The Elbląg ‘gittern’: a case of mistaken identity. Part 1/2: Why the koboz was misidentified.

In 1986, an instrument identified as a gittern was found in a latrine in Elbląg, Poland, dated to 1350–1450. Having commissioned luthier Paul Baker to create a replica, the instrument that emerged was a puzzle, taking Paul and I on a journey of discovery to reveal the true identity of the recovered instrument.

This is the story of the musician who commissioned a gittern and received a koboz (kobza, cobza, plural kobzok). To understand the true identity of the instrument, this article explores the Elbląg excavation; structural reasons the instrument cannot be a gittern; and a potted history of Elbląg and Poland, placing the instrument in its historical context, revealing why the scholarship so far has misidentified the instrument.

This is followed in part 2 by an exploration of the difficulties of language in medieval accounts, where the same word is used for a variety of instruments. The characteristics of the particular type of koboz found in Elbląg are established, and examples of its appearance given in eastern and western European literature and iconography, previously unrecognised, hidden in plain sight. Finally, the importance of the Elbląg find is evaluated.

We begin with a video of 15th century Polish music, Angelus ad virginem missus, played on a copy of the surviving Elbląg koboz.

I. The Elbląg discoveries

Click the picture to play the video.
Angelus ad virginem missus played by Ian Pittaway on a copy of the Elbląg koboz.
Angelus ad virginem missus (An angel was sent to a virgin) is an anonymous song
of the late 15th century. It survives in two sources, 15th century Polish and 16th century Czech.

In 1986, excavations by Grazyna and Tadeusz Nawrolski in the Polish medieval town of Elbląg (pronounced Elblong) discovered three wooden musical instruments in the latrine of a house, dated to 1350-1450. They were identified by Dorota Popławska (1997, 2002, 2004, 2017) as a recorder, a fiddle and a gittern, all seen in the photograph below. On other excavation sites in Elbląg, a three hole pipe made from a bird bone was found in 1987, dated to the 14th or 15th century; an aerophone made from the right femur of a small sheep, goat or deer was discovered in 1989, dated between the 8th and 16th century (a more precise date has not been posited); and in 1998 a wooden pipe was found with three front finger-holes and one hole at the back, dated to the mid-15th century. One might expect the last instrument to be a tabor type, but the placing of the finger-holes means it could not function as such and must have been played with both hands.

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

Since almost all surviving medieval and renaissance instruments are preserved due to their expense and ornate beauty, these finds from the 14th to 16th century are important due to their plainness, instruments with characteristics that signify they were made by, made for and played by the urban poor rather than the middle class and aristocracy.

The Elbląg fiddle.

Of the three finds from 1986, the identification of the recorder is obvious. The identification of the fiddle (above) needs a little work. The fiddle is relatively well-preserved but roughly made. Its dimensions are: length 333 mm; body width 100 mm; peg box width 58 mm; depth under the sound hole 22 mm; maximum depth 34 mm. Its bowl is hewn from solid linden wood and not smoothed, still bearing the marks of hollowing on the outside. The overall shape is asymmetrical and the neck, as we see above, is extremely roughly made, making tied gut frets impossible. Despite its very rough build, wear marks on the back of the body show that this was an instrument that was played a great deal, almost certainly by someone from the much poorer town nearby rather than a well-off inhabitant of the house connected to the latrine in which it was found.

It is now missing part of the lower body, a third of the soundboard, the heads of all four tuning pegs, and the bridge. Remaining indentations on the soundboard show that the bridge had two feet, set roughly equidistant between the sound hole and the tail, giving a vibrating string length of only 170 mm. Grooves in the nut show this to have been a four string, three course instrument, a single course either side of a double course in the middle. No bow was found, and the bridge, had it survived, would indicate whether this was a plucked or bowed instrument. There are other clues which lead to its identification as a fiddle. The height of the strings at the nut would be 2 mm, making this impractical for fingertips to stop the strings by pressing them onto the fingerboard on either a plucked or bowed instrument, as the string height would be too high to make good intonation possible. This indicates a bowed instrument with strings stopped by fingernails, not pressed down to the fingerboard.

Two observations appear to confirm this identification as a small fiddle stopped with fingernails.

The first observation confirms the size. Though rare, such tiny fiddles do appear in iconography, and one such is the instrument below right in Jorge Alonso, Adoration of the Shepherds, c. 1520 (Museo Nacional del Azulejo, Lisbon, Portugal), which has similar dimensions to the Elbląg fiddle. It appears next to an angel musician playing a pipe and variously named psalterium, tambourin de Béarn, tambourin de Gascogne, tambourin à cordes, Pyrenean string drum, ttun-ttun, salmo, or chicotén and, on the left, an angel playing a viola d’arco.

The second observation confirms that the necessary playing method on the Elbląg fiddle of stopping strings with fingernails was used in Poland, as it is the same as that needed for the fiddle from Płock, Poland, discovered by archaeologists in 1985. The Płock fiddle, seen below, was found almost complete in a disused well, later used as a rubbish pit, and dated to the mid-16th century. It has 6 strings, is carved from a single piece of birch wood, and the neck design and string spacing indicates that it was played with fingernail technique.

