roman sources, medieval and renaissance writers used cithara as the root word for citole, cittern, gittern, guitar, cetra, and so on, or used the actual word cithara indiscriminately for lyres, harps, citoles, psalteries, gitterns, citterns, guitars and indeed for any instrument with strings. Similarly, in medieval literature, lira or lyra sometimes meant a lyre, but on other occasions it meant a harp, a gittern, a fiddle, and so on. In stating that the “lira is a certain type of cithara or is a sitola”, the writer of the marginal gloss in the Brussels manuscript is making just this connection, linking the ancient lira and cithara with the modern sitola. As we see above, the illustrated sitola has a body shape like a holly leaf; a neck that extends very substantially backwards (shown in the often seen flattened perspective of medieval illustrations); a fingerboard that extends onto the body; 4 strings; a trefoil on the tail to which the strings are attached; and a plectrum attached to the neck by a cord.

In retrospect and with more data we can see that, while correctly identifying the gittern and citole, in 1977 Lawrence Wright made three errors: he conflated cetras with citoles, rather than seeing the cetra as a distinct instrument; he thus wrongly considered the citole to be the predecessor of the wire-strung cittern – this was the cetra; and he did not correctly define the medieval terms guitarra latina and guitarra morisca.

The musician and early music researcher Crawford Young embodies the improved knowledge. In 2000 he wrote Lute, Gittern, & Citole, a chapter in an anthology on medieval music, A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. In it, he wrote about the cetra as if it was the citole, repeating the conflation of the instruments in Lawrence Wright’s article. This confusion means that images of cetras in the article were identified as citoles and Johannes Tinctoris, writing about the metal strings of the “cetula” or cetra in his De inventione et usu musice, c. 1481–87, was wrongly presumed to have meant the citole. In 2010, Alice Margerum’s doctoral thesis on the citole clearly distinguished between the citole and cetra. In 2015, Crawford Young wrote a chapter for the anthology, The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives, in which, with extensive historical references, he securely identified 14th century references to the guiterne moresche, guyterne mouresque, or quitarra sarracenica – what modern writers wrongly call the “Moorish guitar” – as the medieval gittern, and references to the guiterne latine or guitarra latina – what modern writers wrongly call the “Latin guitar” – as the Italian cetra or cetera. In 2018, Crawford submitted his doctoral thesis, La Cetra Cornuta: the Horned Lyre of the Christian World, now very clearly distinguishing between the cetra and the citole and detailing the hitherto misunderstood development of the cetra as a distinct instrument. (This impressive work is available online – there is a link in the bibliography.)

Since, in modern literature, the cetra and citole are so often confused, it is worth delineating the features of the Italian cetra before moving in detail to the citole.

(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in new window to further enlarge.)

Above is a relief sculpture of a cetra by Benedetto Antelami in Battistero di Parma (Baptistery of Parma), c. 1200. At this time, cetra strings were gut. Note the spatulate or spade-shaped body and the block frets, the distinctive features of the cetra.

In the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi is a fresco by the workshop of Giotto, c. 1315, in which Elders of the Apocalypse are depicted playing or holding cetras, 2 of which are above. Again we see the block frets, but this time triangular rather than rectangular, if we take the image literally. Since both perspective distortion and exaggeration are features of medieval art, the most likely explanation is that they are an amplified way of depicting a very slight incline on the blocks, giving a raised point of contact with the string and an effective fret. This would only need to be fractional, and would mean that the Parma frets and the Basilica of Saint Francis frets are the same, depicted in different ways in stone and on a fresco. (Thank you Paul Baker for this observation.)

The earliest surviving reference to metal or wire strings on any instrument is in Desiderio tuo fili, an 11th century treatise discovered inside a 13th century manuscript, probably written in Liège, Belgium. At some point the cetra began to be strung with metal. The strings shown in the Basilica of Saint Francis, being black, probably indicate iron. The black strings contrast with the white plectrums, made from folded gut strings.

Above left is a cetra in Polittico di Valle Romita by Gentile da Fabriano, c. 1410–12 (now in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan). The cetra is one of several instruments depicted, top left, left to right: gittern, harp, unidentified, vielle, portative organ, gittern, psaltery, and cetra. Above right are cetras carved in marble by Luca della Robbia in Florence Cathedral, 1431–38. In both these examples, the block frets of the cetra extend beyond the top edge of the neck.

Above left, a cetra in a relief by Agostino di Duccio in the Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini, c. 1450. This is a particularly clear representation of the block frets extending beyond the top edge of the neck. Right, the musician and cetra researcher Crawford Young holds up his cetra against the original image in the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, c. 1479.

Above left is a late cetra which has lost its ‘horns’ where the body meets the neck, from a fresco by Girolamo di Benvenuto in the church of Madonna delle Nevi (Madonna of the Snows), Torrita di Siena, Tuscany, c. 1495; above right is another from a fresco by Gaudenzio Ferrari in Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Saronno, 1535–36.

In c. 1481–87, Johannes Tinctoris described the “cetula” or cetra as follows: “From the lyra likewise proceeded another instrument, named by the Italians, who devised it, a cetula, upon which four enee (aenee: brass or copper) or calibee (chalybs: iron or steel) strings, commonly disposed by a tone, a fourth, and back a tone, are stretched. And this cetula itself, being flat, has certain wooden raised parts that are popularly called frets arranged proportionally on the neck, against which the strings, pressed down by the fingers, make the sound either higher or lower.” Tinctoris doesn’t make clear whether he is describing the tuning from the highest to the lowest string or vice versa. If we assume the former, and we imagine the highest course is e’, then “a tone” down is d’, “a fourth” down is g, and “back a tone” is a. This is exactly what was commonly called French tuning on the only slightly later cittern, the alternative being Italian tuning, in which the a is raised to b. This, and the fact that the cittern was likewise strung with brass and iron and became popular upon the demise of the cetra, strengthens the case for the cittern being a development of the cetra. There is, as we shall see, no connection between the tuning of the cetra/cittern and the citole, nor is there any evidence that the citole was ever string with wire.

To see and hear the cetra being played and discussed, click on the picture below. 

To hear Marc Lewon and Giovanni Cantarini discuss the cetra and perform with it,
click the picture. The video will open in a new window.

Having described the cetra, we can now focus on the citole without conflation or confusion, thanks to three modern writers: Lawrence Wright, the first in modern times to correctly identify the citole and gittern; Crawford Young, writer of the only in-depth work on the cetra, previously confused with the citole; and Alice Margerum, whose comprehensive doctoral thesis, Situating the citole, c. 1200-1400, is the definitive work to date.

In 2015, The British Museum, which still owns the one surviving citole, held an international symposium on the instrument and published a wide-ranging book on the subject, including a chapter by Alice Margerum and one by Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams, two luthiers who have the rare distinction of making citoles that are truly accurate, taking account of all the latest research. A third name to be added is luthier Paul Baker, who made my citole based on Alice’s analysis and measurement of the British Museum citole. This is the citole played in the video which begins this and the following article.

