The gittern was the most important stringed instrument of the late medieval period. Loved by all levels of society, it was played by royal appointment, in religious service, in taverns, for singing, for dancing, and in duets with the lute. Yet we know of no specific pieces played on this instrument. What we do have are many representations of it being played in a wide variety of contexts from the 11th century onwards and one surviving instrument of the mid–15th century, and from this we can reconstruct something of the history and repertoire of this widely-loved instrument. Includes a video of a French estampie played on gittern.
What is a gittern?
First we need to be sure of which instrument we mean. In the 16th century, the 4 course renaissance guitar was referred to as the gittern in England and France, and this isn’t that. Much as various websites and even reference books would have you believe otherwise, the medieval gittern which is the subject of this article is not a type of guitar, nor is it related to the guitar. There was also a baroque gittern, which was a type of very small cittern, and this isn’t that, either. The seemingly haphazard same-naming of different instruments and multiple naming of the same instrument in the medieval and renaissance periods can be confusing. So what exactly was the medieval gittern?
The gittern was strung with gut, had 2, 3, 4 or 5 courses (single, double or triple strung), was played with a pletrum made from a quill or fashioned from horn (both seem to appear in iconography), and its bowl and neck was carved from a solid piece of wood. It could have a variety of entertaining carvings on the pegbox, such as the head of a man, woman or animal, or an acorn, which you can see in the images on this page.
The increasing popularity of the gittern
The earliest depiction appears to be that painted on a pillar of the Bayeux Cathedral crypt in Normandy, dated to the 11th century, clearly a general approximation of a gittern and angel. More reliably-drawn instruments appear in the beautifully decorated Cantigas de Santa Maria, a richly-illustrated paean of praise to the Virgin Mary. This song book was compiled in 1260-1280 during the reign of Alfonso X, King of Castilla and other regions in modern day Spain and Portugal.
Certainly by the 14th and 15th centuries the gittern was an important and popular instrument across Europe, loved by all classes of people. The 14th century French poet, Eustache Deschamps, gives evidence of the gittern’s rise in popularity, writing that “at royal courts everyone wants to play the trumpet, gittern, and rebec.” Late medieval Italian royal courts recorded the hiring of several gittern masters and Charles V of France’s court in the 14th century owned four gitterns. In his Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer makes regular reference to the gittern as a popular instrument, associated with the harp, lute and psaltery, with minstrelsy, with taverns and with popular music-making.
From The Pardoner’s Tale …
In Flaundres whilom [once] was a compaignye
Of yonge folk, that haunteden [practised] folye,
As riot, hasard [gambling], stywes [brothels], and tavernes,
Wher as with harpes, lutes, and gyternes
They daunce and pleyen at dees [dice], bothe day and nyght,
And eten also and drynken over hir might
In The Miller’s Tale, Absalon the parish clerk knew 20 dances, played a small rebec to accompany himself singing …
and as wel coud he play on a giterne.
In all the town n’as [there never was] brewhous ne [nor] taverne,
that he ne visited with his solas [= solace = entertainment to forget your cares] …
and Absalon his giterne hath y-take,
for paramours [lovers] he thoghte for to wake …
[and thought to wake one paramour in particular, the carpenter’s wife, so early in the morning he sings outside her window]
He singeth in his vois gentil and small …
Ful wel acordaunt to his giterninge.
The gittern and the lute
The gittern was smaller and therefore of a higher pitch than the lute, but we know from Johannes Tinctoris in the 15th century that they were identically tuned in relative terms. While they may look quite similar, the gittern and lute are distinguishable in three ways:
- the backs of lutes are made of several ribs glued together, with the neck being a separate piece of wood attached; whereas the bowl of the whole gittern, including the neck, is carved from a solid piece of wood;
- the strings on a lute are attached to the bridge, which is glued to the soundboard, whereas gittern strings are attached to hitch pins on the edge of the instrument and pass across a ‘floating’ bridge, i.e. it is not glued and is kept in place by the pressure of the strings;
- the pegbox of a lute bends back from the neck at an obtuse angle, whereas the gittern pegbox has a gently curving sickle shape.
