The Elbląg ‘gittern’: a case of mistaken identity. Part 2/2: Identifying the koboz.

In the first article, I explained why the koboz (kobza, cobza) found in 1986 in a latrine in Elbląg, Poland (above left), dated to 1350–1450, cannot be a gittern, though it is always identified as such in modern literature.

In this second article we discover 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 from historical sources? First we define 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.

I conclude that, this being the case, a new instrument can be added to the lexicon of medieval and renaissance instruments: the koboz, of which the Elbląg find of 1350-1450 is a surviving historical example. 

We begin with a video of the popular 16th and 17th century tune, Sellenger’s Round, played on a copy of the Polish Elbląg koboz.

The first article, available here, consists of parts I-IV as follows:

I. The Elbląg discoveries
II. Commissioning a gittern and receiving a koboz
III. The historical context of the Elbląg koboz
IV. A case of mistaken identity

This second article begins with a video of a koboz playing renaissance music, followed by parts V-IX.

Click the picture to play the video.
Sellenger’s Round played by Ian Pittaway on a copy of the Elbląg koboz. This version of the tune is
from the Thysius lute book, compiled by Adriaen Smout of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, between
1595 and 1646. As we see in the article below, the koboz was certainly played in Flanders
(Dutch-speaking northern Belgium and part of France), so it would make sense for koboz players
to have performed the popular dance music that was circulating around Europe. In Thysius, the most
comprehensive surviving volume of lute music, this piece is called Brande d’angleterre.
A brande (branle, brawl) was a popular village dance. Transposed for the koboz by Ian Pittaway.

V. What is a koboz? A short history of its varied meanings

The names of instruments in ancient, medieval and renaissance sources are often far from straightforward. The Greek kithára, Latin cithara and Assyrian chetarah are names for a lyre for which there is evidence dating back to the 9th or 8th century BCE. However, in ancient usage, the word was used not just for lyres in their various forms, but for any plucked stringed instrument. From the beginning of the medieval period and into the renaissance, musicians and writers followed the same practice. For example, in his Etymologiae, Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) described psalteria, lyrae, and other stringed instruments as different types of cithara (3:22). Wishing to link their musical instrument names to ancient Greek and Roman sources, medieval and renaissance writers used cithara as the root word for citole, cittern, gittern, guitar, cetra, and so on, or used the actual word cithara indiscriminately for lyres, harps, citoles, psalteries, gitterns, citterns, guitars and indeed for any instrument with strings. Similarly, in medieval literature, lira or lyra sometimes meant a lyre, but on other occasions it meant a harp, a gittern, a fiddle, and so on.

We have the same problem with the word koboz and its variants, as it too was used for a specific instrument while also being a general word meaning a musical instrument with strings. The working etymological hypothesis is that the proto-Turkic kopuŕ for a musical instrument became (among other variants) kobuz or kiibuz in Turkic; kopuz in Turkish and Arabic; gopuz or qopūz in Azeri (Azerbaijani Turk) and Old Uyghur; qōbūz in Persian; koboz in Hungarian; kóbza or kobza in Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and Slovak; and cobză in Romanian.

The historical literary references that follow present a picture with many missing pieces, since often the word koboz or a variant does not precisely indicate or describe the instrument referred to.

A version of the word koboz first appeared in a 9th century scroll found in one of the Mogao Caves, known as the Thousand Buddhas cave temples, in Dunhuang, Xinjiang province, a region of China inhabited by the Turkic-speaking Uyghurs. The caves are decorated with musicians playing various plucked instruments. The scrolls name instruments, but linking a particular name to a particular depiction of an instrument in the cave paintings is not always possible. One scroll relates that Prince Kalyanamkâra says, “If you have good thoughts of me, ask now for a quŋqayu and bring it to me”. Quŋqayu may be a general word for a stringed instrument, as he is brought a qopux, and the text states that the “prince was extremely skilful on the qopux … He was seated, his hand playing the qopux and his mouth singing”.

A Mogao Cave painting of musicians dated 762–827 CE. Along with the player of
Pan pipes (syrinx), transverse flute, percussion, and harp, we see that that the dancer
and the two musicians on the right are playing plucked chordophones, one of which
may or may not be the quŋqayu or qopux played by Prince Kalyanamkâra.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in new window to further enlarge.)