We have come a very long way since the misunderstandings before Lawrence Wright’s paper in 1977, and advanced a great deal beyond his seminal article. Yet still old errors about the citole are repeated online and in printed material, right up to the present day. We began with two. Two more follow. There are many more.

Beverley Minster, a church in Yorkshire, has more surviving carvings of medieval instruments than any other single location. In 2000, Rosemary Horrox edited the anthology Beverley Minster: an illustrated history, in which the stone carvings of citoles in the Minster are called guitars. In its gift shop, Beverley Minster sells an A4 leaflet of photographs called Ten Musicians. Can you find them? Of the ten labelled photographs, three are wrong, one being a gittern labelled as a citole.

Julia Perratore is Assistant Curator of Medieval Art at The Met Museum and visiting Assistant Professor at Fordham University, both in New York. In 2018, she contributed a chapter to the anthology, Devotional Interaction in Medieval England and its Afterlives. She identifies one stone carving of a citole as a lute and another as a plucked fiddle.

Just as Lawrence Wright’s work of 1977 has even now yet to filter through in securely identifying the citole, even among specialist historians, so Alice Margerum’s thesis of 2010 and Crawford Young’s of 2018 have yet to become widely known among medieval music enthusiasts. This may partly be an issue of accessibility. Outdated and inaccurate information is easy to find on the internet; Alice’s and Crawford’s work less so. Links to their theses are in the bibliography at the end of this article.

So what is a citole? We shall answer the question first by reference to the surviving instrument, then by observing citole variants in iconography. The second article outlines the citole’s playing style and repertoire.

The British Museum citole 

The British Museum citole. Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

The date of the British Museum citole, 1280–1330, is from the period when citoles appear most in English and other European written sources and iconography. The instrument is small, its overall length only 60.8 cm. It is monoxylous or monoxyle – carved from a single piece of wood, boxwood in this case. To this the soundboard, bridge, string-holder, fingerboard and pegs were added, all of them changed in the 16th century.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Above we see the parts of the British Museum citole that were replaced to turn it into a violin.

Top: The replacement string-holder.

Photograph © The Trustees of the
British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Left: The replacement string-holder with the new bridge, new violin soundboard, new fingerboard, and new silver pin in the trefoil.

Right: A close-up of the silver pin that holds the gut attached to the string-holder. In the centre of the trefoil is a presumably original hole for a wooden pin to which the holding gut would have been tied. It is not clear why a new wooden pin was not made. Instead, a silver pin topped with a lion’s head was driven into a new hole in the stem of the trefoil, the back secured with a washer, as we see on the right, on which are the initials “IP” and the date 1578.

Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

The detail above of the fingerboard shows that it was hollowed out to make the instrument lighter. We also see that parts of the exquisite original carving were cut away in the 16th century to fit the new violin fingerboard. The violin fingerboard is wider at the top end, as we would expect, to accommodate the fanning out of strings from nut to bridge, but this is not the case on the profile of the original neck nor, therefore, of the original fingerboard, which was a uniform width of around 30 mm. Whereas most gittern and lute iconography shows a gradual fanning out of string spacing, narrowest at the nut, widest at the bridge, citole iconography almost universally shows uniform string spacing across the whole length of the string. This observation is supported by the fact that this neck with a very narrow width of 30 mm had to accommodate 6 strings in 3 courses. It is difficult to imagine how 3 double courses could practically fit on the neck or function under the fretting hand if the string spacing was narrowed further still at the nut to make the strings fan out toward the bridge.

Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

As we see above, x-rays reveal that after the original medieval soundboard was removed and a false back inserted inside the body to reduce the size of the resonating chamber.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

Originally the citole pegs were anterior (front mounted). On conversion to a violin in 1578, the 6 pegs were removed, the holes stopped, and 4 of the original pegs were placed in new holes laterally (side mounted). A metal plate was added in the original location of 4 of the pegs, bearing the arms of Robert Dudley and Queen Elizabeth. Below that plate we see the original location of the other 2 pegs.

Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

The late 13th–early 14th century carving was extraordinarily fine, skilled and detailed, including foliage and hunting scenes with people, a winged dragon, a dog and rabbit, a human-lion hybrid archer …

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

… and the magnificent head of a dragon with wings, claws, fangs and green eyes.

We might imagine that such intricate carvings would mean the walls of the citole are substantial, the thick walls preventing resonance and deadening the sound, but this is not the case. The solid walls of the sides are only 3 mm thick. The relief carvings add another 3–4 mm but they are undercut, full of gaps and therefore light in weight. X rays show that the internal walls are smooth, following the outer contours, including at the protrusions in the middle and the upper bout to keep the solid wall thickness at a consistent 3 mm. As we have seen above, the neck underneath the fingerboard is hollow, further lightening the weight. The only parts of the instrument with any weight are the substantial neck and the trefoil, which counterbalance each other and support the string tension, but even here the weight is much less than one might imagine. The head of the neck needs to be solid to mount the tuning pegs and carve the dragon (which is 2.5–3.5 cm across), but the back edge of the neck is only 1.1 cm across, further lightened by the thumb-hole.

Carving the body from solid wood was a common method of instrument-making in the medieval period: gitterns, harps, vielles, and later rebecs and some mandores were made this way, as were the earliest surviving plucked chordophones, such as the 5th–6th century Byzantine pandura found in a grave excavation at Antinopolis, Egypt, by Albert Gayet in 1907.

A 5th–6th century Byzantine pandura, now in Musée de Grenoble, France.

We see the process of crafting the body of the citole in the sequence of photographs below: the beginning of a citole (played in the video which begins this article) by Paul Baker, from solid block to first decorative carving.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway and Paul Baker.
Photographs © Paul Baker.
Photographs © Paul Baker.

As we see below, the soundboard is bent rather than flat. This is an original feature of the citole, since the tops of the instrument’s side walls were not cut away on conversion to a violin. The soundboard is not like that of a violin, which is carved from thick wood into a vaulted shape and attached to sides of equal height. This is a flat soundboard which is bent into an arch onto the undulating sides, dipping up to 8 mm from the highest point of the soundboard to the lowest point of the wall. The effect is make the soundboard stiff, adding to its structural strength, promoting auditory volume and treble frequencies.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.) 

The base of the neck at the back is decorated with more exquisite carvings, here showing a man (probably a fool, given his face-pulling depiction) with two lions behind him, shown below left. Below right, we see that the undecorated back of the citole is keel-shaped rather than round like a gittern or flat like a modern guitar. The effect is to increase the spatial volume of the resonating chamber.

Photograph © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

The overall measurements in centimetres, as given by Alice Margerum (2010), are as follows.

overall length: 60.8
top of head to body juncture: 20.3
body length: 32.5
widest body width, lower bout: 18.55
widest body width, central bout: 15.2
widest body width, upper bout: 15.9
trefoil width: 7.82
trefoil depth: 3.16
depth from nut to back of neck (widest point, front to back, where the thumb-hole is): 14.7

In summary, in the British Museum citole we have a rare and valuable survival, a late 13th or early 14th century citole from the period of the instrument’s greatest popularity which, despite its 16th century conversion, has many of its original features intact or discernable through scrutiny. It was monoxyle; carved into a wedge, widest at the head, narrowest at the tail; its weight balanced either end by the neck and trefoil, which together supported the tension of the strings. It was light, its solid walls thin, and therefore resonant, its resonance and strength further enhanced by the stiffness of the bent soundboard and the keel-shape back. The substantial neck has a thumb-hole for the player to gain access to the fingerboard, the thumb-hole lightening the weight of the wood while retaining its structural strength.

