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.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.
La septime estampie Real 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.

Playing style  

Rutebeuf (or Rutebuef, or Rustebeuf, fl. 1245–85) was a nom de plume for a trouvère (the French counterparts to the Occitan troubadours) whose real name is unknown. Rutebeuf’s poem, Le Pet Au Vilain (The Peasant’s Fart), tells the story of a peasant who has overeaten, who has such severe abdominal pain that he has taken to his bed to try to pass wind. “He had eaten so much hearty beef with garlic and swallowed so much rich stock that his belly isn’t soft, but stretched as tight as the string of a citole.” Seeing this, a devil in the vicinity thinks the peasant is dying, so he jumps up and down on the man’s stomach in the hope of hastening his death. The devil holds a leather sack to the man’s backside to catch his soul as it leaves the body. As the peasant breaks wind, the devil catches it, then carries the bulging sack to hell. Upon reaching there and opening it, the stench is so foul that the creatures of hell run to escape it. They have an emergency meeting next day, at which they ban all peasants from entering hell.

The belly “stretched as tight as the string of a citole” fits the structural information in the first article: the overall wedge shape and thumb-hole neck, the keel-shape back, the stiffness of the soundboard bent into place, the high bridge, all point to an instrument designed for high tension strings and therefore volume. This is further underlined by the substantial plectrums typically seen in citole iconography. The implements used for playing citoles are investigated in two dedicated articles on medieval plectrums, available on this website on 18th and 25th January 2023. Two images of substantial citole plectrums are shown below.

Left: Beinecke MS 229, folio 99v, France, c. 1275–1300 (Yale University Library).
Right: Peterborough Psalter, folio 14r, England, 1300–25
(KBR – Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels, Ms. 9961–62).  
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in new window to further enlarge.)  

Both these images show the playing position so often seen in medieval images of citole players: the arm underneath and sometimes supporting the instrument, the plucking hand at a right angle to the strings rather than parallel with them, the plectrum therefore at an angle to the strings which make control, dexterity and effective playing impossible. It isn’t only in manuscript art: we see a carved example below from the vaulted roof of Gloucester Cathedral, 1337–50.

Photographs © Ian Pittaway.

We don’t only see this with citoles: below we see the same medieval depiction of plucked chordophones being played with this impossible hand position, this time with players of oud, lute and gittern. The hand and wrist are at an angle that makes even secure contact with the strings difficult.

Left: An oud in Códice de los músicos of the Iberian Cantigas de Santa María, 1257–83
(Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid,
RBME Cat b-I-2), folio 162r.  
Right: A lute embroidered on the Steeple Aston Cope, England, c. 1300
(Victoria and Albert Museum).
Left: A French carving of a gittern, c. 1450–1500,
 now in The Met Fifth Avenue, New York.
Right: A lute in a stained glass window in Saint Mary Magdalene’s Church,
Warham, Norfolk, c. 1450.

It isn’t only in medieval depictions that we see this impossible playing position: it was an ancient artistic convention for showing plucked chordophone players. For example, below left is a figure found in Haft Tapeh in the Iranian province of Khuzestan, 1500 BCE; below right, a Hittite chordophone from Alacahöyük, Turkey, 1400–1300 BCE; …

… below left, a figure from Susa, Iran, 14th–12th century BCE; and below right, a musician on a frieze on the entrance to a Buddhist temple excavated from Airtam, Uzbekistan, 1st century CE.

Medieval and pre-medieval art often distorts perspective, exaggerating some features while minimising or omitting others. When we compare the images above with a practical playing position below (my own hands), we see that ancient artists changed actuality to make it flatter, lowering the plucking arm in the process.  

Philip Kevin et al (2015, p. 113) take the ‘arm under’ position in iconography literally, leading the authors to the untenable stance of suggesting that musicians emulate something impossible and impractical: “citoles may have performed a limited repertoire and were probably used mainly to keep time by playing the same few notes repeatedly”, for which there is not a jot of evidence. “This understanding is supported by representations of musicians playing citoles, the majority of which show the player’s hand coming up from under the centre of the instrument.” This statement shows a lack of knowledge of historical context, not recognising that the ‘arm under’ depiction is not unique to citoles, but was common in depictions of medieval and pre-medieval plucked chordophones, and is not realistic. “This approach would allow adequate movement only to play the drone chords satisfactorily.” There is no evidence of limited drone playing or of players deliberately hampering their ability to play, which is clearly a bizarre notion. “It is not surprising, therefore, that the citole is usually depicted with other instruments, principally fiddles.” A survey of citole iconography reveals that the majority of citole iconography shows it being played solo, and the rest of the depictions show it played with the fiddle and with a range of other instruments, as is the case for any instrument. If we accept the interpretation of Philip Kevin et al – and the same explanation of citole playing is offered by Mauricio Molina (2015) – we have to believe that many citole players – and indeed many oud, lute, gittern, and pre-medieval players of plucked chordophones – collectively decided to affect a plucking position that restricted movement and forced them to be deliberately awkward, limited and indeed terrible musicians. With a knowledge of artistic conventions and practical reality we see that iconography has to be interpreted, and cannot always be taken at face value.

The ‘arm under’ position wasn’t a universal depiction, as we see with the paired lutes and gitterns below, shown in more true to life playing poses.