The Płock fiddle has a possible connection with an instrument in the second edition of Musica instrumentalis deudsch, 1545, by German music theorist Martin Agricola. Agricola mentions the beautiful sound of the Polische Geigen or Polish fiddle, referring to the wide distances between strings and fingernail technique, both features of the contemporaneous Płock fiddle.

Left: The fiddle from Płock, photo by Michał Dąbski, from Ewa Dahlig,
Ludowe instrumenty skrzypcowe w Polsce [Folk forms of fiddles in Poland], 2001, p. 29.
Right: A replica played by Maria Pomianowska, who has reconstructed its playing technique.
Maria can be seen and heard playing the Płock fiddle by clicking here.

The Elbląg instrument identified as a gittern, seen above, was found in the latrine with its strings intact and the bridge inside the body. When the instrument landed in the latrine it took the impact on the tail, causing a split to open up, as we see in the photograph below.

The following photographs in this section were kindly sent by David van Edwards.

The body was carved from solid lime wood, with the following dimensions: length 548 mm; body width 187 mm; body depth 65 mm; height of peg box carving 100 mm. Like the fiddle, this is not a polished and refined instrument, but it is of a higher quality than the fiddle. The outside is smooth, all traces of hewing gone. Of its 8 tuning pegs, 1 has the head missing, 5 are the hammerhead pegs commonly seen in medieval iconography, and the remaining 2 pegs are of a different design, therefore later replacements.

The peg box features a simple carving of a woman’s head with a head-dress (right). Could this help date the instrument more precisely than 1350-1450? I turned to Jackie Phillips, proprietor of historical clothes manufacturer Cloak’d and Dagger’d, who identified the carving as a representation of a goffered veil. This type of veil was made on a handloom with a weaving technique that allowed for more threads to augment the selvedge (the edge of a fabric, woven so that it won’t tangle or fray), creating a woven frill. They were often worn in several layers, creating bulk at the forehead. Goffered veils were popular in the 14th century, making the date of the koboz more likely 1350-1400 than 1400-1450. This is more likely, but not certain: the crudeness of manufacture marks this as a low status instrument, so we might reasonably expect the carving to reflect low status clothing. Fashion originated in urban centres and spread outward, so a woman some distance from a city could still be wearing a veil considered decades out of date in the metropolis.

There is a more sophisticated representation on a reliquary (receptacle for keeping a holy relic) in the shape of a head wearing a goffered veil, dated 1350 and now in Museum Schnütgen, Cologne, shown in 3 photographs below. The photograph on the right is of re-enactor Sue Whitby wearing her own goffered veil, instructions for which can be found here.

Museum Schnütgen photographs by Nic Kipar. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

There are 5 intriguing and unusual features on the Elbląg koboz:

i. the grooves in the nut and bridge, which provide evidence of stringing;
ii. the manner by which the bridge is affixed to the soundboard;
iii. the continuous fingerboard/soundboard;
iv. the hollow neck;
v. the lack of a decorative rose.

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

i. The grooves in the nut and bridge

Having established by the number of pegs that this instrument was made for 8 strings, the next task is to discern the string arrangement. In the photograph above we see 4 hitch pins on the tail to which the strings were attached, each pin for 2 strings. We cannot assume from this that there were 4 double courses, since in the medieval period there is evidence of single, double and triple string courses, and indeed the bridge does indicate a different arrangement: there are 8 notches arranged 3 + 2 + 3, a double course between 2 triple courses, as we see below in closer detail. (This raises the question: are the triple and double courses in unisons or octaves, and what is the overall tuning? This question is addressed in the second article in section VI. Defining the Elbląg koboz.)

ii. The manner of affixing the bridge to the soundboard

The bridge is 13 mm high, 112 mm wide at the base, 92 mm at the top, with three feet and two arches. We might imagine that a medieval or renaissance luthier would affix the bridge in the same way a modern luthier would to an instrument with hitch pins: either ‘floating’ (the bridge kept in place by the downward pressure of the strings) or glued in place. However, we see above and below that that this bridge is affixed with 3 nails driven through the back of the soundboard into the end points and centre point of the bridge, a rudimentary and unexpected method.

Dorota Popławska and Tadeusz Czechak (2002), who examined the instrument, state that the vibrating string length is between 300 and 330 mm, depending on bridge position. Given that the bridge is held in with nails, this leads to the conclusion that either they did not notice the nails holding the bridge in place, which is highly improbable, or that the nails are not historical but modern, driven into the bridge and soundboard by the museum for the purpose of displaying the instrument.

iii. The continuous fingerboard/soundboard

Since the soundboard is chosen for resonance – universally spruce, in this period – and the fingerboard for durability, we would expect them to be made from different woods. In this case, a single piece of spruce has been used for the entire top of the instrument, as we see below from the continuous grain pattern. It is a mystery why the luthier would cut the wood to shape but then divide it into two pieces, and it is peculiar that a wood more hard-wearing than spruce wasn’t chosen for the fingerboard. It may be that, at some point, the instrument needed an internal repair due to a loose bar, and the luthier/repairer split the unified top rather than remove the whole; or perhaps there was a decorative strip of thin wood between soundboard and fingerboard, maybe because the wood was not quite long enough to fit from tail to nut and the luthier was working to a tight budget and limited resources.

iv. The hollow neck

For an instrument to sound, it has to vibrate. We would expect a luthier to build an instrument where the sound chamber – in this case, the carved bowl – resonates, but other parts of the instrument such as the peg box and neck do not need to resonate, so they are solid. However, as we see below, the neck of the Elbląg instrument was hollowed out, too.

