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 troubadour melody 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. (For more detail about sorting through the repeated confusion over medieval and renaissance instrument names, click here.)
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 the bridge. Its bowl and neck were carved from solid wood, and it was played with a quill plectrum. 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. The beautifully decorated manuscripts of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a richly-illustrated paean of praise to the Virgin Mary, were 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, much more complex than the simple circular holes above, 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, De inventione et usu musicae, 1481-1483, 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 were made of several ribs glued together, with a separate neck; whereas the bowl of the whole gittern, including the neck, was carved from a solid piece of wood.
- The strings on a lute were attached to the bridge, which was glued to the soundboard, whereas gittern strings were attached to hitch pins on the edge of the instrument and passed across the bridge. The bridge may have been glued or ‘floating’, i.e. not glued but kept in place by the pressure of the strings. (As we see below, there were a few exceptions to this general distinction.)
- The pegbox of a lute was bent back from the neck at an obtuse angle, whereas the gittern pegbox was 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 Elbląg/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. (There are two articles on this site about the Elbląg koboz, here and here.) The only surviving western European gittern was made by Hans Oth of Germany, who operated in 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 a large instrument with a long neck. My own scepticism about the veracity of this image was answered by luthier George Stevens, who referred me to the striking large gittern in the quire vault of Gloucester Cathedral, dated to 1337-50, nearly contemporaneous with the French Ethics Of Aristotle image. 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 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. The fact that it duetted with and was tuned the same as the lute, but at a higher pitch, shows that it shared some of 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.
According to the iconography, there was not a single standard way of stringing a gittern. While there was no strict standardisation, there is a high degree of consistency within diversity, as was true of other medieval instruments, such as the medieval fiddle or vielle, with its variety of stringing and tunings.
My course/string formula for the following iconographical survey shows number of courses = number of strings on 1st course + number of strings on 2nd course + etc., followed by the year and source. For example, 3c = 1+2+2 means there are 3 courses, a single 1st course and double 2nd and 3rd courses.
The survey of 12 representative images is in chronological order. All images are described left to right.
3c = 1+1+1 (or possibly 2c = 1+2) – 1257–83. Cantigas da Santa Maria (Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, RBME Cat b-I-2, folio 104r), Iberia (modern Spain/Portugal).
4c = 3+2+2+2 – 1330. Master Juan Oliver, Cathédrale de Pampelune, Spain.
2c = 3+2? – c. 1325–75. Liber astrologiae, The Netherlands (British Library Sloane 3983, folio 13r). This is ambiguous, but 2 courses are possibly confirmed by the Bayeux Cathedral crypt and the early 15th century French translation of Giovanni Boccaccio, De Mulieribus Claris (both below), which are also ambiguous.
3c = 1+3+3 – 14th century. Apostles’ Door, Valencia Cathedral, Spain.
3c = 2+2+2 – 1344. Guariento di Arpo, Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece, Italy (now in the Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena, USA).
2c = 2+2 – c. 1412-99. Bayeux Cathedral crypt, France. The Bayeux Cathedral crypt instrument is difficult to interpret. 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 or 3c = 1+1+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 are kobzas.
4c = 2+2+2+2 – 1312–18. Simone Martini, Saint Martin is knighted, Italy.
3c = 2+2+2 – c. 1385. Pere Serra, Virgin of the Angels, Catalonia.
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 (or Ott), Wartburg, Eisenach, Germany.
5c = 2+2+2+2+2 – 1460-1490. Master of the Lyversberger Passion, Germany.
One unusually detailed image (below) is worth a closer look for what it may tell us about stringing, tuning, and timbre: Simone Martini, Saint Martin is knighted, Cappella di San Martino (Saint Martin’s Chapel), San Francesco, Assisi, Italy, 1312–18. We see 4 courses, each a paired thin and thick string, indicating octave stringing throughout, and the two strands of the tied double frets are deliberately separated. The octave stringing raises the tantalisingly unanswerable question: was that just this gittern, or gitterns within a region, or just in Italy, or within a particular timeframe, or all gitterns with double courses? We have no way of knowing. The double frets have a distinct gap between the strands, large enough to play a separate note. This may therefore have provided both flats and sharps in Pythagorean tuning. An alternative explanation is to create a buzzing sound like a bray harp. All this is addressed in a detailed article about this particular instrument, which will appear on this website later in 2023.
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 gittern of 3 single strings 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 with double frets pulled apart so as to be able to play more accurately in Pythagorean tuning.
- Into the 15th century, 2(?), 3 and 4 course gitterns were played contemporaneously, the 2 course gittern (if that is a correct interpretation) 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.
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 (bottom to top) 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.
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 is possible that 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’. It is possible that 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 to give it a wider range. The evidence from manuscript witnesses indicates that some added the extra course at a higher pitch, some at a lower pitch. By the time Johannes Tinctoris wrote his De inventione et usu musicae (The invention and use of music), 1481–83, the gittern had also gained a 5th course, as we also see on the earlier Oth gittern, 1432–63, and the lute occasionally now had a 6th course, as we see in Italian paintings from 1475. Tinctoris stated that the gittern had “the same tuning and method of playing as the lute, though it is much smaller”. The tuning of 5 and 6 course lutes was 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 came to be tuned.
However, we cannot say with certainty that the ‘new’ interval of a third between two of the courses was introduced at the same time as the 5th course. It is possible that the 5 course lute and gittern continued to be tuned in fourths before the advent of the new tuning. A 4 course lute tuned g’ d’ a e would have a 5th course of B if it remained in fourths, and a 4 course gittern tuned c’’ g’ d’ a would have a 5th course of e, both of which are serviceable and argue theoretically in favour of the continuation of tuning in fourths when the 5th course was added, as indeed happened with the Arabian oud in the 15th century. However, as different sizes of lute became popular in the renaissance, we’d have a smaller 4 course lute tuned a’ e’ b f#, with a 5th course of c#. In an unequal temperament, with sharps and flats being different notes, having two courses tuned to accidentals would be problematic. Raising the 4th and 5th course by one semitone not only resolves this problem, it gives the standard renaissance tuning a’ e’ b g d, or its relative equivalent at a different pitch.
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 declining popularity of the gittern in the latter part of the 15th century gave way to the rise of 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 after c. 1500, but there are good grounds for believing it continued in a modified form, as the renaissance and baroque mandore.
© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.