Above: Folio 107r of the Anglo-Catalan Great Canterbury Psalter (BnF Latin 8846), decorated
in the first half of the 14th century. Left to right, we see bagpipe, vielle, lute, psaltery, gittern,
portative organ and cup cymbals, with the plucking hands of the lute and gittern in realistic positions.
Below: Details of the lute and gittern players.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)  

Lute and gittern playing together from Pere Serra’s Virgin of the Angels, 1480s (two details),
a section of an altarpiece now in the National Museum of Art of Cataluña.
Lute and gittern duet in a detail from Agnolo Gaddi’s Coronation of the Virgin with six angels, c. 1390.

Since the flattened playing position, coming from underneath, makes fluid playing literally impossible, why present the image this way? And why do so in three-dimensional carvings as well as in two-dimensional manuscript folios? There appears to have been an artistic convention to enable the artist to show the details of the instrument, as we see by comparing two citoles in La Portada del Sarmental, Burgos Cathedral, Spain, c. 1235. Below left we see a citole played in a realistic pose, the hand parallel to the strings, which means the details of the bridge, string-holder and tail are all hidden from view, as we also see above in the photograph of my hands playing. By comparison, the citole player on the right has the whole right arm moved down to an impossible playing position, with the advantage that the viewer can see the bridge, string-holder and tail.

To understand how the citole was actually played, we must first address two regularly repeated myths or assumptions.

The first myth is that the citole’s distinctive thumb-hole at the back of the neck restricts movement to first position, making the upper frets unreachable. To believe this we must also believe, most peculiarly, that medieval citole makers intentionally created an instrument that was partially unplayable. For this reason, some luthiers go against the historical evidence by extending the thumb-hole the whole length of the neck. As we see in the pictures below of an instrument by Paul Baker that copies all the proportions of the British Museum citole, not only does the thumb-hole not restrict movement, the thumb-hole could be smaller or the neck longer and there would still be no issue with fingerboard access.

The second myth – which also applies to gitterns and medieval lutes – is that plectrum players were restricted to either a single line or a melody over a drone and, for the latter idea, drone tunings are created for medieval instruments for which there is no historical evidence, allowing the player to strum.

Illustrations of a citole above and gittern below in the Berkeley theory manuscript
(Library of the University of California, Berkeley, MS. 744), Paris, before 1361.
The citole tuning is c’ d’ g’ c’’ and the gittern is the same except the low c’ is dropped to a.

As described in the first article, citoles are typically shown with 4 single courses or 6 strings arranged in 3 double courses. The historically-attested tuning for the 4 course citole is c’ d’ g’ c’’, shown in the Berkeley theory manuscript, written in Paris before 1361. A 3 course tuning is not given, but c’ g’ c’’ seems likely, losing the d’ and retaining the c’ which is needed a great deal in medieval melodies.

Whether the putative c’ g’ c’’ is a strummed drone tuning depends entirely on how it is used. The later mandore of the 16th and 17th century was tuned g c’ g’ c’’ g’’, which is an ideal strummed drone tuning if one wants to use it that way, but nowhere in all the surviving mandore tablature is the tuning used for that purpose. There is no evidence for the strumming of any comparable fingerboard instrument until the books of chord shorthand and strumming patterns published for guitar in the 1590s and early 1600s, and even then the strummed guitar was tuned in fourths and a third, not an open/drone tuning.

If we look to medieval manuscripts for polyphonic music, we see that not only is it performable on a 4 course citole tuned c’ d’ g’ c’’ and played with a plectrum, but the tuning positively assists the player in doing so. The reasons are as follows.

i. In medieval polyphony, voices were written at a similar pitch, with parts often meeting on unison notes and sometimes crossing over. Music with voices thrown wide apart is a renaissance innovation, not created until the 15th century.

ii. Three of the courses of the 4 string citole are in fourths: d’ g’ c’’. These intervals make reaching the closely-pitched polyphonic notes easy on adjacent courses, as is required by plectrum playing, without compromise or modification.

The unisons d’, f’ and g’ on a citole. This is shown in the
renaissance fingerboard system known as French
tablature. The spaces top to bottom represent the open
strings of the citole, c’’, g’, d’ and c’. In those spaces,
letters represent finger placement: a = open string,
b = 1st fret, c = 2nd fret, d = 3rd fret, and so on.

iii. When two polyphonic voices reach a unison, that note is most likely to be d’, f’ or g’. All these unisons are easily accommodated in citole tuning, as shown on the right.

iv. The bottom course of the 4 string citole is c’. The fact that this is played on an open string often greatly assists the player, making it easier to play two voices when the lower voice is c’, as we see in the three music examples below, demonstrating all of the above principles.

Foweles in þe frith (Birds in the wood) is an English polyphonic song from the heyday of the citole. Dated c. 1270, it appears on leaves inserted into the Douce 139 manuscript, Bodleian Library, Oxford. Transcribed into modern notation, it is rendered as follows.

The melody of Foweles in þe frith, transcribed in modern notation by Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)  

In the tablature below we see that the unisons on f’ and g’ are easily accommodated by the tuning, and the octave between the voices, at d’ and d’’, is easily reached on adjacent courses because the thumb-hole does not restrict fretting hand movement.