The 9th century Persian traveller, Ibn Khurdādhbih, used the related terms kobuz, kavuz, qa’uz and qubuz to refer to a variety of both plucked and bowed instruments, and Turkic and Mongolian literature of the 11th to 15th centuries similarly uses the terms kopuz, komuz and kobis to refer to both plucked and bowed instruments.

Von Gottes Zukunft (Of God’s Future), a versified religious epic by Austrian author, Heinrich von Neustadt, written in 1312, mentions “die kobus mit der luten”, the koboz with the lutes, a reference reminiscent of western iconography of the 14th and 15th century, which regularly shows gitterns and lutes duetting, as we see below.

Florentine artist Agnolo Gaddi’s Coronation of the Virgin, 1390, shows a duetting lute and gittern.

The gittern and lute were tuned the same in relative terms – 3 or 4 courses in fourths – but the gittern was smaller and therefore at a higher pitch. The gittern was always fretted, the lute unfretted until the early 15th century. The gittern and the koboz were structurally very similar, closely related in shape and both carved from solid wood, but the gittern was fretted and the koboz unfretted. Given the close relationship of the gittern with the lute, and the gittern with the koboz, it seems likely that Heinrich von Neustadt’s description of “die kobus mit der luten” is a version of the popular lute/gittern pairing, but with the fretless koboz of the Elbląg type rather than a fretted gittern. If Heinrich’s reference was to the koboz we seek, it indicates a pairing in the gittern/lute style, but with a fretless koboz accompanying the fretless lute rather than a fretted gittern.

A kobyz player photographed in
Samarkand (Samarqand),
Uzbekistan, c. 1871–72.
(As with all pictures, click to
see larger in a new window.)

The kobyz (kobuz, qobyz) or kylkobyz (qylqobyz) is a Turkic bowed instrument with horsehair strings (shown on the right) played by Kazakhs, Karakalpaks, Bashkirs, and Tatars, certainly dated to the 17th century, with unverifiable traditional stories of its origin in the 8th century.

The Persian musicologist, Abd al-Qādir Marāghi, c. 1350-1435, in his commentary on Ṣafῑ al-Dῑn al-Urmawῑ’s Ketāb al-advār fi al-musiqā (Book of musical styles), mentions a three string kopuz ozan played by the Turkic musicians of central Asia and a five course kopuz rumi or Byzantine kopuz. The latter was plucked, carved from solid wood, covered with leather, in the shape and tuning of an oud, with five double courses. 

The quabūs or qanbūs of Yemen (below left) is a historical fretless short-necked plucked chordophone with a leather soundboard and obtuse angled peg box curved to a sickle shape, played historically with gut strings. It may be that this is the same or similar to the Byzantine kopuz, that the Byzantine instrument was not literally covered all over with leather but that the front was covered with a leather sound table. The quabūs or qanbūs had died out in Yemen by the early 20th century and is currently undergoing a revival. This is essentially the same in structure as one of the two types of gambus in Malaysia and Indonesia (below right), also a fretless short-necked plucked chordophone with a leather soundboard, obtuse angled peg box curved to a sickle shape, played historically with gut strings, which probably arrived there between the 9th and 15th centuries through trade with the Middle East.  

Left: The quabūs or qanbūs of Yemen (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
Photograph by Zenit. (CC BY-SA 3.0)  
Right: The gambus of Malaysia and Indonesia.

When German merchant and traveller Hans Dernschwam visited Istanbul in October 1533, he observed that the Ottomans played an instrument like the Polish three string [course?] kobza he knew, and when Polish poet Łukasz Górniczki paraphrased a Polish saying in 1566, “how much easier it is to tune two strings [courses?] together on the kobza than three”, he tells us that an instrument of that name was well-known in Poland in the 16th century but, alas, without identifying the specific instrument.

The term kobza probably entered the Ukrainian language in the 13th century, when there was a migration of Turkic people from Abkhazia in the South Caucasus into Poltava, central Ukraine. The professional kobzar tradition of Ukraine was established in the 16th century. The literal meaning of kobzar (plural: kobzari) was an itinerant musician who played specifically the plucked kobza we seek, but the word came to be associated with a musician on any instrument playing in the kobzar tradition, a mix of religious songs (psalmy), epic songs (dumy), everyday tales (rozkazy), and begging songs (zhebranka to emphasise misfortune, pros’ba to offer prayers in return for a modest donation, and zapros to make a specific request, such as for clothing).