If we remove the 16th century additions and replacements – the internal false back, soundboard, bridge, string-holder, fingerboard – and remove the pegs from the side, making them once again anterior, we have the original instrument of 1280–1330. This raises the question: what were the original soundboard, bridge, string-holder and fingerboard like? For that we turn to iconography.

Citole variants in iconography

In this section we address the iconographical evidence for variations in the form of the citole, specifically:

• the body shape viewed from the front, i.e. the outline as viewed by an audience;
• body and neck profile, i.e. whether all citoles had wedge shapes, wedge necks and thumb-holes;
• variations in the citole peg box;
• the fingerboard and the nature of citole frets (missing on the British Museum citole);
• soundboard design (replaced on the British Museum citole);
• the presence or absence of a string-holder between the bridge and the tail; bridge type and bridge placement (all replaced on the British Museum citole);
• tail projections – whether it was always a trefoil, as on the British Museum citole.

body shapes

Following the taxonomy of Alice Margerum (2010), the 4 citole body shapes are holly leaf, hexagonal, hourglass and vase-shape. Each has variations within the type, with or without additional decorative projections, and some differences in proportion.

The holly leaf shape comes to an outward point on both shoulders and on both sides of the lower bout, giving it its name. Occasionally there are other outward points between the upper and lower bout.

Holly leaf citoles in
left: The Ormesby Psalter, East Anglia, England, c. 1310 (Bodleian Library MS Douce 366, folio 9v);
right: Apocalypse de Saint Jean, France, 1301-1400 (Bibliothèque nationale de France,
Département des Manuscrits, Français 13096, folio 46r); …
left: Norwich Cathedral cloisters, England, 1320s (photograph © Ian Pittaway);
right: Beverley Minster, Yorkshire, England, 1330–40 (photograph © Ian Pittaway); …
left: Roman d’Alexandre, Flanders, 1338–44 (MS Bodleian 264, folio 78r);
right: The Howard Psalter, England, c. 1308–c. 1340 (British Library Arundel MS 83 I, folio 63v).

Hexagonal citoles have 2 shoulders that slope inward from the body to the neck, 2 inward slopes from the body to the tail, and 2 straight sides between.

Hexagonal citoles in
left: Bible de Jean Jennart, France, 1290–99 (Bibliothèque de Reims, Ms 0042, folio 126v); 
right: The Peterborough Psalter, England, 1300–25
(KBR – Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels, Ms. 9961–62, folio 14r); …
left: the ceiling of Tewkesbury Abbey, England, 1300–50 (photograph © Ian Pittaway);
right: the minstrels’ gallery of Exeter Cathedral, 1360.

Hourglass citoles are in a figure of 8, and thus resemble the shape (from the front only) of the later vihuela da mano and guitar.

Hourglass citoles in Beverley Minster, Yorkshire, England (photographs © Ian Pittaway).
Left: a label stop in one of the eye-level bays, 1330–40
(with an erroneous peg-box made in the late 19th or early 20th century to repair damage).
Right: an angel in the arcades, 1330–90.
Two more hourglass citoles.
Left: The Macclesfield Psalter, East Anglia, England, c. 1330
(Fitzwilliam Museum, MS 1-2005, folio 77r). 
Right: The Gorleston Psalter, England, 1310–24 (British Library Add MS 49622, folio 107v).

Vase-shape citoles have 2 shoulders that slope inward from the body to the neck, a waist and a rounded lower bout.

Vase-shaped citoles in
left and centre: Cantigas de Santa María, Códice de los músicos, Iberia, 1257–83
(Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid,
RBME Cat b-I-2, folios 39v and 147r);
right: Cancioneiro da Ajuda, 1276–1325, Castile and León or Portugal
(Biblioteca do Palácio Real da Ajuda, Códice Reservado 118, folio 69r); … 
left: The Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310–20 (British Library Royal 2 B VII, folio 174r);
centre and right: Walter de Milemete, De Nobilitatibus, Sapientiis, et Prudentiis Regum
(On the Nobility, Wisdom, and Prudence of Kings), England, 1326–27
(Oxford, Christ Church Ms. 92, folios 31v and 43r); …  
left: De Lisle Psalter, Anglo-Norman, c. 1308–40 (British Library Arundel MS 83 II, folio 134v); 
right: the minstrels’ window of Lincoln Cathedral, 1385 (photograph © Ian Pittaway).  
neck profile: wedge neck and thumb-hole  

One of the distinguishing features of the citole is the overall wedge shape and the thumb-hole at the back of the neck that allows the player access to the fingerboard. This characteristic of the British Museum citole is seen clearly depicted in three dimensional carvings, four examples of which are below.

Top left: choir stall bench end, Cologne Cathedral, Germany, 1308–11.
Top right: choir of Cologne Cathedral, Germany, c. 1280–1300.
Bottom left: north portal, Velencia Cathedral, Spain, 1300–33.
These three photographs are by Alice Margerum from her citole thesis, used with her kind permission.
Bottom right: arcade of Beverley Minster, Yorkshire, England, 1330–90, where
the hand, not having the thumb in the thumb-hole, is probably one of the many
late 19th and early 20th century repairs. (Photograph © Ian Pittaway.)

A typical feature of medieval two-dimensional art is perspective distortion or flattening to enable the viewer to see what, in reality, would not be visible from the viewer’s vantage point. We have already seen examples, and below left is another from the Tabernacle of Saint Savin, Hautes-Pyrénées, France, 1325. We see from this example that perspective distortion is helpful for a study of the citole wedge neck and its thumb-hole.

(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

However, the characteristics of medieval two-dimensional art are problematic for ascertaining the relationship of the image to reality. Medieval artists often grossly exaggerated some features, while other elements were completely missing. On a citole, this might be a trefoil (end projection) shown oversize, or tuning pegs not shown at all, both of which are evident on the depiction in The Ruskin Hours, France, c. 1300, above right (Ms Ludwig IX 3, folio 92v, Getty Museum, Los Angeles). Similarly, the images below from Missale, Winterteil (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Ms. theol. lat. fol. 271), 14th century, are an object lesson in not always taking iconography too literally. Both citoles are depicted with an arbitrary number of frets; huge and cumbersome thumb-holes the player could put his whole arm through; and the fretting hands are in positions too far away from the thumb-holes to use them.

On other occasions, the artist was clearly either confused about the nature of the wedge neck with thumb-hole or unable to depict it in a satisfactory way, as we see below in two English manuscripts. In The Luttrell Psalter (British Library Add MS 42130, folio 274r), below left, the thumb-hole is shown carved through the fingerboard so that the strings pass over it, and in The Tickhill Psalter (Spenser Collection, New York Public Library, MS 26, folio 17r), below right, the thumb-hole is so exaggeratedly large that the whole hand – not just the thumb – is inside it.