The melody of Foweles in þe frith, transcribed in modern notation by Ian Pittaway.
In French tablature, the rhythm flag with one tail is a crotchet, with two a quaver,
with three a semiquaver. As in modern music notation, a dot after the rhythm
flag indicates that its value is increased by half again. Where there is no rhythm flag,
repeat the last value written. Intabulation by Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)  

To hear the intabulation of Foweles in þe frith played on citole by Ian Pittaway, click on the soundfile.

Edi beo þu heuene quene is a song in praise of the Virgin Mary written in Middle English between 1265 and the late 13th century. It is transcribed below in modern notation from the neumes in the manuscript, Corpus Christi College Oxford 59.

The melody of Edi beo þu heuene quene, transcribed in modern notation by Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)  

Transferred to the citole fingerboard in French lute tablature, it is played without modification as follows.

To hear the intabulation of Edi beo þu played on citole by Ian Pittaway, click on the soundfile.

Foweles in þe frith and Edi beo þu are English. Below is an example from Catalonia: Stella Splendens from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (Red Book of Montserrat), c. 1399, kept in the Benedictine Monastery of Montserrat. In the transcription below we see that the largest interval between voices, as with the previous examples, is an octave.

The melody of Stella splendens, transcribed in modern notation by Ian Pittaway.
Stella splendens is in the musical form ABA. 

In the intabulation below we see again how citole tuning easily accommodates the unisons on f’. As with the other examples, no aspect of the two voice polyphony is lost on the citole. There is only one point at which a slight variation is made from the original music: where the two voices are an octave apart at c’ and c’’, a g’ is added between, doubled on the second and third strings, to enable the c’ and c’’ to be played on the open pitches of the highest and lowest strings.

Intabulation by Ian Pittaway.

To hear the intabulation of Stella splendens played on citole by Ian Pittaway, click on the soundfile.

We have seen that iconography is valuable in understanding medieval instruments but it cannot always be taken literally, so critical caution and understanding of artistic convention is also required, not least when it comes to playing position; that the citole’s wedge neck and thumb-hole promote balance and handling, not restricting the fretting hand in any way; that there is no evidence for medieval strumming of a melody in a ‘drone tuning’; that medieval plectrum chordophones can play much of the polyphony of the period; and that the citole was built for volume and projection.

So we turn to the repertoire of the citole and the social contexts in which it was played.

Musical genres

The shape and rigidity of the citole (described in the first article) give it a timbre quite unlike the gittern and the lute. The structure and the plectrums seen in iconography (described in two article on medieval plectrums, available on this site on 18th and 25th January 2023) promote auditory volume, which is logically why some medieval accounts describe it as an instrument that can successfully be played in noisy environments and for dances (references described below).

The extent to which the citole was popular is shown in the numerous written and iconographical references of the 13th and 14th century. This, and the fact that its sound was loved, is clear in the English Meditations on the Life and Passions of Christ, late 14th century (British Museum Add MS 11307), in which, at the passion of Christ, “þe swete sytole” and other joyful instruments are laid aside.

What type of music did the citole play?

In the renaissance, we have rich sources of music written for specific instruments, most notably tablature written for the fingerboard instruments the lute, cittern, bandora, and guitar. The musical genres of the 16th century were the fantasia, the toy, variations on ballad tunes, and dance forms – pavan, galliard, courante, almain, and la volta. There was no correlation between any form and any instrument: a pavan, for example, could be played just as well on the keyboard as on the viol or the lute.

There was the same lack of correlation between form and instrument when the citole flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries. Music written for a specific instrument was rare: musicians were expected to make their own arrangements from the neumes (medieval notation) on the page or from aural learning, adapted to the idiom of their chosen instrument.

This is confirmed in verse in La Vieille by Jean Lefèvre de Ressons, c. 1370. La Vieille is a translation, versification and expansion of De Yetula (Of Yetula), also known as De mutation Vitae (The change of Life), a work that was claimed to have been written by Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE), but which was probably written in France in the 13th century. La Vieille gives a list of the musical forms of the day followed by the instruments they can be played on. The musical forms are “motez, balades, virelais, comedies, rondeauls et lais”.

A “motez” (motet) is a complex polyphonic song in three voices, or sometimes in two or four, in which the voices move at different speeds and have different texts. Some motets are included in Roman de Fauvel, a French work of allegorical and satirical verse in two books, dated 1310 and 1314. Two of those motets reappear in the Robertsbridge Codex, the earliest surviving source of keyboard music, written in England c. 1360, demonstrating that motets were not always purely a cappella: in Robertsbridge one motet is written with keyboard accompaniment and the other, by the French composer Philippe de Vitry, is a fully instrumental version.

A “balade” (ballade), virelai, and “rondeaul” (rondeau) are songs distinguished by their formes fixes, each respectively defined by the position of the refrain (repeated text) within the rhyme scheme.

The meaning of “comedie” is unclear. It may refer to satirical songs such as those composed by the 12th and 13th century goliards and the late 11th to late 13th century troubadours.

A lai (lay) is a form of sung narrative love poetry.

The list of musical forms in La Vieille is followed by a list of musical instruments they can be played on, which includes shawm, bagpipe, portative organ, harp, citole, rota, simfonie, vielle, lute, gittern, and others. In other words, play anything on anything.