As we will see in section II below, Commissioning a gittern and receiving a koboz, when luthier Paul Baker made my instrument, he copied the Elbląg model and hollowed out the neck underneath the fingerboard. The 14th-15th century luthier must have had a reason to hollow out the neck. I cannot detect any difference in the sound or resonance of the instrument compared to one with a solid neck, but to really tell the difference, one would have to commission two instruments identical in every detail, except that one has a solid and the other a hollow neck. It is worth noting that a 5th–6th century Byzantine pandura found in a grave excavation at Antinopolis, Egypt, in 1907, has a hollow neck, and the citole now in the British Museum, dated 1280-1330, is also hollowed under the fingerboard (both of which you can see and read about here). Since both instruments are rare survivals, it is unwise to extrapolate to universal assumptions, but the observation raises the credible question of how many medieval chordophones were made with hollow necks and whether this was common practice.

v. The lack of a decorative rose.

Like the fiddle, this instrument has an open sound hole rather than a decorative rose carved into the wood. Due to the crude nature of the bonnet-wearing woman’s head carved on the peg box, it may be that a rose was beyond the skill of the luthier. However, as I will show in the survey of koboz iconography, section VII in part 2, there is a contemporaneous koboz painted in the crypt of Saint Bonnet le Château, France, c. 1418, which appears to show an inserted parchment rose, and the contemporaneous gittern by Hans Oth of Germany, 1432–63, also has a highly complex parchment rose. If the Elbląg instrument did have an inserted parchment rose, the rest of the instrument indicates that it must have been quite rudimentary. If it existed, it was dislodged on impact in the fall, as the bridge crashed through the rose to the inside of the bowl, and it would have perished in the intervening years.

It is tantalising to wonder how the recorder, fiddle and koboz were lost, and whether this was the result of three different strokes of bad luck, or one catastrophic accident, or perhaps an act of fury against the same musician, losing all three instruments at once. As we will later see, they may equally have been thrown in the latrine to save them from looting. Judging by the budget spent to own such instruments, they were probably lost by a person or persons who could ill afford to lose them.

II. Commissioning a gittern and receiving a koboz

Gittern painted by Master Juan Oliver,
Pamplona Cathedral, Spain, 1330.

My first gittern was made in 2010 by Paul Baker, modelled on the one surviving instrument made by Hans Oth or Ott of Germany sometime during his working life, 1432-63. Paul made me a gittern which, like the original (seen above), has 5 courses. (That gittern can be seen and heard played here). In June 2015 I commissioned Paul to make a 4 course instrument based on what I then understood to be the Elbląg gittern, since this is how the literature always describes it. Then I could then have two gitterns, tuned in their historically-attested different 4 and 5 course tunings. (For these tunings, see the gittern article here). This was to be a replica of the Elbląg instrument but with some modifications: tuning pegs from medieval iconography more aesthetically pleasing than the hammerheads; a separate nut rather than one integral to the neck; with hard wood rather than spruce for the fingerboard; with an inserted parchment rose of Paul’s design based on a church window, representing the one presumed lost in the latrine; and with a more versatile 4 courses rather than the original 3 – 3 and 4 course gitterns were common at the time. I searched iconography to find gitterns with triple courses like Elbląg, and based my choice on the 4 course arrangement in the painting by Master Juan Oliver in Pamplona Cathedral, Spain, 1330, which shows a triple first course followed by 3 double courses (seen above). String pitches were to be based on the gittern tuning in the Parisian Berkeley Theory Manuscript, written before 1361: 4 courses in fourths. Experimenting with strings, I found that a unison double course strengthened the sound, but there was no appreciable difference between a double and triple course in unisons, so I reasoned that the first triple course would be in octaves. The tuning was to be: 1st c’’ c’ c’’ (octaves); 2nd g’ g’ (unisons); 3rd d’ d’ (unisons); 4th a’ a (octaves).

Drawing with measurements from Elbląg Museum.
(As with all pictures, click for a larger view in a new window.)

In February 2016, when Paul was nearly ready to start work, I gave him the article by Dorota Popławska and Tadeusz Czechak (2002) with the measurements of the instrument. In March, with the help of a Polish friend, he obtained the drawing with measurements from Elbląg Museum (above).

When Paul began work in April, issues with the instrument’s identity started to emerge. Paul realised that tying on frets was impossible with the original neck and head profile, which would have to be modified. Below we see Paul’s plan: the original profile in black, the modification in purple. In retrospect, I should immediately have come to the obvious conclusion that this instrument could never have had frets. Instead, I persisted in the idea that this was a gittern, and gitterns have frets.