In some images, such as folio 99v of the French Arthurian manuscript, Yale University Beinecke Library MS 229, c. 1275–1300, below left, a neck wedge and thumb-hole is not shown. Is this a lack of perspective distortion, so we should assume the wedge and thumb-hole in reality, or in such cases is this a ‘free neck’ citole, as modern early music literature calls it, without a wedge and thumb-hole? In almost any given instance, without the original instrument to examine, this is impossible to resolve with certainty. The standard modern interpretation is to see this depiction of a turned back peg box – or sometimes a large portion of the neck turned back – as a convention for representing a neck with a thumb-hole. This means that folio 1v of MS Pluteus 29.1 (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence), c. 1350, below centre, is interpreted as illustrating a thumb-hole citole on the right and a ‘free neck’ citole on the left. This must be incorrect, as the image of the citole in Jesus College, Oxford, MS D.40, c. 1300, right, clearly shows a turned back head and a thumb-hole, indicating that the turned-back head cannot be an artistic convention to show a thumb-hole.

We see the same design as in Jesus College MS D.40, with its sickle peg box and thumb-hole, carved in stone in Pamplona Cathedral, Spain, c. 1400, below.

Photographs by Alice Margerum from her citole thesis, used with her kind permission.

Furthermore, we see that representations of citoles with a bent neck and turned-back head, such as the three below (and many others) …

Left and centre: MS Douce 6, Flanders, c. 1320-30, folios 72r and 157r.
Right: Roman d’Alexandre, France, 1338–1410, (MS. Bodl. 264, folio 188v).
© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, used under the terms of CC-BY-NC 4.0.

… are stylistically the same as a common artistic representation of gitterns, showing the gittern’s sickle-shape peg box by having it turn back to face the player, as we see in 5 representative examples below.

Left: gittern in a stained glass window of Rouen Cathedral, France, c. 1310.
Right: gittern on a wall of Cathédrale Sainte-Julie-et-Eulalie d’Elne, France, 14th century.
Gitterns in the Romance of Alexander, MS Bodleian 264, 1338–1410,
with the sickle-shape peg box represented in the same stylistic way on
folios 133v, left, and 105r, centre, and more accurately depicted on folio 3r, right.
© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, used under the terms of CC-BY-NC 4.0.

The standard modern interpretation of the turned back peg box or neck as a convention for representing a thumb-hole neck on a citole is evidently wrong, as gittern necks are often depicted the same way: it can only have been an artistic convention for a sickle-shape peg box.

We see more evidence of this conclusion in the Petites heures de Jean de Berry, 1375–90, below, in which the sickle peg box and wedge neck are shown as clearly separate features. In both images we see the characteristic conventional distortions of medieval art: the wedge is depicted in flattened perspective underneath the neck; the thumb-hole, which must obviously have been present, is not explicitly drawn; the sickle peg boxes are exaggeratedly large; and the tuning pegs are unrealistically small.

Two citoles in the Petites heures de Jean de Berry, 1375–90,
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 18014, folio 53r on the left, folio 48v on the right.

Was there ever such a thing as a ‘free neck’ citole? Some images are ambiguous. As we see below left in The Queen Mary Psalter, 1310–20, folio 192v, the position of the fretting hand, if we take it literally, would make it impossible for the thumb to be inside a thumb-hole. Pegs are not drawn and the turned-back direction of the peg box indicates a sickle shape, as just outlined. But there are no frets drawn, no strings drawn on most of the fingerboard, and no clear distinction between the fingerboard and the peg box, so the image is clearly an approximation we cannot take literally. On folio 203r, below centre, we see the fretting hand in a position where the thumb could be inside a thumb-hole, though a thumb-hole is not shown. Behind the neck we see three protrusions, a hint of something more. As we see by comparison with The Breviary of Blanche de France, 1310-20, below right, and the citoles in Missale, Winterteil shown above, these shapes can only be carved decorations on the back of a wedge and thumb-hole neck, though not fully indicated by the Queen Mary artist. We must conclude, therefore, that certainly one of these Queen Mary citoles had a wedge neck and thumb-hole, not explicitly shown (below centre), and possibly both did.

Left and centre: The Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310–20
(British Library Royal 2 B VII), folios 192v and 203r.
Right: Breviary of Blanche de France, France, 1310-20
(Vatican Library Urb. Lat. 603, folio 103r). © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

So far we have seen no evidence for, in modern parlance, ‘free neck’ citoles, but the case is not entirely lost. Below left is a citole carved in La Portada del Sarmental, Burgos Cathedral, Spain, c. 1235. We see that it has a wedge-shape body like the British Museum citole and many manuscript images, but this stops at the juncture with the neck to make a free neck without a thumb-hole. The peg box is sickle-shape, with the expected anterior pegs. The fact that there is another citole in Burgos Cathedral with a wedge neck and thumb-hole may strengthen the case for this ‘free neck’ citole being an accurate representation of a historical variation, though this is not the only interpretation: we may decide that since not all medieval carvings are completely true to life, and because this depiction is an outlier, that in this case the mason got it wrong, or its accuracy is at least doubtful.

Gloucester Cathedral photograph top right © Ian Pittaway.
Gloucester Cathedral photograph bottom right by Alice Margerum, used with permission.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.) 

Top right is the citole in the roof of Gloucester Cathedral, 1337–50. The true shape of the body from front to back is very difficult to discern: it appears to be wider at the lower bout than the upper bout which, given all other information about the citole, is not credible. We see what appears to be a carved line signifying the back of the neck, indicating a depth that could only mean a free neck; but since behind that is a solid block of stone for stability and the depth taper of the instrument is clearly wrong, the meaning of the line is arguable and ambiguous. Bottom right we see that this instrument has a sickle-shape peg box and, unusually, lateral (side mounted) rather than anterior (front mounted) pegs. This is so unusual that it is tempting to wonder if the sculptor moved the pegs down so they would be more easily visible on the roof vault for a viewer below.

In summary, the British Museum citole has the same wedge shape and thumb-hole that we see in a great deal of citole iconography. In medieval art there were conventions of representation to allow the viewer to see aspects of an object that would be hidden from the viewer’s vantage point in reality; thus the citole wedge neck and thumb-hole were shown by perspective distortion, either above or below the fingerboard, and the sickle-shape peg box of all gitterns and some citoles was shown by turning the peg box and sometimes the entire neck back on itself. Since some details such as tuning pegs and bridges were regularly missing in medieval depictions, where there is no perspective distortion and therefore no wedge neck or thumb-hole is shown, this does not mean that it was not there, that the citole had a ‘free neck’. The clear indication from three-dimensional stone carvings that there were ‘free neck’ citoles is so marginal that that it is difficult to be persuaded that it was a true variation: the totality of evidence suggests that the wedge neck and thumb-hole were either universal or near universal.

There may be further clues by examining the variations in citole peg boxes.

peg box
Photograph on the left by Peter Forrester, used with his kind permission.