The only modification to this view appears in Libro de buen amor (The book of good love), c. 1330, by Castilian poet Juan Ruiz, known as the Archpriest of Hita. Ruiz lists instruments that are and are not suitable for playing Arabian music: the laud (lute) and viüela de pénola are suitable, the çitola and guitarra (gittern) are not. He doesn’t say why, but the obvious explanation is that Arabian modes use quartertones, requiring either the freedom of an unfretted neck or a neck with more frets than appear on a western instrument. When Juan Ruiz wrote in c. 1330, the lute was unfretted, and did not gain frets until c. 1400, so that was suitable for Arabian music. The identity of the viüela de pénola is uncertain, but the name suggests an oval-bodied plucked chordophone, and just such an instrument appears twice in the Iberian Cantigas de Santa María, Códice de los músicos, 1257–83 (Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, RBME Cat b-I-2), fretless in both depictions, as we see below. The unsuitability of the çitola and guitarra for playing Arabian music therefore appears to be their fixed frets.

The medieval laissez faire approach to pairing musical instruments with musical forms may therefore be modified according to Juan Ruiz as: play any western music on any western instrument.

Two potential sightings of the unfretted viüela de pénola mentioned by
Juan Ruiz in c. 1330, both in the Cantigas de Santa María, 1257–83.
Left: on folio 46v next to a viüela de arco.
Right: on folio 147r next to a citole.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)  

Social class

The citole was an instrument played by all social classes. At one end of the social scale, Juan Ruiz stated that “The citole … love[s] the tavern and dancing with the scoundrel”. At the other end of the scale, in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, Liber Octavus (Lover’s Confession, Book Eight), c. 1390, Apollonius becomes musical tutor to King Antiochus’s daughter (who isn’t named) at her request, teaching her citole and other instruments:

He tawhte hir til sche was certein
Of harpe, of citole, and of rote,
With many a tun and many a note
Upon musique, upon mesure,
And of hir harpe the temprure
He tawhte hire ek, as he wel couthe.

He taught her till she was certain
Of harp, of citole, and of rota [two row harp with soundboard between the strings],
With many a tune and many a note
Upon music, upon measure,
And of her harp the tuning
He taught her likewise, as he had ample skill.

A tutor instructing pupils to play citole and harp on folio 9r of MS 0222,
Bibliothèque municipale, Avranches, 1220–40. (CC BY-NC 3.0)

In the 12th century Provençal Daurel e Betó, it is clear that being a skilled musician and singer was one of the expectations of an all-round skilled courtier: “When Betó was seven years old he knew how to fiddle well, and to play the citole and the harp in a noble fashion, and how to sing cansos [courtly love-songs], and how to compose by himself … When Betó was nine years old he was a squire of the king, he was personable and courteous and an eloquent speaker. He plays drafts and chess where money is bet, and goes hunting with dogs and greyhounds … The king loves him, and the queen adores him greatly, and her courteous daughter holds him very dear; ladies love him, young men and knights. He served at table during meals and stood graciously in the presence of the king … then he fiddles to them and sings willingly.”

Confessio Amantis and Daurel e Betó are fiction, but they are art imitating life, confirming courtly expectations from other sources.

The records of the English Kings Edward I, II, and III show that citolers were among their paid entertainers: Edward I (r. 1272–1307) employed “Janyn le Citoler”; Edward II (r. 1307–27) engaged “Juoni Vala le Cetoler”, “Thome citoler” and “Richardyn cytoler le Roi”; and Edward III (r. 1327–77) paid for the service of John the citoler.

For both the medieval and the modern player of early music on citole, this means the player is not restricted by musical genre nor by the social class of the music. Any material from the geographical regions and the time period of the citole is available: that’s Iberia, Italy, Occitania, France, England, the Low Countries and Germany in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The citole and song 

All of the genres named in La Vieille – motet, ballade, virelai, comedie, rondeau, lai – are song forms. That the citole was associated with song performance is confirmed by other sources.

While exiled in France in 1260–67, Italian scholar and politician Brunetto Latini wrote a compilation of history, astronomy, geography, bestiary, ethics, politics, rhetoric and government. Li Livres dou Tresor (The Book of Treasure) gives several references to the citole as an instrument to sing to.

He sets out four areas of knowledge: the “second [branch of knowledge] is music, which teaches us to make musical sounds, by singing, playing on citoles and on organs and other harmonising instruments, combining the sounds for the pleasure of the people, or in church in the service of our Lord.”

The bestiary section explains that sirens “are of three types. One resembles a woman from the head to the thighs but from there down resembles a fish, and they have wings and tails. The first one sings marvellously well with its voice, the other with a flute and a pipe, and the third with a citole, and through their sweet song they made unsuspecting people who were passing over the sea perish.” Though mythological, the idea of singing to a citole was taken from life, as other references show. Of the swan, Latini’s bestiary says the “peasants in the Hyperborean mountains of Greece say that when a person sings and plays a citole, a great number of swans come around him because of the pleasure they take in the song.”

The British Library’s copy of Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor (Yates Thompson MS 19),
1300–25, illustrates three sirens, a citoler and trumpeter accompanying a singer.

The chansons de geste were sung epic poems, evidenced from the late 11th century. One of the last to be composed in the 14th century was Li Romans de Bauduin de Sebourc, in which the metaphor for misery is “a singer without a citole”.