There appear to have been two sizes of gittern. We must beware of drawing broad conclusions from slim evidence, but paintings do appear to correspond roughly to the two surviving instruments we have. One fell into a latrine in Elblag/Elbing, Poland (it’s been part of both Poland and Germany, and so has two names), presumably by accident, since the instrument was dropped intact, with even its strings recovered. It is dated 1350-1450 and has a vibrating string length of 30-33cm, depending on bridge placement (the bridge became detached on impact and was found beside the instrument). This is the eastern European form of fretless gittern, the koboz or kobza. The surviving western European gittern was made by Hans Ott of Germany, c. 1450, and has a vibrating string length of 44cm.
We have no music for the gittern, or for virtually any other specific medieval instrument, but we do have clear indications of its repertoire from iconography. Because it was played with a quill or horn, we know it could only play single lines or adjacent courses. The fact that it duetted with and was tuned the same as the lute, but at a higher pitch, shows that it shared the lute’s repertoire. If the earliest lute repertoire we have, from the late 15th century, is a guide, then the gittern’s repertoire was also a mixture of secular love songs, religious music, dance music and ricercares (semi-improvised pieces upon a musical theme). We know from iconography that the gittern was played for singing, for religious purposes, for dancing, and in the service of official occasions. The fact that it was played by royal appointment must have meant that its repertoire included serious, artful and skilled music.
How was the gittern strung: how many strings, configured in how many courses? Put one way, the iconography is inconsistent; put another, there seems to have been no one standard way of stringing a gittern. We do have to be cautious with iconography, as medieval artists were often more concerned with creating an impression than with artistic realism, as we regularly see when the numbers of strings and tuning pegs don’t match. However, there is such a high degree of consistency within diversity that I’m inclined to suggest we can draw conclusions, and that standardisation was not on the mind of the medieval gittern player. This was certainly true of the medieval vielle, with its variety of stringing and tunings.
The survey of 12 images below is in chronological order.
My formula below for the iconographical survey above shows number of courses = number of strings on 1st course + number of strings on 2nd course + etc., followed by the year and source.
Top row, left to right:
2c = 2+2 – 11th century. Bayeux Cathedral crypt, France.
3c = 1+1+1 – 1260–80. Cantigas da Santa Maria, Spain/Portugal.
4c = 3+2+2+2 – 1330. Master Juan Oliver, Cathédrale de Pampelune, Spain.
2c = 2+1 – early 15th century. French translation of Boccaccio Giovanni, De Mulieribus Claris, originally 1374.
2c = 3+2 – 14th century. Ormesby Psalter, Bodleian Library, Oxford, England.
3c = 1+3+3 – 14th century. Apostles’ Door, Valencia Cathedral, Spain.
Bottom row, left to right:
4c = 2+2+2+2 – 1312–1325. Simone Martini, Saint Martin is knighted, Italy.
4c = 2+2+2+1 – 1400–1424. Church of Saint Bonnet Le Château, Loire, France.
5c = 2+2+2+2+2 – 1460-1490. Master of the Lyversberger Passion, Germany.
3c = 1+2+2 – c. 1450. Window in Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Newark, England.
5c = 2+2+2+2+2 – c. 1450. Gittern by Hans Ott, Wartburg, Eisenach, Germany.
3c = 2+2+2 – 1480. Pere Serra, Virgin of the Angels, Catalonia.
We see from this survey that:
- Gitterns could be strung in single, double or triple courses, sometimes mixed. Further iconography (example right) shows that single- and double-strung gitterns both continued into the 15th century.
- A mixture of single, double or triple string courses were in use from the 14th century, the triple string course appearing on any of one or more courses, including the top course; with the single string appearing either on the top or the bottom course.
- In the 14th century, 2, 3 and 4 course gitterns were played contemporaneously, the 2 course gittern becoming obselete in this period.
- The first evidence of the 5 course gittern is the surviving instrument by Hans Ott, c. 1450.
- The arrival of the 5 course gittern did not supersede 3 and 4 course gitterns.