Above left is a citole in a fragment of stained glass from the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, Warham, Norfolk, c. 1320–30. The diamond-shape peg box looks the same as that seen on some medieval fiddles, as does the peg disc above right in stained glass from Saint Mary’s Chapel, York, 14th century (now in the Yorkshire Museum). Below are two more citoles with peg discs: left, on a choir stall in Erfurt Cathedral, Germany, c. 1350; and below right in a Romance of Alexander manuscript, MS Bodleian 264, folio 173r, 1338–44.

Left: photograph by Alice Margerum, used with her kind permission.
Right: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, used under the terms of CC-BY-NC 4.0.

These fiddle-type peg boxes may account for so many citoles being formerly misidentified in modern literature as ‘plucked fiddles’. If the neck as well as the peg box were as on a fiddle, then clearly they would not be thumb-hole citoles. While a wedge neck similar to the British Museum citole seems to be incompatible with the diamond peg box or peg disc, it is not inconceivable that a thumb-hole of a different design might have been used, and evidence that this was so is found in the citole in the angel choir of Lincoln Cathedral, completed in 1280, shown in two views below. On the right we clearly see a neck wedge with a thumb inside the thumbhole. Masons had to maintain the stability of stone by not carving anything too thinly and not having unsupported weight, and this meant sometimes extending a surface backwards, as we saw behind the neck of the Gloucester Cathedral citole. However, at the back of the neck on the Lincoln citole we do not see a solid block of stone back to the wall, but the carefully sculpted shape of an extension at the back of the neck with the player’s thumb inserted.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

In summary, citoles always (or nearly always) had anterior tuning pegs, regardless of the shape of the peg box. Some citoles had peg boxes that curved or sloped back from the neck, integral with the wedge neck, as on the British Museum citole; others had peg boxes in the shape of a sickle, a diamond or a disc, that probably still had a wedge neck and thumb-hole.

fingerboard and frets

Since the British Museum citole’s original 13th-14th century fingerboard was removed in the 16th century, we are missing vital evidence for medieval fret placement, which we do not have from any source. We can assume that the frets were in Pythagorean tuning, with its unequal major (wide) and minor (narrow) semitones, in which a# and bb are different notes. Since a fret gives the same note placement across all courses, Pythagorean tuning on a fretted instrument must have involved compromises. For example, if the first fret is set for #, then the first course c’’ on the first fret plays c#’’, which is part of the musica ficta (added accidentals) of late medieval music, and the second course g’ on the first fret plays g#, which is also part of ficta. However, the third course d’ would play d#on the first fret, whereas for ficta we need eb. What solution did medieval musicians use? Did they accept that some notes would be # rather than b or vice versa, or were these frets moved to a place that was neither b nor #, but a compromise position between the two? The fingerboard would have told us, but we don’t have it.

We must rely on iconography to discern the nature of citole frets. This is tricky because a flat two dimensional image has to be imagined in three dimensions and, since medieval inkers were artists rather than luthiers drawing up plans, they didn’t always feel it necessary to show all details, so some drawings of citoles and other fretted instruments lack frets (or bridges, or pegs, etc.), and proportions are often exaggerated or diminished.

It goes without saying that tied gut frets are impossible on a citole fingerboard with a thick wooden wedge behind the neck. In images of citoles that could be interpreted as ‘free neck’, tied gut frets are still impossible, since every image of a citole that depicts frets shows them continuing on the upper neck on the body, where frets cannot be tied.

The following 6 interpretations may be made of depictions of citole frets, numbered 1 to 6, followed by a conclusion.

1. Where we do see frets depicted, there is a consistent (but not universal) theme in manuscript art of 2 lines close together with a larger gap between the next 2 lines, as we see below. The 2 lines could be interpreted as both sides of one fret, which are the size we might expect to see on the Lincoln citole (bottom right) and more substantial than we would expect in The Ormesby Psalter (top left) and The Howard Psalter (top right).

Top left: The Ormesby Psalter, East Anglia, England, c. 1310 (Bodleian Library MS Douce 366, folio 9v);
Top right: The Howard Psalter, England, c. 1308–c. 1340 (British Library Arundel MS 83 I, folio 63v).
Bottom left: Walter de Milemete, De Nobilitatibus, Sapientiis, et Prudentiis Regum (On the Nobility, Wisdom, and Prudence of Kings), England, 1326–27 (Oxford, Christ Church Ms. 92, folio 31v).
Bottom right: Lincoln Cathedral, minstrels’ window, 1385 (photograph © Ian Pittaway).

There are three other possible explanations for these lines. One is reserved for explanation 6. The other two possible explanations are related to Pythagorean tuning, and both assume that each line represents one fret rather than one side of a fret.

2. The first alternative explanation is that this uneven fret spacing is what we would expect to see with major (larger) and minor (smaller) semitones in Pythagorean tuning, shown as a sequence of larger and smaller gaps between frets.

3. The second alternative is that this is a fretting system that resolves the problem of Pythagorean fretting, described above, by having separate frets for b and # notes, or minor and major semitones. This was the conclusion Alice Margerum came to, as we see in the photograph of her below left with the citole she made as part of her 2010 thesis, fitted with frets of bone. If this is right, it may be that the gittern in a fresco in Cappella di San Martino (Chapel of Saint Martin), San Francesco, Assisi, Italy, painted by Simone Martini in 1312–18, below right, used the same Pythagorean fretting system, with its double frets pulled apart wide enough to be able to play between them, as indeed the player’s third finger appears to be doing. I have experimented on a gittern to see if this works in practice, and can report that it is surprisingly easy to choose between the minor and major semitone on a separated double fret.

Left: Alice Margerum photographed during her discussions with the author in 2018.
Right: The similarly fretted gittern painted by Simone Martini in 1312–18.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

It is difficult to imagine an alternative explanation for the gittern’s pulled apart double frets, other than to make the frets bray or buzz like a bray harp or bray lute, and I am not convinced by this for three reasons. First, evidence for the bray harp does not appear until c. 1400. Second, evidence for deliberately buzzing frets does not appear for the gittern until a painting in 1480 (see below), and for the lute until a comment in the Capirola lute book in 1515–20 (for which, click here). Third, to make the frets buzz or bray sufficiently and successfully, it is likely that gittern and lute players used the triple fretting system shown below on a gittern in Virgen de la Humildad, 1480 (Diocesan Cathedral Museum, Valencia, Spain) …

… and below on a lute in the anonymous Venetian A concert, c. 1525.

4. Other manuscript images of citoles do not show double lines, but a single thick line, apparently representing a substantial fret, as we see below left from 14th century England and right from 13th century France.

Top left: Walter de Milemete, De Nobilitatibus, Sapientiis, et Prudentiis Regum (On the Nobility, Wisdom, and Prudence of Kings), England, 1326–27 (Oxford, Christ Church Ms. 92, folio 43r).
Top right: Bibliothèque municipale, Avranches, ms. 0222, folio 9r, French, after 1245.
Bottom: Bible de Jean Jennart, France, 1290–99 (Bibliothèque de Reims, Ms 0042, folio 126v).