On folio 17r of The Tickhill Psalter, Nottinghamshire, England, 1303–14 (Spenser Collection, New York Public Library, MS 26) is an illustration of 1 Samuel 18: 6–7: “When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tympanis and sistris. As they danced, they sang: Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” In medieval Latin, tympanis is a timbrel and sistris is a percussion instrument consisting of a handle with a metal lid which has two holes with knotted wire passed through, shaken to make a roaring sound. Rather than depicting these, the artist illustrated the scene from contemporary experience, showing David holding Goliath’s head in the middle of six musicians, all women: one plays vielle, two play vielle while singing, two play double trumpets, and one sings while playing citole.

Musicians on folio 17r of The Tickhill Psalter, Nottinghamshire, England, 1303–14
(Spenser Collection, New York Public Library, MS 26).

Jongleurs, troubadours and trouvères

French author Renaud de Beaujeu wrote the Arthurian romance Le Bel Inconnu (The Fair Unknown) in c. 1250–75. In lines 2880–2895 we read that the citole was one of many instruments played by jongleurs, professional entertainers also known as minstrels.

The knight did not stop
until he came to the great hall of the palace,
where he saw the jongleurs
all seated in the windows,
each with a candle in front of him.
And each one was holding
his instrument.
The knight saw one playing the harp,
while the one next to him played a rota [two row harp];
one played the estive [?], another a vielle [fiddle],
another a gigue [either a fiddle or a simfony], another a calimele [?],
and another singing with a clear voice like a siren’s;
another played a citole,
one a horn,
while another played skilfully on his flute.
Some played songs of love
to the sounds of tinbre [timbrel?] and tabors,
bagpipe, psalteries and Pan pipe,
and trumpets and moïnel [?].
Each played his own part.

Guiraut (Giraut) de Calanso[n] (fl. 1202–12) was a troubadour from Gascony. Among his surviving works is a didactic poem, Fadet juglar (Advise to jongleurs), in which he makes clear that, for each jongleur, the ability to play the single instrument in Renaud’s lines above was only a fraction of the skills he needed. Guiraut wrote that a jongleur should “know how to compose and nobly tumble [be an acrobat], and speak well, and engage in debates, to play the tabor and the taule [?], and make the sinfonia roar [symphonia, simfonie, symphony, organistrum, the predecessor of the hurdy gurdy]; know how to throw and catch little apples on knives, to imitate birdsong, do card tricks and be able to jump through four hoops; play the citola and the mandurar [?]; and to leap [dance] in four circles; play the manicorda [monochord] with one string and the cidra [?] that everyone likes to hear; sound the notes, string a rota [two row harp with soundboard between the rows] with seventeen strings. If you learn nine instruments well, you will be equipped for any work. Play arpa [harp] and tune the guiga [fiddle] well to make the notes clear; and the pipe with the high voice, and sound the lira [lyre].”

That is quite a set of skills for anyone to learn, and illustrates that a jongleur or minstrel was not only meant to be a highly-skilled musician but an all-round versatile entertainer, a polymath performer. Thus the citoler and tumbler (acrobat) we see below in The Maastricht Hours, Netherlands, 1300–25 (British Library Stowe MS 17, folio 128r) were both jongleurs or minstrels, and may well have had skill sets such that they were able to swap places.

Not every jongleur was up to the task as Guiraut de Calanso expressed it. Lourenco was a jongleur and citole player in the 13th century, castigated in a satirical poem by Galician troubadour, Joan Garcia de Ghillalde:

Lourenco, you stop scratching
and forsake your big citole.
I pray to you that you never perform one of my compositions
so I don’t have to lament such a spectacle.

Lourenco wasn’t the only citole-playing jongleur to displease a troubadour. Portuguese troubadour, Martin (Martim) Soarez (Soares), fl. 1230–70, aimed his words at …

A jongleur named Lopo [who]
played the citole badly and sang even worse
[Lopo] had the big citole over the arm …
[Lopo], will you scratch your big citole?

The word rascar – scratch – used by both authors is the worst put-down: after all, what is an instrument for except to make a beautiful sound? What could be more opposite to the sound of “þe swete sytole” in the late 14th century Meditations on the Life and Passions of Christ than to scratch it?

(Not all troubadours were up to the task, either. Preceding his compositions in a manuscript of troubadour songs, the account of the life of Gaucelm Faidit of Limousin, Occitania, states that “he sang worse than anyone in the world, but he composed many good melodies and good rhymes.” Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 12473, folio 22r, 13th century.)

Joan Garcia de Ghillalde’s words for Lourenco, “forsake your big citole. I pray to you that you never perform one of my compositions”, suggests what we know from other sources: jongleurs included the songs of troubadours and trouvères in their repertoire. The instruments mentioned in the words of troubadour and trouvère songs and those illustrated in manuscripts, played by their composers, are vielle (fiddle), pipe and tabor, harp, gittern, bagpipe, and portative organ.

Left to right, illustrations of troubadours from Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. 854:
Aimeric de Sarlat (fl. c. 1200) playing pipe and tabor (folio 123r);
Albertet de Sisteron (fl. 1194–1221) playing gittern (folio 133v);
Guilhem (de) Montanhagol (fl. 1233–68) playing harp (folio 124r).
Left: troubadour Perdigon or Perdigo (fl. 1190–1220) playing vielle
(Bibliothèque nationale de France ms. 854, folio 49r).
Centre and right: unnamed musicians playing portative organ (folio 94r) and bagpipe (folio 100r) in a late 13th century trouvère chansonnier, MS Reg. lat. 1490. © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome.