In May, construction was going well, and I had my second big clue when visiting Paul. Knowing the instrument dimensions in the abstract was one thing, seeing them carved in wood was quite another. It was a jolt to see just how wide the fingerboard was, how much blank space there was on the fingerboard either side of the strings, and just how wide the string spacing was between courses at the bridge. My immediate response was: some mistake, surely? No, all these measurements were exactly as on the original. And even with the modified profile on the back of the neck, Paul could only tie on frets by adding grooves to keep them from slipping. Was this more evidence of just how roughly-made the original was, or was there something different about Polish gitterns?

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

In June I received the instrument, shown above. The Oth gittern Paul made me has 3.5 mm between courses at the nut, widening to 9 mm at the bridge; whereas the Elbląg ‘gittern’ has 4 mm between courses at the nut, widening to 16 mm at the bridge. When I couldn’t get on with this wide string spacing, I made my next mistake to add to not believing the fretless neck profile: I asked Paul to make me a new bridge with closer string spacing, which he did.

Things were not going as expected. I had ordered a copy of the surviving Elbląg ‘gittern’, with a few minor personal modifications; but frets were impossible to fit without adding grooves that were not on the neck of the original; the wide string spacing was unlike anything I had seen in gittern iconography, clearly requiring a playing style I was not used to; and I was increasingly aware of pulling away from the evidence to fit my own preconceptions.

Then, on 30th June, Paul sent me a link to a video I had seen before, but I hadn’t made the connection he’d made. He headed the email, “String spacing re Elblag Gittern”, and typed a single word: “Enjoy!” That video is below.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.
Szlama László (the surname is first in Hungary) playing an improvisation on Hungarian koboz.

Here was a fretless neck and a vigorous playing style that made sense of the same wide string spacing on the Elbląg ‘gittern’. I looked again at the photographs and the drawing from Elbląg Museum: there were no marks on the neck to suggest it ever had frets, and the neck profile militates against it. The modern koboz is not carved from the solid like a gittern, but constructed from staves, like a barrel, a way of making an instrument without having to find a large block of wood, and without the wood wastage that goes with carving from the solid. As a starting point for an enquiry, it wasn’t outlandish to wonder if the Elbląg ‘gittern’ was actually a 15th century koboz.

There were now two possibilities:

(i) that in Poland, or a region that included Poland, there was a distinct form of gittern with wider string spacing, as per the Hungarian koboz;
(ii) that the Elbląg instrument isn’t a gittern at all, but an earlier form of koboz.

It didn’t take long to unearth historical evidence suggesting that the second was true.

I removed the new bridge and returned to Paul’s original bridge, made to the specifications of the historical instrument. I embraced the wide string spacing and asked what it had to teach me about the required technique. I took off all the frets and Paul smoothed the neck to remove the notches needed to keep them in place. Taking the frets off was a release: it made playing that thick, wide neck, on which frets were an encumbrance, much easier.

I was now ready to believe the evidence of the instrument in my hands, and go where it took me. Playing it became a pleasure now that it was the instrument it always wanted to be. I was curious to know why everything I had read stated that this instrument was a gittern, and why central/eastern European researchers had looked to the west, thus misidentifying the instrument.

III. The historical context of the Elbląg koboz

The way Poland’s renaissance is (mostly not) remembered today, and the physical and cultural devastation Poland suffered under the Nazis and the Soviets, point to Poland’s modern exclusion from medieval and renaissance history, which in turn explains the misidentification of the Elbląg instrument. Before a brief overview of these points, it is helpful to place the Elbląg instruments in their historical context.

a. A short history of Elbląg

The Polish city of Elbląg was originally known by the German name, Elbing. It was settled in 1237 when the Teutonic Knights built a fortress there, importing its population mostly from Lübeck on the German-Baltic coast.

The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, commonly known as the Teutonic Knights or the Teutonic Order, was founded in 1192 in the Levant (the eastern Mediterranean from Greece to eastern Libya, including present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and much of Turkey). The Teutonic Knights soon became a military order, consisting entirely of German men, adding to their number on missions by hiring mercenaries from around Europe.

Elbing was given town status in 1246 and it soon grew to become a port city. By the late 13th century, Elbing had joined the Hanseatic League, an international confederation of merchant guilds and market towns which originated in north Germany and spread from the Baltic to the North Sea, dominating maritime trade within its area for three centuries until its decline after 1450.

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

The red crossed swords marked 1410 on the map above indicate the Battle of Grunwald on 15th July 1410, when an alliance of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania fought against the Teutonic Knights south-east of Elbing, within the territory of the monastic State of the Teutonic Order. Poland had previous experience of the Order’s brutality. In 1308, the Teutonic Knights were asked by Duke Władysław I of Poland to come to the aid of Danzig (Gdańsk) in the Duchy of Pomerelia in a territorial dispute with Brandenburg; but instead the Knights massacred some of Danzig’s inhabitants (the numbers are disputed) and refused to give the city to Poland.