5. These thick lines for frets are in a different colour to the fingerboard. Another perspective from a late 13th century French manuscript is shown above: here the alternating colours appear not to show frets, but a fingerboard made of two contrasting woods.

6. When viewing citoles carved in stone, we see a different interpretation of citole fretting. Below left is the carved citole in La Puerta de los Apóstoles, Valencia Cathedral, Spain, 1300–33, and below right is a close-up of the fingerboard. Presuming the same type of fingerboard in all drawn and carved examples, and taking the carved representations literally, it seems that what appears in manuscripts as 2 narrow lines on the neck is not a fret of bone or wood, i.e. none of the interpretations above, but a gap between individual wooden blocks.

Photographs by Alice Margerum, used with her kind permission.

We might dismiss the Valencia Cathedral carving as a one-off oddity, a carver’s method of showing dark frets by the play of light rather than by raised carvings, were it not for two substantiating facts. First, the photograph below shows a close-up of tied gut frets on a gittern from the same sculpture. The care and accuracy of the depiction should lead us to take literally and seriously what we see on the citole.

Photograph by Alice Margerum, used with her kind permission.

Second, the photographs below show the same wood block frets with spaces between as in Valencia Cathedral, from the Church of Santa Maria Real de la Hiniesta, Zamora Province, Spain, 1290–91 (top left), the cloister of Pamplona Cathedral, Spain, c. 1400 (top right), and a choir stall bench end, Cologne Cathedral, Germany, 1308–11 (bottom).

Photographs by Alice Margerum, used with her kind permission.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

This wood block fingerboard with gaps between the blocks is the same in nature as the fingerboard on the early cetra described above, as seen in the Parma Baptistery, c. 1200, below left, and the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, below right, both without the oversized and overhanging blocks of later cetras.

(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

The existence of wood block frets on citoles raises the question: was there one fingerboard system on all citoles or was there variety, just as there was a variety of peg boxes, frontal body shapes and, as we will see below, soundboards, bridges, tailpieces and end projections?

In summary, we have seen that in manuscript images of citole fingerboards, 2 lines close together with a larger gap between the next 2 lines can be interpreted several ways: as both sides of one fret; or each line as 1 fret in a sequence of major and minor Pythagorean semitones; or a fretting system where each ficta semitone is available as both b and # notes; or thick lines as a substantial fret, or as a fingerboard in alternating colours, or as wood blocks. All are theoretically possible, but it is highly unlikely that all are correct. This is further complicated by the fact that all representations drawn in manuscripts and carved in churches could be interpreted as the wood block system seen in stone carvings, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they should be seen this way.

Left: Tabernacle of Saint Savin, Hautes-Pyrénées, France, 1325.
Right top: De Lisle Psalter, Anglo-Norman, c. 1308–40 (British Library Arundel MS 83 II, folio 134v).
Right bottom: the minstrels’ window of Lincoln Cathedral, 1385 (photograph © Ian Pittaway).

To try and resolve this question, we return to the three images above, in which the double lines can be interpreted in the various ways outlined. Which is most likely? Since we are dealing with highly stylised representations, a definitive answer is not possible, but it is notable that, in these examples, the perspective distortion of medieval art flattens and makes visible the neck wedge with its thumb-hole, the decorative carved head and the tuning pegs. This being the case, if the frets were wood blocks, we should expect this to be visible in the same way by the use of perspective distortion to imitate three dimensions. This leads us to the conclusion that here we see thin glued frets, probably of wood or bone. It may be that there were regional variations, that in Spain and Germany there were wood blocks as we see on sculptures but in France and England there were glued frets as we appear to see in manuscripts and stained glass windows. Certainty is impossible.

Could Iberian manuscript images of citoles, from the region of the wood blocks, help resolve the issue of interpretation? On folio 39v (above left) of the Iberian Códice de los músicos of the Cantigas de Santa María, 1257–83 (Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, RBME Cat b-I-2), we see thick black lines that may indicate either substantial glued frets or gaps between wood blocks. On folio 147r (above right) we see double lines that may indicate any of the fretting options above. In these images there is no perspective distortion to help guide our interpretation, so we may be viewing two ways of showing the same fingerboard system or two different systems.

Without surviving instruments there can be no definitive answer, but my own conclusion is that some citoles were fretted with wood blocks similar to the early cetra, and others, probably most, with thin strips of wood or bone. Whether or not the thin strips of wood or bone were placed to give major and minor Pythagorean semitones is impossible to know, but comparison with the parted double gut frets of the Martini gittern makes a compelling case.


The medieval soundboard of the British Museum citole was replaced in the 16th century but we do know, as described above, that it was bent by design to increase stiffness, and we know from iconography the range of variations in soundboard design.

As we have seen in nearly all examples above, most citoles had a central carved rose, but there are a handful of exceptions with C holes. In general, C and F holes belong to bowed rather than plucked instruments, but it is not an exclusive property of the bowed. Below we see examples of C holes on citoles, gitterns, and unknown Iberian chordophones.

Citoles with C holes.
Top left: The Macclesfield Psalter, East Anglia, c. 1330 (Fitzwilliam Museum MS 1-2005, folio 108r).
Top right: Saint Mary’s Church, Oxford, c. 1350. (Photograph by Alice Margerum.)
Bottom: Norwich Cathedral, 1326–36. (Photograph © Ian Pittaway.)
An unusually large gittern with C holes in Gloucester Cathedral, 1337–50.
(Photograph © Ian Pittaway.)
Instruments with C holes in the Cantigas de Santa María, Códice de los músicos, c. 1257–83
(Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de el Escorial, Cat b-I-20).
Left: gitterns, folio 104r. Right: unknown chordophones, folio 140v.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)
Beverley Minster photographs  © Ian Pittaway.

On two occasions I am aware of, citoles are shown with only two circular holes either side of the upper bout. The first example is above left, Cancioneiro da Ajuda, 1276–1325, Castile and León or Portugal (Biblioteca do Palácio Real da Ajuda, Códice Reservado 118, folio 69r). There are 8 citoles illustrated in Cancioneiro da Ajuda, all incomplete, without strings or roses. The second example is above centre and right: two views of the citole in a ground level bay of Beverley Minster, Yorkshire, 1330-90 (with an incorrect modern peg box made during early 20th century repairs). The hand of the Beverley player covers the place where a rose might be. In both cases we have incomplete depictions from which conclusions cannot be drawn. A comparison with the citole on folio 147r of the Códice de los músicos of the Cantigas de Santa María, shown on the right, shows that, as we might expect, the circular holes are in addition to rather than instead of a rose.

string-holders, bridge types and bridge placement

As we see from the images above, and from the comparisons below, citole iconography shows instruments both with and without a string-holder or tailpiece between the bridge and the tail. The purpose of the tailpiece is to anchor the strings between the bridge and the end projection (more of which below).

Citoles with string-holders.
Left: The Ormesby Psalter, c. 1300–25 (Bodleian Library MS Douce 366, folio 9v).
Right: The Bologna Cope, late 13th century (Bologna, Museo Civico. Photograph: Alice Margerum).

The strings may pass over the bridge and be anchored to the end projection without a connecting tailpiece, as we see below.