Troubadours flourished in Occitania from the late 11th century, trouvères in France from the mid–12th century, both until the end of the 13th century. The citole is not mentioned or illustrated specifically as an instrument played by a troubadour or trouvère (as far as I have seen) but since, as noted above, any western instrument could be used to play any western music, there is no reason in principle why a troubadour or trouvère song of the 13th century should not have been performed on the citole, and Joan Garcia de Ghillalde’s complaint against Lourenco suggests they were.

Religious contexts  

Photographs by Alice Margerum, from her citole thesis (see bibliography),
used with her kind permission.

With iconography we have to be careful to understand the purpose of the art, and not mistake symbolism for reality. For example, above is an Elder of the Apocalypse in the Collegiate Church of Toro, Zamora, 1170–1250. This image replicates scenes of the Elders of the Apocalypse such as those carved in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, 1168–1211, and Chartres Cathedral, 1145–1245. They all feature pictorial representations of a passage from Revelation 5: 6–8, which all scholars of the time would have read in Latin: “Then I saw a Lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered, but it was now standing between the throne and the four living beings and among the twenty-four elders … He stepped forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one sitting on the throne … the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a cithara, and they held gold bowls/vials filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.” As explained in the first article on the citole, the Latin cithara and Greek kithara originally designated a lyre, but in ancient Roman and Greek usage the word was also used for any plucked stringed instrument. Medieval writers used the word in the same way, such that any stringed instrument could be used to represent the lyre of the ancient world. In Macé de la Charité’s translation of Revelation into Old French in the 13th century, for example, he translates cithara as both arpe and citolle. In the same way, in carvings and manuscript representations of the Elders of the Apocalypse we see a variety of plucked and bowed instruments held upright because they represent the Elders’ citharas or lyres, as we see above with the citole in Zamora. This symbolic representation cannot therefore be taken to indicate either that the citole was played upright or with bare fingers, any more than it could indicate that the 1st century writer writer of Revelation meant a citole when he wrote of the cithara.

Some manuscript iconography may therefore appear ambiguous due to the religious or mythological context: if the setting and some of the details of the image are not literal, what can we glean about the reality of citole playing? Since the English Queen Mary Psalter (British Library Royal 2 B VII), 1310–20, has no fewer than 12 images of citoles in various mythological, religious and secular contexts, it is a valuable test case.

Folio 125v, below, shows a trumpeter, harper, fiddler and citoler playing to an aspis. The aspis or asp is a snake, but is shown in some bestiaries with two or four legs, and in this illustration looks every inch a lion. As in many other images, here the aspis guards a tree that drips balm, and the men can only have safe access to the tree by lulling the creature to sleep with music. To protect itself from the music, the aspis puts one ear to the ground and stops the other ear with its tail.

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

The other fantastical citole scenes in The Queen Mary Psalter are on folio 192r, a man-lion citoler duetting with a man-bird bagpiper …

… and, on folio 192v, a centaur citoler duetting with a simian trumpeter.

Other images in the manuscript place the citole in a religious context. Below left is folio 56v, showing King David playing harp, accompanied by a citoler; and below right is folio 282r, showing the Virgin Mary accompanied by an angel fiddler and citoler.

The citole and fiddle combination is repeated in two other devotional images: playing as a soul is taken to heaven on folio 301r …

… and on folio 303v a citoler appears in one of the panels either side of the Virgin Mary suckling Jesus.

The same citole/fiddle combination appears twice more in straightforward images of musicians on folio 174r, below left, and 203r, right.

Citoles and fiddles appear together in other manuscripts, so this appears to suggest not only that it was a common combination, but that the instruments in the religious images were not chosen at random, but reflect real musical practice. Similarly, in the fantastical scenes above we have realistic combinations of instruments, so there is no reason to suggest that the ensemble is as mythical as the scene. Taken together, written accounts and images show that medieval musicians played in combinations of whatever was to hand, just as we would today.

Religious depictions, then, reflect everyday musical practices known by the artist. We see this in the way the image of an angel citoler playing dance music for the Virgin Mary and three dancing saints on folio 229r …

… is a holy equivalent of the secular citoler playing for four dancing men on folio 189r.

As in all religious art, the holy and heavenly is depicted as a version of what the artist sees in the world, the real symbolising the ineffable. Given this, should we believe the depiction on folio 177r of a nun playing psaltery while a monk plays citole? Is this a real depiction, like the musicians on folios 174r and 203r, or symbolic like the Elders of the Apocalypse and angels playing as a soul is lifted to heaven?

The evidence suggests that this is credible as reality, but the idea of those who have taken holy orders playing musical instruments needs a little justification due to modern misconceptions about medieval clerical attitudes to music.