Elbing’s inhabitants saw this new dispute in 1410 as their chance to rise up against the repressive rule of the Teutonic Knights, and they took the castle. The Knights regained it and promised their captives safe passage to Poland: instead, they murdered some and imprisoned the rest. Poles and Lithuanians defeated and considerably weakened the Order, but the Knights continued to engage in territorial disputes. An alliance of German Hanseatic cities in Prussia formed the Prussian Confederation in 1440 and, with the assistance of King Casimir IV of Poland, they led a successful revolt against the State of the Teutonic Order in 1454 which began the Thirteen Years’ War, 1454-66. Elbing became Polish from 1454, now Elbląg.

We therefore see that the Elbląg chordophone, dated 1350-1450, was lost in the latrine presumably during the period when it was ruled by Teutonic mercenaries, was called Elbing, and was an international port city in the trade-dominating Hanseatic League. This being so, we might reasonably expect that a 14th or 15th century instrument found in the location might be associated with a musician from Germany or Poland, or with any other European country in the Hanseatic League to which a traveller may have returned or with which a merchant may have traded: the northern European countries of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, or Finland; the western countries of Scotland, England, France, Belgium, or the Netherlands; the north-eastern countries of Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia; or the eastern countries of Belarus or Russia.

The mayor’s cup, 15th century, imported
from Dreihausen, Germany, found in a
latrine in Krosno, Poland.
Photograph by Silar, used under the
Creative Commons Attribution-Share
Alike 4.0 International license.

Until some personal correspondence with Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa of Jagiellonian University, Kraków (in the bibliography at the foot of the article under Kujawski, Zygmunt, translated by Teresa), my assumption about the Elbląg koboz was that it was lost in the latrine in the 14th or 15th century, the date of the instrument itself. This may be, but isn’t necessarily so. In Teresa’s words: “Latrines as a hideout. Like lawyers, translators learn a lot of new things from the commissions they work on. I have worked (and am still working) for the Subcarpathian Museum in Krosno, south-eastern Poland. The Museum’s director, Jan Gancarski, is a go-getting archaeologist and one of his excavation projects was in the town’s marketplace, where he dug up the remains of a previously unknown medieval town hall, earlier than the ones known up to that time, and a nearby latrine which was found to contain a number of valuables, including a medieval toilet seat and the mayor’s cup, dated to the 15th century [see photograph right]. The mayor’s cup is a large, commemorative, decorative, ceramic vessel, an item of Dreihausen pottery, valuable and imported from Germany, so it could not have landed in a cesspool by accident. Krosno was on the Black Route used by Tartar hordes for raiding incursions into Poland. The latrine was a good choice for a last-minute hideout just before unwanted company gatecrashed.” This raises the possibility that the koboz and the other instruments found with it may have been thrown deliberately in the latrine 1350-1450, during the period when it was ruled by Teutonic mercenaries; but they may equally have been kept as working instruments, family heirlooms or perhaps museum pieces long past the 14th or 15th century, then later thrown in the latrine to save them from looting or destruction. As we will soon see, the citizens of Elbląg have suffered a great deal of looting and destruction.

b. Poland’s renaissance

Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch, 1304–1374, possibly the originator of the idea of an Italian renaissance, painted by Andrea del Castagno, c. 1421–57.

If we take the earliest estimated date for the loss of the Elbląg chordophone to be right, the mid-14th century, then it fell into or was thrown into the latrine at roughly the same time that Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch idealised the classical Roman Empire of antiquity, and argued that Italy was cut off from its own past. If it was lost in the latrine from the mid-15th century on, then these renaissance ideas were well-established and spreading around Europe.

Petrarch, and writers such as Leonardo Bruni and Flavio Biondo, declared that they were bringing about a renaissance or rebirth of classical Roman and Greek culture, and that the whole millennium in the interim, from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE to themselves, was a medium aevum, a middle age, or a dark age. Christians before Petrarch had used the term dark age or age of darkness to mean the period after the Fall of Adam and Eve and before Christ’s salvation, but Petrarch and others used it to describe the thousand years when the glories (as they saw it) of Roman antiquity – its literature, philosophy, art and architecture – had been allegedly neglected.

Renaissance ideas spread from Italy all around western Europe. Among the countries which embraced its Italianate architecture, art and music, were central European states which, in modern parlance, are now commonly referred to as eastern European.

Hungarian King Hunyadi Mátyás (1443–1490), Latinised to Matthias Corvinus, was educated in the Italian language, promoted Mediterranean culture in Hungary and, in 1476 at the age of 33, he married Beatrice of Naples, an alliance which brought many Italian artists, masons and artisans to Hungary.

Polish architecture from 1500 was not only Italian renaissance in style, it was mostly designed by Florentine architects such as Francesco Florentino and Bartolomeo Berrecci.