Romania had its parallels to Ukraine’s kobzar and kobzari. In Romania, a lăutar was a musician (plural: lăutari) who belonged to the țigani lăutari or gypsy musicians, a clan who performed in bands called taraf, meaning folk. The lăutari were named after the lute, by which they meant the kobza. As with the Ukrainian kobzar, from the 17th century a Romanian lăutar was a professional musician regardless of the instrument. Hungarian gypsy bands also called themselves lăutari, but in the Hungarian context the lăutar was an oud player as well as a musician generally.      

Taraf of Ochi-Albi (Folk of white eyes) by Hungarian painter, Carol Szathmari, 1860.
A taraf in Romania or Moldova was a small folk music ensemble of 3 to 8 musicians.
Above we see Pan pipes, 3 violins and a cobză. Other instruments may include
accordion, harmonica, cello and tambourine, or regional instruments such as
cimpoi (Romanian bagpipes), cimbalom (hammer dulcimer of Wallachia and
Oltenia in Romania), or a combination of cobză, trumpet and flute (Moldova).

The word koboz is mentioned increasingly in Hungarian sources from 1600. For example, in 1620 Márton Szepsi Csombor’s Europica varietas was published in Kassa (Košice, Kaschau), then in Hungary, now in modern-day Slovakia. He described that on a trip to France he saw an instrument similar to the very popular Hungarian koboz. 17th century Hungarian sources list the koboz along with other instruments such as the lute, bagpipe, shawm, fiddle, virginal, dulcimer and harp. Poet Madách Gáspár (1590-1647 – the family name is first in Hungary) said the playing of the koboz brought on a pensive mood; and Prefect György Udvarhelyi of Transylvania described it in 1664 as an instrument more suited to the drinking of wine than water.  

By the 18th century, Hungarian sources no longer mention the koboz. In the 19th century, it is only documented as an instrument played by the Csángó people, an ethnically Hungarian minority in Moldova (Moldavia) and in Barcaság, Romania. In 1873, Hungarian ethnographer Balázs Orbán described the organology and implied history of the instrument: “The kobza is a guitar-like instrument with five ribs, short neck and eight strings [presumably four double courses], plucked with a quill … I may not be too much mistaken when I identify it with the koboz used by poets of yore, in view of its name.”   

Left: Kobzari in Wallachia, Romania, 19th century, playing Pan pipes, cobză and violin.  
Right: One of the few remaining koboz players, photographed in 1932 in Labnyik,
a village in eastern Romania populated by ethnic Hungarians.

The koboz was fading into the past, a past that would be revived under the most repressive conditions. 

The Soviet army occupied Hungary in the latter part of World War II. By June 1958, an anti-democratic government was in place, allied to Moscow. In October 1956, a popular peaceful protest by students, joined by officials and soldiers, demanded reform and independence from the Soviet Union. Though faced with murder by Soviet tanks, the students, officials and soldiers were successful in influencing the government. In November, Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, sent in the Soviet military to capture the country, crush democracy and instate their own leaders. 20,000 people were killed.  

During the totalitarian Communist era of Hungary, the Soviets and their puppet states carried out their policy of destroying any culture that distinguished itself from Soviet identity. In 1972, this led to the popular Hungarian táncház (dance house) movement as a way of circumventing cultural repression by Russia. It was a clever move: western pop, rock and jazz music was associated with western imperialism, so anyone listening to such ‘counter-revolutionary’ music was considered suspect, bourgeois, decadent, imperialist, and therefore due for punishment. But the táncház movement was recovering traditional Transylvanian dance music, led by violins. But for this they were infiltrated by secret service spies, as the celebration of Hungarian identity, culture and history was seen as implying that the Hungarian past was preferable to the Soviet present, perhaps leading to nationalist opposition.

By the spring of 1978, the reports of infiltrators into the táncház movement convinced the Party that they were no threat, after all, and in the 1980s Hungarian folk music and dance enthusiasts widened their attention to include the music of the Csángó, who played the koboz. Kobzas were imported from Romania, leading to a revival of the instrument. 

Above and below: photographs from the Hungarian táncház movement of the 1970s.

This brings us to the present, and to the discovery in 1986 of the instrument found in a latrine in Elbląg, Poland, dated 1350-1450.