We have seen that Italian scholar and politician Brunetto Latini wrote of the citole and organ “and other harmonising instruments” in his Li Livres dou Tresor (The Book of Treasure), 1260–67, “which teach us to make musical sounds … combining the sounds for the pleasure of the people, or in church in the service of our Lord.” It is clear that, in Latini’s mind, not only is there no contradiction between instrumental music-making and the holy life, indeed one serves the other. He must have been particularly fond of the citole – a player himself? – as he used it to illustrate the idea that hard work and dedication is required to live a good life: “All of man’s works are either good or bad, and the one who does good deeds deserves credit for accomplishing what he has done, for the one who plays a citole well is worthy of having credit for his achievement, and the one who does badly, deserves the opposite.” This religious sentiment expressed in musical terms is reminiscent of a passage by Roman statesman and scholar Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus (Casiodoro, Cassiodore), c. 485–c. 585 CE, whose Expositio in Psalterium (Exposition on the Psalter) was still being copied and read at the end of the 15th century. Writing symbolically of the 10 string cithara or lyre, Cassiodorus stated that learning to play the cithara represents the Christian life, since only with the labour of practice can one “perfect the good” and bear the fruits of joy.

British Library Egerton MS 274 is a musical miscellany in French and Latin, most of which was copied in France, 1250–1300, with 14th and 15th century additions at the end. There are many examples in medieval art of citoles, gitterns, lutes, portative organs, shawms and so on being played in praise of the Virgin. Egerton MS 274 has a striking example: folio 7v (below) shows a female citoler playing at the beginning of O Maria Virginet flos honous (O Virgin Mary, the flower of honour), with a man dancing to her music on the left.

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

As explained in “the verray develes officeres”: minstrels and the medieval church, it is true that some medieval clerics raged against jongleurs/minstrels as spreaders of immorality, and that only the organ was allowed as musical accompaniment in the liturgy, but the hatred of minstrels, dancing and musical instruments generally was expressed by the fundamentalist fringe of the church, it was not the majority view, and the stipulation of organ only in the liturgy was not a general prohibition against all instruments in all religious contexts. Clerics wrote music treatises that described instruments such as the citole, gittern, harp, etc., and explained musical forms and dances without any hint that they were sinful. Minstrels appear in abundance in religious imagery, as we see above. Minstrels were paid by local municipalities and ecclesiastical authorities to play in public pageants; paid to entertain in religious houses; and paid to play at the ceremonial installations of high-ranking clergy. Bishops employed personal harpers. Minstrels made financial contributions towards the fabric of church buildings. This being so, there is no reason why a nun should not play the psaltery, or a monk play the citole, or a woman self-accompany on citole to sing O Maria Virginet flos honous (though of course the most hard-line ascetic nuns and monks would not have approved).


Two of the images in The Queen Mary Psalter above show the citole as an instrument to dance to. There are other images that clearly show a person or a small group dancing to the citole, and there are written references to the citole as an instrument for dance music.

A page decoration on folio 31v (below) of Walter de Milemete, De Nobilitatibus, Sapientiis, et Prudentiis Regum (On the Nobility, Wisdom, and Prudence of Kings, Christ Church MS 92, Christ Church, University of Oxford), 1326–27, shows a citoler in the left margin looking over to a single dancer in the right margin for whom he is playing.

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

An English Book of Hours from Oxford or the West Midlands (British Library Egerton 1151, folio 47r), 1250-75, shows three dancers – a man between two women – with a fiddler and citoler playing for them (below left).

The Psalter-Hours of Yolande Soisson, France, 1280–99 (Morgan Library, New York, MS M.729, folio 40r, above right) has a bas de page decoration of a hybrid citoler playing for a hybrid dancer.

In La Bible de Macé de La Charité (Macé’s Bible of Charity, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 401), 1343, is a description of singing and dancing to the harp and citole:

Et bien chanter et bien baler,
Bien dancier et bien coroler,
Bien arper et bien citoter.

And sing well and dance well,
Dance well and carol well,
Play harp well and play citole well.

Gilles li Muisis, who became abbot of Saint Martin in Tournai, Belgium, reminisced in his Ch’est des maintiens des béghine (Bibliothèque Royale, Brussels, ms IV 119) in c. 1350–52 that:

Je vic en men enfanche festyer de chistolles
Les clers parisyens revenant des escolles,
Et que privéement on fasoit des karolles:
C’estoit trèstout reviaus, en riens n’estoient folles.

I saw in my childhood celebrating with citoles
by the students of Paris as they returned from the schools,
and in private they held carols [communal round dances]:
It was a great amusement, nothing foolish.

In Thomas Chestre’s Sir Launfal, c. 1390 (British Library, Cotton Caligula A.ii.), fiddlers, citolers and trumpeters played for courtly dancing:

To daunce they wente, alle in same
To se hem play, hit was fair game,
A lady and a knight.
They hadde menstrales of moch honours,
Fidelers, sitolers, and trompours

A more disreputable context – for those who make such judgements – is given by Castilian poet Juan Ruiz, known as the Archpriest of Hita, who wrote in his Libro de buen amor (Book of good love), c. 1330, that “The citole and the little bagpipe … love the tavern and dancing with the scoundrel”. This must mean that the citole had such projection that it could be heard in a noisy indoor environment.

The overall picture is of the citole as an instrument that played dance music solo or with other instruments, in various contexts up and down the social scale.

The citole’s playing style and repertoire

To summarise:

The stiff structure of the citole, its high tension strings and the substantial plectrums shown in iconography make it an instrument built for volume and projection.

The playing position often seen in iconography of citoles (and of gitterns and lutes), with the plucking arm coming from below the instrument and the plectrum at a right angle or near right angle to the strings is unrealistic if taken literally. It is an artistic convention, allowing the viewer to see the bridge and end projection that would be hidden by the arm in a true playing position.