One the of the most ingenious lutenists of the renaissance was Valentin (or Bálint, or Greff) Bakfark (the standard spelling of the surname in English) or Bekwark (the spelling in modern Polish), c. 1526-76, born in Kronstadt, Hungary (now in Romania). From a musical family, he was so skilled that he became Hungarian court lutenist as a boy of around 10 years old, before being appointed court lutenist to the Polish King, brother of the Hungarian Queen. The most revered musician of the Polish court and one of the best paid, he made appearances at the French court and played in Rome for the pope. Notably, the Polish poet Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584) made use of Bakfark’s reputation twice, making him the star of two of his poetic Fraszki (Trifles). Following the modern classification of Kochanowski’s works, one reference to the lutenist is in II.63, On Bekwark (translation by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, kindly sent to me in private correspondence, used with her permission):

If only the lute had the power of speech,
This, I venture, is what she would say:
“Leave off me, ye rabble, the pipe’s for your screech,
“I am only for Bekwark to play.”

In I.55, On a Lady, first printed in 1566, Jan Kochanowski ends his verse with the warning, “Nie bierz po Bekfarku lutnie” – Don’t play the lute after Bakfark.

From 1565, Bakfark/Bekwark served as lutenist to Maximilian I, who was Archduke of Austria, German King, and Holy Roman Emperor; and from 1570 he was lutenist to Joannes Sigismund, Prince of Transylvania. Either 40 or 42 of his works survive, depending on attribution, from which we see that his technically demanding music was unmistakably in the style of Italian renaissance lute composers. The same can be said of Polish lutenists whose works survive from the 1590s: Jakob Reys, Cydriac Rael, and Wojciech (or Wiecesław or Adalbert) Długoraj (or Długorai). Jakob Reys, also known as Jacques Polonais or Jakub Polak, emigrated and served as lutenist to the King of France. The royal exchange of central and western European lute players was two-way: Venetian lutenist Diomedes Cato served as musician in the court of King Sigismund III Vasa of Poland.

The front cover of Valentin Bakfark’s lute tablature print of 1553, published in Lyon.

Bearing in mind the inclusion of Hungary and Poland in the renaissance and therefore within the medieval period defined by renaissance ideas, I look to my bookshelf to select books about the music and history of these periods. The book titles themselves are instructive, often including the word West or Western, giving a definite message: early music is western music, medieval and renaissance history is western history, so we shouldn’t expect to see any references to the east. Since both the renaissance and medieval periods are predicated on countries influenced by Italy, this makes historical sense; but how are east and west defined in these accounts? I check to see which cities, regions and countries these books reference in their chapter titles and indexes. I find the following occur regularly: west; western; Europe; Italy and its cities; France and its regions and cities; Germany and its cities; England and its cities; Iberia, its countries and cities; the Netherlands; Flanders; Iceland; Luxemburg; and Sweden. There are a few references to the eastern Byzantine church and empire, to Constantinople and to Jerusalem, inasmuch as they are connected to people and events involving the west. What is notably and strikingly missing are references to the medieval and renaissance countries of Hungary and Poland. People or places in Hungary and Poland are mentioned only as often as non-medieval and non-renaissance places like Brazil and Beijing, with the one notable exception of a specialist book about lute history, which references Poland in relation to Bakfark, Reys, Rael, Długoraj and Cato.

It is clear, then, that in the minds of modern historians in western Europe – including music historians – the middle ages and renaissance are rightly viewed as western phenomena, but the border between eastern and western Europe has now moved westwards compared to any definition in the historical renaissance. The only explanation I can find for the non-inclusion of central European countries in the renaissance/medieval periods is that modern rather than historical conceptions of east and west are used. It may be that Hungary and Poland are considered eastern as they fall on the wrong side of the vertical 20th century borderline which marks the conflict between the two power blocks of western capitalist and eastern communist countries (though it’s so much more complicated than that in Hungary’s case), so a modern political division is projected back in time.

If so, that geopolitical division is out of date. Poland today is as connected to western Europe as it was in the renaissance. It is a self-determining nation state in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); in a military alliance with its central European neighbours Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the Visegrád Battlegroup; a member of the European Union and the Schengen Area, with free movement of trade and people among European members.

This modern political context may explain why Dorota Popławska (1997, 2002, 2004, 2017) looked west and identified the Elbląg instrument as a gittern rather than a koboz. But this cannot be the whole story. The musical life of Poland in the 14th and 15th century was clearly related to the late medieval and early renaissance periods elsewhere, but there will also have been distinctive Polish features. This brings us to a more pressing reason for the misidentification, a factor that is historical, material and permanent: the attempted destruction of an entire culture.

c. Poland under the Nazis

The most significant factor in the misidentification of the Elbląg koboz is the effect on Poland of Nazi and Soviet occupation.

The modern political division between east and east began when, after Russia’s October Revolution, the Soviets established their first satellite communist state, the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Hungary as a Soviet state lasted only from March to August 1919, followed by reprisals and expulsions of communists, the restoration of the monarchy, and new national borders in 1920 resulting in a 72% loss of territory to surrounding countries. In the 1930s, Hungary aligned itself with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and, like the latter, it sought to expand its national borders to regain its former political territory and authority.

Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west on 1st September 1939, triggering World War II. Only 16 days later, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. 12 days after the Soviet invasion, the German-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Demarcation was signed to partition Poland between them. In 1940, Hungary joined the Axis powers, the fascist military alliance against the Allies. In June 1941, Hungary joined both the German-led invasion of Yugoslavia and the surprise German-led invasion of the Soviet Union, which broke the German-Soviet Treaty and put all of Poland under Nazi occupation.

In March 1944, Hungary was itself occupied by Germany and the Prime Minister was unseated. Between May and July, 437,402 Jews were deported from Hungary to Nazi-occupied Poland, and all but 15,000 were sent to be slaughtered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

A wall being built in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 to keep ‘Aryans’ and others apart,
racially dividing Świętokrzyska Street from Marszałkowska Street.

It was the policy of the Third Reich to ethnically cleanse invaded territories of all non-German people by deportation and murder, to rid the culture of invaded lands of any ‘non-Aryan’ influence. Of all the countries affected in this way, Poland suffered the greatest proportion of deaths as a percentage of its pre-war population: around 17% were murdered, 6 million Poles, half of whom were Jews. Poland also suffered most from attempted cultural eradication. The Nazis aimed to completely wipe out Polish history and culture by attacking universities, libraries, museums and monuments with the burning and destruction detachments, the Verbrennungs und Vernichtungskommando. In Warsaw, they demolished 923 or 94% of the city’s historical buildings, burned 16 libraries to the ground and destroyed 16 million volumes of learning, art and culture.

The Krasiński Library, for example, was home to one of the world’s most comprehensive national collections of books, manuscripts, art, music and maps, a key part of Poland’s cultural heritage. The following numbers of unique and irreplaceable cultural treasures in the Krasiński building were destroyed by fascists: 26,000 manuscripts; 80,000 early prints, mostly irreplaceable Polish documents from the 16th to 18th centuries; 2,500 incunabula (books, pamphlets and broadsides printed before 1500); 100,000 drawings and etchings; 50,000 music and theatre scores; and an unknown number of maps, catalogues and inventories.

All that remains of the extermination of the cultural artefacts in the Krasiński Library is an urn of
ashes and burnt book fragments collected from the remains. Over time, even the unstable remains
of the books in the urn will turn to dust. The urn now stands in the Krasiński Palace, also known as
the Palace of the Commonwealth or Palace of the Republic, on Krasiński Square, Warsaw.

The percentage of material lost as a result of Nazi destruction from some of Poland’s chief library collections gives an indication of the national scale of losses:

Centralna Biblioteka Wojskowa (Central Military Library) – 99% (406,000 units)
Biblioteka Politechniki Warszawskiej (Warsaw Polytechnic Library) – 97% (129,000)
Biblioteka Sejmowa (Sejm Lower Parliament Library) – 93% (80,000)
Główna Biblioteka Judaistyczna przy Wielkiej Synagodze (The Main Judaist Library of the Great Synagogue) – 90% (36,600)
Biblioteka Ordynacji Przeździeckich (Przeździeccy Ordination Library) – 85% (51,000)
Biblioteka Ordynacji Zamoyskich (Zamoyscy Ordination Library) – 84% (100,000)
Biblioteka Publiczna Warszawy (The Public Library of the Capital City of Warsaw) – 72% (400,000)

Much of Elbląg was destroyed during World War II under Nazi occupation then, in 1945, by being taken by the Soviets. At the end of the war, the German citizens of the city were expelled but now, instead of being occupied from the German Nazi west, they were occupied from the Soviet east: the nation became a communist satellite state, the Polish People’s Republic, from 1947 until 1989.

d. conclusions

It follows from Elbing’s role as an international port city in the Hanseatic League that the instrument in question could have originated from any of the League’s western, central or eastern European countries; and it follows from the almost wholesale destruction of Polish material culture by the Nazis and then the Soviets that there is little indigenous historical material available about historical instruments in Poland with which to identify the Elbląg chordophone. As we have seen with the Elbląg and Płock fiddles, there were instruments in 14th–16th century Poland which suggest a branch of national or regional organology about which sparse evidence has survived, and which must be understood in their own terms.

IV. A case of mistaken identity

I have named this investigation after Laurence Wright’s article of 1977, The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity, because of the need to question established assumptions, as he did. There are two key reasons.

First, the evidence Laurence Wright presented clarified, with historical evidence, more precisely what medieval writers meant by gittern and citole, terms which had been wrongly used by all early music specialists until that point. My intention is to show that, just as the surviving 14th century Warwick Castle ‘gittern’ – now the British Museum citole –  was wrongly identified, so the Elbląg ‘gittern’, which is a koboz, is misidentified.

Left: The British Museum citole, formerly and wrongly known as a gittern. This instrument
is an English survival from 1280-1330, turned into a violin in the 16th century at the
request of Robert Dudley, Elizabeth I’s courtier, to give as a gift to the Queen.
Right: The Hans Oth gittern from Germany, 1432-63, formerly and wrongly known as a
citole. Differences between the gittern and koboz are explored in the second article.