Tracing a line back through history, looking for written references to koboz and its cognates, shows that the venture is rife with difficulties as the same word has a variety of meanings. The situation persists. In Ukraine today there are three different instruments called kobza, all of which are quite distinct from the historical find. Below left we see a kobza with 6 steel strings on an unfretted neck, followed by 6 or 7 strings on the soundboard, an instrument very similar to the Ukrainian bandura, which has more strings and two bridges. Centre left is a kobza with a separate fretted neck, with 4, 6 or 7 single steel strings or 12 strings in 6 double courses, tuned as a guitar. The koboz centre right is based on the 3 string Russian domra, which became the 4 string Ukrainian domra. This koboz has a separate fretted neck and is tuned in fifths as a mandolin. Below right is a modern Moldovan kobza, which takes the historical instrument as its model, but with a separate fretted neck like a modern guitar, with 8 steel strings in 4 double courses, tuned in fifths as for a mandolin.

Not only this, in 19th century Hungary a koboz was a cello; in the Czech Republic a kobza is a drone zither similar to the German scheitholt and Appalachian dulcimer; in Belarus it is a hurdy gurdy; and in Poland, north Moldavia and the Czech republic it is a bagpipe (properly koza, meaning sheep or goat, the material for the windbag, but kobza is also used).

Since a similar word can refer to the same instrument and the same word to different instruments, it is not possible to reconstruct a stable lineage of the koboz we seek without also referring to iconography.

That, too, is problematic for two reasons. First, the often imprecise nature of medieval iconography means we must set a high standard for identifying depictions of kobzas, rather than assuming that an incompletely drawn gittern shown without frets must be a kobza. Second, Poland, Romania and other central and eastern European countries have been subject to dictatorships which have attempted to eradicate culture and history, and in their campaigns have set fire to buildings that housed invaluable manuscripts and whitewashed historical murals on the walls of sacred spaces (as described in the first article). The volume of central and eastern European historical musical iconography will therefore not be substantial.

VI. Defining the Elbląg koboz

Nevertheless, this is not an impossible task. To be productive, we need first to define terms: what is the organology that may identify the lineage of the Elbląg chordophone? We will begin by defining the related modern instrument, compare it to the Elbląg find, then identify correlates in iconography and written accounts.  

In modern Hungary and Romania, the koboz or cobza is the instrument played by Szlama László in the video in section II (in the first article), the same instrument shown in the 19th century photograph of Romanian kobzari in the photographs above. Three more examples of the modern version of the instrument are below.

The modern plucked koboz that is related to the historical find in Elbląg, now popular again with Hungarians and Romanians reviving traditional music, has the following characteristics. From this point the word koboz will only be used to denote a modern or historical instrument of this type.

1. It is a plucked chordophone in the shape of a half-pear.

2. The peg box is at an obtuse angle, like an oud or lute, with wooden lateral (side mounted) friction pegs. Modern mechanical machine heads may now be used.

3. From the 19th century on there is evidence that, as now, the back was constructed from a small number of maple, walnut or hornbeam staves (5, 7 or 9), like a barrel, as an alternative to the previously monoxyle construction (carved from a solid block of wood). Constructing from staves saves both wood and work, without the process of scooping and carving from the solid and without the intricacy of ribs as on the lute or oud.

4. The short neck, a quarter or less of the instrument’s length, is fretless.

5. Viewed from the front, there may be a continuous slope from the neck to the body, the end of the neck only visually distinguishable by the added fingerboard, or there may be a visible juncture where the notably short neck meets the body.

6. The soundboard is spruce.

7. The position where the plucking arm rests, where the soundboard meets the staves of the back, may be protected by a strip of leather.

8. The sound hole may be a carved rose, typical of renaissance and medieval instruments (above top left), but more often now the there are 4 smaller sound holes, either the outer points of 4 Xs without the central cross-section of the X being carved (above right and bottom left), or the same constellation in the shape of leaves, or 4 more complex small roses. Some have an additional small triangular soundhole in the top right corner of the soundboard.

9. A feature on the modern koboz is that, rather than the strings being threaded through holes in the bridge and tied onto it, they are held in place by first being tied to a bridge, then they pass over a separate saddle which determines the action or string height (as seen in all three examples above).

10. Like some medieval lutes and gitterns and most modern guitars, there is a scratch-plate, in this case made of wood or leather, to protect the soundboard from the friction of the plectrum.