The proportional size of thumb-hole to fingerboard on the British Museum citole demonstrates that the entire fingerboard can be reached easily with the thumb inside the thumb-hole. The modern idea that the thumb-hole restricts the player to first position is based on an untested assumption and is demonstrably wrong.

The historical tuning of the citole was c’ d’ g’ c’’ in 4 courses, and an unknown 3 course tuning, probably c’ g’ c’’. Medieval polyphony is easily playable on an instrument tuned this way. There is no historical evidence for medieval chordophones being strummed in modern ‘drone tunings’.

The citole was played across western Europe in the 13th and 14th century, popular at all levels of society, from royalty to those living the cloistered religious life to “the scoundrel” in the tavern.

The sound of “þe swete sytole” was heard playing all forms of western European vocal and instrumental music, including dance music and the songs of the troubadours and trouvères, played by jongleurs (minstrels), royalty, courtiers, religious adherents and revellers in taverns. It was played solo and in various unregulated combinations with other instruments.


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



Allen, Valerie (2007) On Farting. Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Badke, David (2022) The Medieval Bestiary: Animals in the Middle Ages. Available online by clicking here.

Egan, Margarita (1984) The Vidas of the Troubadours. New York: Garland Publishing. 

Fassler, Margot (2014) Music in the Medieval West. Western music in context. London: W. W. Norton.

Goldin, Frederick (1973) Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères. Original texts, with Translations and Introductions. New York: Anchor Books.  

Kevin, Philip; Robinson, James; La Niece, Susan; Cartwright, Caroline; Egerton, Chris (2015) Musical Instrument Fit For a Queen: The Metamorphosis of a Medieval Citole. In: James Robinson, Naomi Speakman, Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams (eds.) The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives. London: The British Museum.

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.

Molina, Mauricio (2015) Li autres la citole mainne: Towards a Reconstruction of the Citole’s Performance Practice. In: James Robinson, Naomi Speakman and Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams (eds.) The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives. London: The British Museum Press.

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.

Pittaway, Ian (2021) “the verray develes officeres”: minstrels and the medieval church. Available online by clicking here.

Praetoris, Michael (1618, this edition 1980) Syntagma Musicum. Volume II: De Organographia, First and Second Parts. Translated by Harold Blumenfeld. New York: Da Capo Press.

Rastall, Richard (2015) Citolers in the Household of the King of England. In: James Robinson, Naomi Speakman and Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams (eds.) The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives. London: The British Museum Press.

Taylor, Andrew (2015) Love and Measure: The Courtly Associations of the Late Medieval Citole. In: James Robinson, Naomi Speakman and Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams (eds.) The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives. London: The British Museum Press.

3 thoughts on “The citole: from confusion to clarity. Part 2/2: playing style and repertoire

  • 29th November 2022 at 12:41 am

    Hello Ian,

    Thank you for your writing and research—I am an amateur player of the modern cittern (5 courses, 10 strings) and have learned much from reading your articles!

    I feel that the soul of the cittern as well as my own (at least partly) is medieval and I am gravitating towards wanting to learn to play instrumental music from that time. Melody with an adjacent open string or simpler polyphony work well. Tuning: GG, dd, aa, d’d’, g”g”. A quick stab at arranging ‘Edi beo þu heuene quene’ transposed up to G yielded a decent satisfying result on the upper 3 strings.

    With the above tuning I see that I have almost both of the proposed citole tunings embedded within it, albeit in different keys (d, a, d’ instead of c, g, c’ and the top 3 strings tuned in fourths, a, d’, g” instead of the citole’s d, g’, c”)

    My question: Where could I find some of this medieval instrumental music of which you’ve spoken in modern standard notation?

    Thank you,

    • 29th November 2022 at 8:40 am

      Hello, Dan, and thanks for your question.

      There are many sources of medieval music in modern notation, though with varying degrees of reliability. If the original music was written in fully mensural Franconian notation, where both pitch and rhythm are clear, then it should be a matter of simply translating the neumes into modern notation. However, with chant and with troubadour material, which has clear pitch but was written non-mensurally (without rhythm), there is a highly interpretative process to fit the music into modern notation. As I state in this article modern books don’t always make clear that this process has taken place, thus implying that what is on the page copies what is in the manuscript, when reality is more complicated than that.

      With those caveats in mind, a good pair of books to get you started might be Jane Moulder’s books – here and here – the latter of which strays well into renaissance territory.

      Timothy McGee, Medieval Instrumental Dances, is well worth having. Beware the title: the majority of the material in the book is estampies, which weren’t dances (as I explain here That aside, you’ll find all the French and Italian estampies in here. There are a few notation errors, but it is mostly reliable. The French estampies are quite straightforward to play, the Italian istampittas much more challenging.

      A much broader range of material is available in Helen Deeming, Songs in British Sources, c. 1150-1300. This is a scholarly edition, full of great commentary, written in a form of modern notation that does not suggest mensuration where the source doesn’t show it. This is perhaps a book for later, if you decide you want to dive deeper.

      You’ll also find medieval material in modern notation scattered around many of my articles.

      I hope this is helpful.

      All the best.


      • 29th November 2022 at 4:02 pm

        Much thanks, Ian for your detailed, helpful and quick reply! These suggestions will keep me busy for quite a while and they arrive just in time for the Holidays 🙂


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