Second, Laurence Wright’s seminal work advanced our knowledge of medieval instruments in fundamental ways, but further research has shown that not all of his conclusions were correct. As Crawford Young (2015, 2018) has shown, contra Wright, the ancestor of the cittern was the cetra, not the citole; the guitarra morisca did not refer to the Turkish qῡpῡz, but the gittern; and the guitarra latina was not the gittern, but the cetra. These contrary conclusions resulting from further investigation in no way detract from the essential advance in knowledge Laurence Wright provided. In the same way, my hope is that my findings on the Elbląg instrument will be added to, and some points potentially contradicted by further research.

The misidentification comes, I believe, from Polish researchers looking only to established knowledge in the west for their early music information for understandable historical reasons. I know of only one writer, Aleksandra Łyczywek (2013), who seriously raises the question of nomenclature: “Identifying this instrument discovered in Elbląg during excavations is not a simple task … The task is not facilitated by the lack of uniform naming … so gittern can be identified with the mandora, mandola, quinterna or quintar mentioned in contemporary works. In the middle ages, however, there were terms such as: nabulum (Latin), kobza or kobos from the 15th century (from the Arabic quapuz) or also quinternus, quinterna, pětistrun (Czech sources), while in western Europe the terms citole and gittern were popular.” Having raised this fundamental question, Łyczywek omits to say that the Elbląg instrument does not fit the description of any of the terms he names except kobza, then he continues to identify the instrument as a gittern.

I suspect there may be another reason for the continued misidentification: apathy. The British Museum citole of 1280-1330 and the Hans Oth gittern of 1432-63, for example, are decorated instruments made with great skill, and it is surely for this reason they have survived. By contrast, all the Elbląg instruments are rough, artefacts of music-making by the common poor rather than the moneyed elite. It is this very roughness, I would argue, that makes these instruments special, indications of the musical culture of the financially impoverished about which almost no evidence survives. It is for this reason that the Elbląg instruments should be treasured.

Part 2/2: Identifying the koboz. 

In part 2, we describe the difficulties of nomenclature in early eastern, medieval, and renaissance literature, with several quite different instruments named koboz or its variants; and that the same situation persists today. How then to establish the lineage and history of the Elbląg instrument? I do this by first defining the characteristics of the Elbląg koboz and, having established the parameters of an instrument of the same type, we see such kobzas in iconography from the 14th to the 17th century in Turkey, Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), Hungary, France, Italy and Flanders, with possible further sightings in France, Romania, Catalonia, and England.


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



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4 thoughts on “The Elbląg ‘gittern’: a case of mistaken identity. Part 1/2: Why the koboz was misidentified.

  • 24th May 2023 at 9:35 pm

    Dear Ian,

    I have read the 1st part and your arguments seem to me very convincing.

    I’d like only to note that the relations between Poland and Hungary were very close in the epoch. I will limit myself to naming only 3 personalities of that period, demonstrating such closeness:

    1. Sigismund of Luxembourg, then king of Hungary and future emperor, was the leader of the crusade of Nicopolis of 1386. The crusade was the only one in which participated orthodoxes, first of all the prince of Wallachia Mircea the Old.

    2. His father-in-law Louis the Great, king of Hungary and Poland, who, inter alia, tried to conquer his legacy in southern Italy in appr. 1370s.

    3. One more king of Poland and Hungary Wladyslaw III who disappeared on 1444 near Varna being the leader of another crusade.

    I’d like to add that some months ago I bought the book of Tiberiu Alexandru Instrumentele musicale ale poporului român of 2014. There are the most used tunings of Romanian cobza. If you are intrested and send me your email, I will send you the page copy.

    Best regards

    • 24th May 2023 at 10:26 pm

      Thank you so much for working your way through the article and for contributing those additional details. I hope you’ll find the iconography I present in the second part (to go live 31st May) equally convincing. I’ve not come across anyone before who has identified the Elbląg instrument as a koboz or who has identified the koboz in the medieval and renaissance iconography I will present in the second part. I’d love to know if anyone has.

      I have Tiberiu Alexandru in English translation, Romanian Folk Music (Bucharest: Musical Publishing House), who on p. 100 gives the koboz tuning d a d’ g’ (which I include in the second part). Thank you for your offer of any other tunings he gives – I’ll send an email.

      All the best.


  • 3rd June 2023 at 1:49 pm

    I enjoyed reading your article. I have noticed a link (in the 16th century) from western Poland to Moldavia. In Galicia, minstrels played a fiddle called serbska, which I think was identical to the Wendish husla. These were played together — one playing lead, the other presumably droning. By the early 17th century, Jews had added the cymbal (dulcimer) and a cello, creating (in Prague) the forerunner of the Hungarian Gypsy orchestra. The Roman Catholic court at Lviv used instruments of Western origin, so this newer violin music was derived from the earlier serbska style. Somewhere I have an article mentioning instruments in 16th century Moldavian sources. In any case, this is probably the cultural connection.

    • 3rd June 2023 at 4:18 pm

      Thank you so much, Paul, as what you describe is an area of music-making I was unaware of. It’s another example that music and culture are both by nature syncretistic borrowers, that cultural border-lines are always porous. If you’re able to trace the article about instruments in 16th century Moldavian sources, I’d love to know more.


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