11. The strings of the Hungarian and Romanian koboz were traditionally gut. They are now typically nylon in Hungary and steel in Romania, though both are possible in either country. Medieval and renaissance tuning is unknown. Now there are between 8 and 12 strings arranged in 4 courses of 2 or 3 strings each. The basic tuning from the bottom up is a fifth and two fourths, commonly d a d’ g’, with other pitches possible following the same pitch sequence, such as g d’ g’ c’’ or A e a d’. Each course doubles or triples notes in unisons or in octaves: on the 1st and 2nd course those octaves are below the basic tuning, on the 3rd and 4th course the octaves are above the basic tuning. My originally commissioned tuning, when I understood the instrument to be a gittern (described in the first article), was 1st c’’ c’ c’’ (octaves); 2nd g’ g’ (unisons); 3rd d’ d’ (unisons); 4th a’ a (octaves). Since I have found no evidence of historical koboz tuning, upon understanding the true identity of the instrument, this was changed to a version of modern koboz tuning: 1st c’ c’’ c’’ (octave c’ below the basic tuning); 2nd g’ g’ (unisons); 3rd d’’ d’ (octave d” above the basic tuning); 4th g g’ (octave g’ above the basic tuning).

12. The string spacing widens considerably from the nut to the bridge, promoting vigorous playing.

13. The traditional plectrum is a goose quill, but some modern players prefer to make their own more durable plectrums from plastic bottles.

VII. The koboz in iconography

Since Poland was part of the Hanseatic League, taking in countries in northern, western, north-eastern, central and eastern Europe (as described in the first article), the sighting of a historical Elbląg-style koboz may conceivably be made in iconography from any of those countries. Comparing the features above with the Elbląg instrument on the right, I initially considered the following elements to be essential in medieval and renaissance iconography for an image to be a genuine and secure identification of a koboz.

1. The overall half-pear shape which the gittern and koboz share must be clearly distinguished as that of a koboz and not a gittern. This will be seen by a wide fingerboard, sloping away from the strings, wider than that for a gittern, with either little or no distinction between neck and body or a distinctly short neck with a juncture that divides it from the body.

2. The string spacing should widen out considerably from the nut to the bridge, wider than on a gittern.

3. The peg box must be at an obtuse angle with lateral pegs. This may be an undecorated straight peg box, like the modern koboz and the lute, or a sickle-shape peg box with a decorative carving, like the Elbląg instrument and as on a gittern.

4. The fingerboard must be fretless. Since medieval manuscript art and stone carvings do not always show frets – since carvings were originally painted, they may originally have been painted on – where the fingerboard is shown as fretless the image must also conform to the first three characteristics.

5. If the back of the instrument is visible (this is very rare), then it should be monoxyle, not constructed of ribs.

Gitterns generally had strings tied to hitch pins on the tail and lutes generally had strings tied to the bridge, but both were possible on either instrument. The Elbląg instrument has hitch pins, but on any sighting of a koboz this could not count as an essential feature.

There are three features of the modern koboz we would probably not expect to see on an historical koboz: a strip of leather protecting the tail edge of the instrument (though this is possible, as some renaissance and baroque lutes had parchment around the edge of the soundboard); an X for a sound hole instead of a carved rose; and a separate bridge and saddle.

On the basis of this identification criteria, the following types of representations are discounted.

We should discount fretless instruments with string bands that widen considerably from the neck to the bridge, as on a koboz, when the shape and size of the instrument and its geographical location lead to its identification as an oud or lute, as in the Iberian Cantigas de Santa María, 1257–83, below, …

Cantigas de Santa María, Códice de los músicos, folios 54r and 162r
(Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, RBME Cat b-I-2).

… and the large fretless lute with the same spread-out strings as some ouds in Venetian artist Andrea di Bartolo’s Coronation of the Virgin, 1405-07, below, just on the cusp of all western lutes being fretted.

We should be aware that not all details of an instrument are depicted in manuscript art – frets, bridges, tuning pegs, or strings can be missing – and it is not uncommon for frets to be missing from carved representations of fretted instruments which may, as stated above, have been painted on. Though now fretless, both the instruments below appear to be gitterns with the frets not shown. The carvings of Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian, have undergone extensive erosion over time, and below left we see that not only are the frets missing, the bottom half of the rose is missing, and the overall shape is what we would expect for a gittern. The shape of the now fretless instrument in Melrose Abbey, Roxburghshire, below right, is well within expectation for a gittern. There is an anomaly between the amount of detail in the face and the clearly visible three double courses, compared with the rose which is simply a series of holes within a circle. This casts doubt on how much is original and what has been reworked or replaced due to erosion.

Left: A gittern in Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian, Scotland, built from 1456.
Right: Another gittern in Melrose Abbey, Roxburghshire, Scotland, early 15th century.