Citoles without string-holders.
Left: Christ Church MS 92, 1326–27 (Christ Church, University of Oxford, folio 14v).
Right: Tewkesbury Abbey, 1320–50 (photograph © Ian Pittaway).

Some images of citoles clearly show the position of the bridge in relation to the tailpiece, as we see below on the citole in the angel choir of Lincoln Cathedral, completed by 1280.

Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

Most images of citoles that show a separate bridge and tailpiece have the bridge in the final third of the soundboard, much nearer the tailpiece than above, but we do see the bridge in a similar position to the Lincoln instrument in the Collegiate Church of Toro, Zamora, 1170–1250, below.

Photographs by Alice Margerum, used with her kind permission.

Another bridge some distance from the string holder is seen on the Gloucester Cathedral citole, 1337–50, below left. In the Church of Santa Maria Real de la Hiniesta, Zamora, Spain, 1290–91, below right, we see the unusual feature of two bridges (as seen on some central European kobzas), the more central bridge in roughly the same position as in Lincoln.

Left: Gloucester Cathedral. Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
Right: Church of Santa Maria Real de la Hiniesta. Photograph by Alice Margerum.

In some citole images, such as The Ormesby Psalter and the Bologna Cope that begin this subsection, we see a tailpiece or string holder but a bridge is not shown, indicating either a bridge at the very edge of the string holder so not visible, or just omitted by the artist, or perhaps a combined bridge and string holder such as we see on the fiddles below.

Left: The separate bridge and tailpiece we would usually expect to see in Coronation of the
Madonna with angels by Sano di Pietro, c. 1450, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena.
Right: A combination bridge and tailpiece with two feet in Saint Mary Magdalene holding a crucifix
by Spinello Aretino (Spinello di Luca Spinelli), c. 1395–1400, The Met Fifth Avenue, New York.
Left: A string-holder that acts in place of a bridge, supported by what appears to be a solid wood block,
in Coronation of the Virgin by Sano di Pietro, c. 1450, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena.
Right: Wood support under a tailpiece, here with two feet visible,
in Domenico di Bartolo, Madonna of Humility, Italy, 1433, Museo Nazionale, Palermo, Sicily.

As with other medieval chordophones, iconography shows a variety of bridge designs for the citole. Below left is a detail from the De Lisle Psalter (British Library Arundel MS 83, folio 134v), c. 1308–40, with a single-footed bridge that appears to be very tall proportionately (for which we will see further evidence below). When shown, this is the most common type of bridge depicted. Below right, from a wall painting in Cologne Cathedral, c. 1340, we see a two-footed bridge with the sort of arc we might expect on a bowed instrument.

Photograph on the right by Alice Margerum, used with permission.

We don’t just have to rely on iconography to know about citole bridges, as we have clues from the British Museum citole. When I had my citole made by Paul Baker, we used the measurements of Alice Margerum (2010) given above and the observations of Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams (2015), including the bending of the soundboard and estimated original fingerboard camber, and from that calculated the height of the original bridge. Clearly, citole set-up necessitated a floating bridge, taller than and quite different to low bridges on, for example, gitterns.

Photographs by Paul Baker.

The photographs above show the resulting bridge placement and height on Paul Baker’s copy of the British Museum citole. Without the original fretboard and bridge, exact fret placement and bridge placement are a matter of judgement: this bridge may originally have been placed considerably further forward, as on the Lincoln, Toro, Gloucester and Zamora citoles shown above, or it may have been in roughly this position but part of a combined bridge-tailpiece, as shown above on fiddles.

Photographs by Paul Baker.

For comparison of relative height, the photographs above show citole and gittern bridges, both on instruments made by Paul Baker. We see that, as a result of the overall shape of the citole and the arrangement of the fingerboard, the citole bridge at 23 mm is considerably higher than the gittern bridge at 9 mm.

end projection

The purpose of the end projection, as described above, is to provide an anchor point on which to tie the strings. They came in four forms: pointed, trefoil, round, and end pin. Below are examples of each.

Left: A pointed end projection in the Apocalypse de Saint Jean, France, 1301–1400
(Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 13096, folio 41r).
Centre: A trefoil (as on the British Museum citole) in The Peterborough Psalter,
England, 1300–25 (Royal Library of Belgium, KBR Ms 9961-62, folio 14r).
Right: Either a flat circle or a ball in The Queen Mary Psalter,
England, 1310–20 (BL Royal 2 B VII, folio 125v).
Above are three examples of the more subtle end pin.
Left top and bottom: Cantigas de Santa María, Códice de los músicos, Iberia, 1257–83
(Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid,
RBME Cat b-I-2, folios 39v and 147r).
Right: Cathedral of el Burgo de Osma, Soria, Spain, 1250–75.
© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, used under the terms of CC-BY-NC 4.0.

There are rare exceptions. The citoles in a Roman d’Alexandre manuscript, Bodleian 264, folios 173r and 188v above, have rounded tails and no illustrated end projections. The citole on folio 173r is shown with strings attached to a glued bridge, which is not impossible but highly unlikely given that it is unique, and given the structure of the citole described above. My assumption in these cases (and in the Berkeley theory manuscript, below) is that these citoles had the more subtle end pin that was not shown by the artist.

String material, courses and tuning

We have two sources for citole string material and one for its tuning.

The first source is Jehan (Jean) de Brie, Le Bon Berger (The Good Shepherd), 1379, which survived through 16th century printed abridgements. De Brie wrote that the “fine sinews of [sheep] gut well washed, dried, twisted, scraped, wiped and spun are used for musical instruments: vielles [fiddles], harpes, rothes [rotas, two row harps], luthz, quiternes [gitterns], rebecs, choros [string drums?], almaduries [?], symphonies [also known as the organistrum, predecessor of the hurdy gurdy], cytholes, and other instruments that one makes to give sound by means of the fingers and of strings.”

The second source is the Berkeley theory manuscript (Library of the University of California, Berkeley, MS. 744), written in Paris before 1361, probably by French priest, Jean (Johannes) Vaillant. This manuscript gives brief background and tunings for several stringed instruments.

On the same page are an illustration of a citole and a gittern, as we see above. The gittern in the manuscript is illustrated but not named, and the citole is called cithara which, as described above, was the Latin name for an ancient lyre, a name which in the ancient world came to be used for stringed instruments generally, a practice medieval authors followed to associate themselves with ancient Rome and Greece. The word lyre or lira was used likewise. The word cithara for citole in the Berkeley theory manuscript is used in the same way as in a marginal gloss of c. 1390, described above: “Lira is a certain type of cithara or is a sitola” (Flemish copy of Alanus de Insulis, de Planctu Naturae, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, ms 21069, folio 39r).

Both illustrations in the Berkeley manuscript are incomplete. The citole and gittern lack frets, the citole lacks an end projection (like the Roman d’Alexandre citoles above) and the string-holder is the wrong shape, being too short (exactly as in Christ Church Ms. 92, folio 31v, right) – but both illustrations give enough information to identify the instruments. The author gives the citole a tuning of c’ d’ g’ c’’ – or c d g c’, depending on how large we think the instrument is and how thick the strings – and states that “Thebeus the Arab loosened the lower string, adjusting a fourth between it and its neighbour” to arrive at the tuning of the gittern, a d’ g’ c’’. Since we know the gittern was strung with gut, this close association with the citole indicates that it, too, was string with gut.

