The gittern was one of the most important plucked fingerboard instruments of the late medieval period. Loved by all levels of society, it was played by royal appointment, in religious service, in taverns, for singing, for dancing, and in duets with the lute. Yet we know of no specific pieces played on this instrument. What we do have are many representations of it being played in a wide variety of contexts and one surviving instrument of the 15th century, and from this we can reconstruct something of the history and repertoire of this widely-loved instrument. This article begins with a video of a 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, and many websites and even reputable books are suitably confused. In the case of the gittern, this isn’t helped by the fact that, until 1977, there was general confusion between the gittern and the citole, thus what we now know as the British Museum citole used to be called, in its previous home, the Warwick Castle gittern. The fog was lifted by Laurence Wright, whose research gave clear grounds for categorising the two instruments in his article, The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity, published in The Galpin Society Journal, volume 30, May 1977.
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), the strings almost always attached to hitch pins on the tail of the instrument, rather than tied to a glued bridge. It was played with a pletrum made from a single quill or several quills combined (both appear in iconography), and its bowl and neck was carved from a solid piece of wood. The sickle-shape pegbox was decorated with a variety of entertaining carvings, 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
Gittern iconography is a valuable source for the variety of its design and the way it was strung. There are many variations, according to time and place. The beautifully decorated Cantigas de Santa Maria, a richly-illustrated paean of praise to the Virgin Mary, was compiled in 1257-1283 during the reign of Alfonso X, King of Castile and other regions in modern day Spain and Portugal. The Cantigas is one of our earliest sources of gittern images (above), showing two gitterns, one being played, the other tuned. According to this representation, (some?) gitterns in Iberia had 3 single strings and D shaped sound holes. As we see below, gitterns in other times and places generally had a single rose, central to the body, sometimes with an additional smaller rose near the fingerboard.
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 rebebe.” (The rebebe was a bowed instrument – more information here under the heading, Origins: the rebab?) 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 …
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 a separate neck; 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 bridge that was probably ‘floating’, i.e. not glued but kept in place by the pressure of the strings (though there were exceptions – see below).
- The pegbox of a lute bends back from the neck at an obtuse angle, whereas the gittern pegbox is a curving sickle shape.
Just as iconography shows various sizes of lute, harp, citole, etc., we also see a variety of sizes of gittern. The actual sizes and therefore pitches of the instruments are virtually impossible to ascertain, since the relative size depends on how large we think the player is, and in any case, while much valuable information can be gleaned from art, medieval artists were not aiming for the minutely measured accuracy of a graphic designer.
Still, conclusions can be drawn, and we do have two surviving instruments: one a gittern, the other a kobza (cobza, koboz), the eastern European fretless relative of the gittern, and they appear to correspond to two of the sizes in art. The kobza is the earlier. It 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). The only surviving western European gittern was made by Hans Oth of Germany, who operated Nuremburg from 1432 to 1463, with a vibrating string length of 44cm.
Large gitterns are rare in surviving images, and indeed Johannes Tinctoris, De inventione et usu musicae, 1481-1483, compared the gittern with the lute, stating that the gittern “is much smaller”. Nevertheless, everything is relative and there are often exceptions to a rule. As we see below, The Ethics Of Aristotle, 1376, shows a gitternist accompanying a singer on apparently a large instrument with a long neck. My own scepticism about the veracity of this image was answered by luthier George Stevens, who found the striking large gittern in the quire vault of Gloucester Cathedral, dated to 1337-50, nearly contemporaneous with the French Ethics Of Aristotle image. The key question, then, is: is it original? George contacted Gloucester Cathedral Archivist, Mrs. Rebecca Phillips, who confirmed that the quire vault has been subject to repairs over time, but that the carvings are indeed original.
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, 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 surviving lute repertoire 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 in religious and royal service, for accompanying singing, for dancing and for tumbling (acrobatics). 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? According to the iconography, there was not a single standard way of stringing a gittern. There is such a high degree of consistency within diversity that I’m inclined to suggest we can draw firm 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:
3c = 1+1+1 – 1257–83. Cantigas da Santa Maria, Iberia (modern Spain/Portugal).
4c = 3+2+2+2 – 1330. Master Juan Oliver, Cathédrale de Pampelune, Spain.
2c = 3+2 – 14th century. Ormesby Psalter, Bodleian Library, Oxford, England.
2c = 2+2 – c. 1412-99. Bayeux Cathedral crypt, France. The Bayeux Cathedral crypt instrument is problematic. Poorly depicted, it appears to be 2 courses, 2+2, but it may be a 4 string gittern or a 4 string lute.
2c = 2+1 – early 15th century. French translation of Giovanni Boccaccio, De Mulieribus Claris, originally 1374. Both this and the previous instrument appear to be fretless, in which case they may be kobzas.
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.
3c = 2+2+2 – c. 1385. Pere Serra, Virgin of the Angels, Catalonia.
4c = 2+2+2+1 – 1400–1424. Church of Saint Bonnet Le Château, Loire, France. Like the instrument shown above in Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, this fretless instrument appears to be a koboz rather than a gittern: frets are not shown and, with this neck profile, tied frets would be impossible.
3c = 1+2+2 – c. 1450. Window in Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Newark, England.
5c = 2+2+2+2+2 – between 1432 and 1463. Gittern by Hans Oth, Wartburg, Eisenach, Germany.