What we make of this variety of stringing in terms of playing styles can only be speculative. The existence of the triple-string course is intriguing: was this 3 unison strings or 2 upper octaves and a lower octave, as on the later renaissance cittern? This may have depended on the course. It may be that a 3 string course was always in unisons on the first course, but possibly in octaves for lower pitches; or it may have been that octaves on any triple course, including the first, were there to enlarge the sound and introduce an element of re-entrant tuning. We lack evidence either way: the iconography is too imprecise and writers are silent on the issue. Johannes Tinctoris, composer and music theorist from the Low Countries, in his De inventione et usu musicae, 1481-1483, wrote of the “thinness of sound” of the gittern: was the triple-string course an attempt to thicken the timbre?
There is also a question of identification. As we have seen from the Elblag find, eastern Europe had (and still has) the fretless cousin of the gittern, the koboz or kobza. Some of the instruments shown above, such as those in the Bayeux Cathedral crypt and the Church of Saint Bonnet, appear to be fretless kobozs rather than fretted gitterns, suggesting that the koboz was also played in the west. Criteria for identification will be explored in a dedicated koboz article, to go online around March 2017.
There is only one piece of surviving evidence for 4 course gittern tuning, in a puzzlingly neglected source. The Berkeley Theory Manuscript was probably written by Johannes Vaillant, a 14th century Parisian music teacher, who died in 1361. His manuscript is a compendium of music theory, including drawings and tunings for the citole, gittern, harp and psaltery. The drawing of a gittern gives a tuning of e b f’ c’’, which is most odd, and is clearly wrong, since it is contradicted by the text. The citole is shown with a tuning of c d g c’, followed by the comment that the gittern tuning is the same, but with the 4th course loosened to a fourth below the adjacent course, clearly giving a tuning of A d g c’ (or an octave higher, depending on the size of the instrument). How was the mistake made on the drawing? If the e b f’ c’’ tuning is reversed to c f b e’ then we have a tuning entirely in fourths, as described in the text, if we also flatten the b and e. It appears that the author simply wrote the tuning backwards on the drawing and omitted the flats.
Iconography shows a smaller and larger gittern size and, at this point, absolute pitch was not fixed, so the important point is that the 4 course instrument was tuned entirely in fourths, as presumably were 2 and 3 course gitterns. This concurs with the anonymously authored Summa Musice, c. 1200 (probably French), which stated that fingerboard instruments were “tuned in the consonances of octave, fourth and fifth”.
This changed with the addition of a 5th course on the gittern, as it did on the related lute. In the early 15th century, the lute gained a 5th course. The evidence from manuscript witnesses indicates that some added the extra course at a higher pitch, some at a lower pitch. The adding of lower and lower pitches was a trend that was to continue for the next 2 centuries. By the time Johannes Tinctoris wrote his De inventione et usu musicae, 1481-1483, the gittern had also gained a 5th course (as we also see on the earlier Ott gittern, c. 1450) and the lute occasionally now had a 6th. Tinctoris stated that the gittern had “the same tuning and method of playing as the lute, though it is much smaller”. He described the tuning of 5 and 6 course lutes as fourths, except for an interval of a major third between courses 3 and 4, which was to be standard renaissance lute tuning. This, then, is also how the 5 course gittern was tuned. This means that both gitterns and lutes were tuned entirely in fourths until the advent of the 5th course, which added the ‘new’ interval of a major third between the third and fourth courses or, occasionally, between the second and third courses.
The end of the gittern
Iconography shows that the gittern thrived into the last quarter of the 15th century. Tinctoris testified that by then the gittern was “used most rarely”, and the lute was now beginning to be played in a new way, with the fingertips, displacing the long-established quill technique by c. 1500. This reflected a radical change in music-making, from the quill playing of either a single line, or a melody with a drone, or polyphony on adjacent courses, to complex and delicate polyphony and counterpoint on any course now possible with the freedom of independently playing fingers.
Gittern players did not make the transition from quill to fingers and the fuller sound of the lute was favoured, thus the gittern in the latter part of the 15th century gave way to the lute in this new style. The changeover was complete by 1500: there would be no more royally appointed gittern masters, as that role was now to be bestowed upon royally appointed lutenists across the courts of Europe.
Was this the end of the gittern? Yes and no. The gittern as such was no more by 1500, but there are good grounds for believing it continued in a modified form, as the renaissance and baroque mandore.