The majority of citole iconography shows either 4 single strings, as in the Berkeley theory manuscript, or 6 strings in 3 double courses. The variation is 5 strings in 2 double courses and 1 single, the single being either the highest or lowest course. My experience of playing medieval music on the citole shows c’ d’ g’ c’’ to be a versatile and intuitive tuning for the repertoire. For example, the French estampies of Manuscrit du Roi (one of which begins this article) stay comfortably within the range of the citole. For that repertoire, the bottom c’ is regularly needed, but no notes below it are written, as with much music of the period.

What might the tuning have been in 3 double courses? A tuning of d’ g’ c’’ is possible – tuned in fourths, removing the lowest course – but my experience of the necessity of that bottom c’ makes c’ g’ c’’ seem more likely, retaining the full range and losing the open d’ course.


The one remaining subject is the several types of plectrum used to play citoles. This will be covered in two dedicated articles: one on medieval plectrum manufacture, available on this site on 18th January 2023, and one on medieval plectrum technique, available on 25th January 2023.

From confusion to clarity

It is only since Lawrence Wright’s article of 1977 that we began to have clarity on exactly what the citole was, i.e. that it was not a gittern, guitar, or plucked fiddle; it is only since Alice Margerum’s thesis of 2010 that we have had a definitive work on the citole, distinguished from the cetra; and only since Crawford Young’s thesis of 2018 that we have had a clear history of the cetra.

The distinctive characteristics and variety of the 13th–14th century citole can be summarised as follows.

• Carved from solid wood with thin walls to make the instrument light and resonant, with the soundboard, bridge, string-holder (optional), fingerboard and pegs added.
• The body shape viewed from the front is holly leaf, hexagonal, hourglass, or vase-shaped.
• Viewed from the side, the body is wedge-shape, narrowest at the tail and widest at the head, with a thumb-hole in the wedge neck to give access to the fingerboard.
• If we take the British Museum citole as an unusually highly decorated example that is otherwise typical in design, then all citoles had a keel-shape back to enlarge the sound chamber.
• Citole peg boxes universally (or perhaps almost universally) had anterior (front mounted) pegs. The peg box could be shaped as a slope back from the fingerboard, a sickle, a diamond or a disc. If there was such a thing as a ‘free neck’ citole, which is questionable, there is no clear relationship between the shape of peg box and the possible absence of a wedge neck and thumb-hole.
• Citole fingerboards appear to have been of two types: raised fixed frets of wood or bone, which possibly provided alternative # and b Pythagorean semitones, or wood blocks of graded height, as on the cetra. The difference may have been regional.
• The soundboard was bent onto the carved body to increase stiffness, thereby adding to structural strength and promoting auditory volume and treble frequencies. Citole soundboards generally featured a central carved rose; some instead had C holes.
• Some citoles secured strings with a string-holder or tailpiece between the bridge and the tail; others had the strings beyond the bridge attached directly to the end projection.
• End projections, to which either the tailpiece was tied or the strings were tied directly, were in the shape of a trefoil, a point, a ball or flat circle, or an end pin.
• The strings were gut, arranged in 4 single courses tuned c’ d’ g’ c’’, or 3 double courses of unknown tuning, likely c’ g’ c’’. Occasionally 3 course citoles had a single top or bottom course.
• Citoles were typically small, similar or the same as the dimensions of the British Museum citole. Iconography suggests there were occasionally larger citoles, perhaps tuned an octave down from the tuning given above.

The second article will examine the playing style and repertoire of the citole, with some common modern myths examined. The thumb-hole, for example, is an aid to the player, and does not restrict the fretting hand to first position, as is commonly supposed. To go the second article, click here.


© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.



Buehler-McWilliams, Kathryn (2015) The British Museum Citole: An Organological Study. In: James Robinson, Naomi Speakman and Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams (eds.) The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives. London: The British Museum Press.

Hebbert, Benjamin (2015) The British Museum Citole as a 16th century Violin: Context and Attribution. In: James Robinson, Naomi Speakman and Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams (eds.) The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives. London: The British Museum Press.

Horrox, Rosemary (ed.) (2000) Beverley Minster: an illustrated history. Beverley: The Friends of Beverley Minster.

Margerum, Alice C. (2010) Situating the Citole, c. 1200-1400. A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of London Metropolitan University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. August 2010. Available online with an EThOS (E-Theses Online Service) account by clicking here.

McPeek, Gwynn & McPeek, Mary (1971) A Guide to the Carvings of Medieval Minstrels in Beverley Minster. Available on request by clicking here.

Page, Christopher (1980) Fourteenth-Century Instruments and Tunings: A Treatise by Jean Vaillant? (Berkeley, MS 744). The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 33, March 1980, pp. 17-35. Available online by clicking here.

Page, Christopher (1987) Voices & Instruments of the Middle Ages. Instrumental practice and songs in France 1100-1330. London: J. M. Dent & Sons.

Perratore, Julia (2018) Beverley Minster’s 14th Century Architectural Sculptures in a Devotional Context. In: Elisa A. Foster, Julia Perratore, and Steven Rozenski (eds.), Devotional Interaction in Medieval England and its Afterlives. Leiden: Brill.

Solez, Kevin (2002) Lyrecraft: The Origins and Adoption of the Greek Word Kitharis. Available online by clicking here.

Speakman, Naomi (2015) Introduction. In: James Robinson, Naomi Speakman and Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams (eds.) The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives. London: The British Museum Press.

Tinctoris, Johannes (c. 1481–87) De inventione et usu musicae. Available online by clicking here.

Wright, Laurence (1977) The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity. The Galpin Society Journal. Vol. 30, May 1977, pp. 8–42. Available online by clicking here.

Young, Crawford (2000) Lute, Gittern, & Citole. In: Ross W. Duffin (ed.) A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Young, Crawford (2000) Zur Klassification und Ilonographischen Interpretation Mittelalterlicher Zupfinstrumente. Basler Jahrbuch für Historische Musikpraxis, 8 (1984), pp. 67–104.

Young, Crawford (2015) Cytolle, Guiterne, Morache: A Revision of Terminology. In: James Robinson, Naomi Speakman and Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams (eds.) The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives. London: The British Museum Press.

Young, Robert Crawford (2018) La Cetra Cornuta: the Horned Lyre of the Christian World. Doctoral thesis at Leiden University. Available online by clicking here.

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

  • 2nd November 2022 at 6:43 pm

    Another excellent history.
    Someday you should put them all together in the form of a book. The internet is transient, and subject to the vagarities of commerce.

    • 2nd November 2022 at 7:39 pm

      Thank you, Alan. I’ve had a book suggested to me before, but I doubt anyone would buy the book while it’s all available for free online, and with a book you don’t get the videos. I do appreciate the sentiment and support.


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