5c = 2+2+2+2+2 – 1460-1490. Master of the Lyversberger Passion, Germany.
One image in particular is worth a closer look for what it may tell us about stringing and timbre: Simone Martini, Saint Martin is knighted, Italy, 1312–1325, below.
Above we see 4 courses, double strung. From our vantage point, each of the upper strings of each course appear to be lighter in colour, and the upper string of the fourth course is thinner than the lower string. This may suggest octave stringing throughout, the darker strings being weighted, i.e. denser, and therefore of a lower pitch. If so, the downward plectrum would strike the higher octave first, with the effect of emphasising the upper octave. Two other details are noteworthy. Firstly, there are two roses rather than one, not unusual on some gitterns, though the openness within the rose design is a distinctive feature. Secondly, the eight tied double frets are unusual in that the two strands of the fret are placed apart rather than tightly bound together. Being a minstrel in royal service, this cannot be a musician who is careless about his frets, and the precise spacing of the gaps within the double frets shows it to be a deliberate act. One explanation is that this is a bray gittern. Bray harps, played from around 1400, had L shaped pins at the base of the strings, which acted practically to hold in the string, and were turned so that the strings vibrated against them, creating an effect like an Indian sitar or the distortion of an electric guitar. This buzzing frisson of sound was standard on harps of the 15th, 16th and 17th century. The same effect is mentioned for Italian lutes in the early 16th century in the Capirola lute book; Italian writers of the 16th and early 17th century describe the arpichordo, a buzzing keyboard, a cross between a harpsichord and a bray harp; and the renaissance Flemish and northern European keyboard, the muselar, had the same buzzing effect. On a fretted instrument such as a lute, the buzz of the strings is created by having double or triple frets, tied separately, of different diameters and spaced slightly apart, so that the string stopped on the fret also vibrates against the slightly higher adjacent fret. On this gittern, this method to create fret buzz – if that is the reason for the spacing – was not used: the single knot under each double fret shows that the same fretgut is wound around twice. A single strand of fret gut, wound twice and spaced apart, may still create a buzz with an accurately angled neck. The bray effect works better on longer string lengths than shorter, so I experimented on a gittern of this size to see if the buzz would be effective, creating the sound by weaving a thin strip of paper between the strings at the bridge (same effect, much shorter route to get there). I can report that it sounds magnificent. This gittern of 1312–1325, then, may be an example of a buzzing bray instrument. An alternative explanation is that these double frets may be spaced apart to give alternative notes in two meantone temperaments: the tiny spacing between frets would not be a problem for a skilled musician, and indeed the third finger of the left hand appears to be placed exactly in the gap between the two strands of the third fret. Futher evidence is lacking to ascertain which of these suggested explanations is correct.
We see from this survey that:
- Gitterns could be strung in single, double or triple courses, sometimes mixed. Iconography shows that single- and double-strung gitterns both continued into the 15th century, as we see on the 3 string gittern in Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, painted 1434-1435 (right).
- 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 (and at other times?), some gitterns may have been tuned in octave courses, and there may have been bray gitterns, or gitterns fretted so as to be able to play in more than one meantone temperament.
- Into the 15th century, 2, 3 and 4 course gitterns were played contemporaneously, the 2 course gittern becoming obselete in the early 15th century.
- The first evidence of the 5 course gittern is the surviving instrument by Hans Oth, not earlier than 1432 and not later than 1463.
- 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, 2 lower octaves and an upper octave, or 2 upper octaves and a lower octave? 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: the triple-string course may have been 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 – from the Bayeux Cathedral crypt, De Mulieribus Claris, 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, as other images definitvely show. Criteria for identification will be explored in a dedicated koboz article, to go online around March 2019.
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”. 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 knew the gittern was tuned in fourths but became confused: in the drawing, he forgot that in the text he had written c’ d’ g’ c” for the citole and therefore the tuning a d’ g’ c” for the gittern; calculated the gittern tuning in fourths from the top c” as if it was bottom c’, giving a tuning of c’ f’ bb‘ eb”, but then omitted to write the flats and again reversed the tuning, writing it backwards as e b f’ c” on the drawing. Reading the text alone makes gittern tuning unequivocally clear.
Gittern tuning in fourths 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”. Since we do not know exactly what size of instrument the Berkeley Theory Manuscript author had in mind, and both citoles and gitterns came in a variety of sizes, it may be the citole tuning was an octave below that stated above, making it c d g c’, and the gittern tuning likewise an octave below at A d g c’. Intermediate size instruments between these octaves would have had a relative tuning at a different pitch, so the important point is that, at whatever pitch, the 4 course instrument was tuned entirely in fourths, as presumably were 2 and 3 course gitterns.
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 Oth gittern, 1432–1463) 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
The gittern was played into the last third of the 15th century and retained its high status in some places, as we see in the depictions above from Germany and France and right from Italy. However, Johannes Tinctoris testified in 1481-1483 that by then the gittern was “used most rarely” in the Low Countries “because of the thinness of its sound”, and the lute was now beginning to be played in a new way, with the fingertips. The fingertip method displaced quill technique on lutes almost entirely by around 1500, though some lutenists did play with quills into the early 16th century. 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 in the 16th century was bestowed upon royally appointed lutenists in 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.