Before we turn to central-eastern European iconography to identify historical kobzas, we view selected images from Archivio del Capitolo di San Pietro (Arch. Cap. S. Pietro) A.24, a 14th century manuscript held in the Vatican Library. Since the photographs of the manuscript on the Vatican Library website give no further details, such as a precise date, country or region, I contacted them for more specifics, and the reply I received was that they have no more information.

© Copyright Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

As we see above, folio 74v shows a woman playing an instrument that is well within the expectations for a gittern in its overall shape, its size, and the standard way of presenting a sickle-shape peg box by having the carved head turn back towards the player. Its fretlessness may be considered part of the shorthand of medieval iconography, not showing all details. In this image, not only are there no frets, the rose and the decorative carved head lack detail.

© Copyright Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, used under their terms. The manuscript is here.
(As with all pictures, click for a larger view in a new window, click in new window to further enlarge.)

Compare this with the instruments shown on folios 186v (above) and 213v (below) of the same manuscript, which fit all the criteria for a koboz: the overall pear shape is clearly distinguished as that of a koboz, with a very short neck and wide fretless fingerboard. Both have a rose and, surprisingly, one has a rose and also an X for a sound hole, which I had assumed would be a modern feature.

Turning to central and eastern Europe (which may be the origin of Arch. Cap. S. Pietro A.24), the 14th century Serbian Psalter was written in Middle Bulgarian and produced in what was then Tsargrad, the Slavic name for Constantinople, present-day Istanbul in Turkey, capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Serbian Psalter is now kept in Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library), shelf mark BSB Cod. slav. 4. 

The full page miniature on folio 19r (detail below left) is for Psalm 11, with the caption in Middle Bulgarian, “David’s supplication”. Western European medieval manuscripts usually interpret the Latin word cithara for King David’s instrument as a lyre or a harp. In the Serbian Psalter, David is shown playing a koboz. On folio 124v (detail below right), the miniature for Psalm 95 depicts the celebrations at the reconsecration of the temple after the Hebrews were released from captivity. King David is shown very clearly playing a koboz with the same body shape as the Elbląg instrument, in an image that is roughly contemporaneous with it. It is notable that the playing pose of both these images of King David in the 14th century Serbian Psalter is exactly that of the koboz player photographed in 1932 in Labnyik, Romania, shown above and again on the right. 

Folio 153r (below) illustrates Psalm 118: 2–3 (Psalm 119 in modern western numbering), written above the full-page miniature: “Blessed are they who observe his decrees, who seek him with all their heart; they commit no wrong who walk in his ways.” Underneath the miniature is the legend, “A gracious death to the righteous. A cruel and sudden death to the sinner.” The first quote is illustrated in the top half of the page by an angel receiving the winged soul of a man who has just died. On the left of the man is a saint playing a psaltery (or the Slavic equivalent), and on the right is a saint playing a koboz in the pose just noted.

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

Folio 184v of the Serbian Psalter (below) illustrates Psalm 150: 3–4. The Latin Vulgate for verse 3 says, “laudate eum in sono tubae laudate eum in psalterio et cithara”, meaning “praise him in the sound of trumpets, praise him with psaltery and cithara.” The illustration on the top half of the page shows three trumpets on the right, two psalteries in the centre, and two kobzas again representing the biblical cithara on the left.

In medieval western Europe, the harp played a central role in religious symbolism as King David’s instrument (as this article on harp symbolism explains). As we see above, David’s cithara in the Serbian Psalter is a koboz, and in Romanian frescoes generally, King David plays a koboz, a lute or a gusla (Balkan bowed instrument).  

In the early 15th century, The Litoměřice–Třeboň Bible was produced in those respective places in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic. Its three volumes were created between 1409 and 1414, now in the respective State Regional Archives of Litoměřice (two volumes) and Třeboň (one volume). Folio 52r of the second volume (below left, image 109 in the online facsimile) shows three musicians playing koboz and nakers and, on the right, an unidentified instrument not completed by the artist (a Bohemian wing?).

Medieval translators of The Bible, faced with Latin names of musical instruments for which there were no exact equivalents, substituted the names of instruments they and their readers knew. For example, in Macé de la Charité’s translation of Revelation into Old French in the 13th century, he translates cithara – the Latin for lyre specifically, or for any stringed instrument generally – as both arpe and citolle. In Czech manuscripts in Czech or Latin in the 14th and 15th century, we find the words kobos and kobes playing the same role. This is the case in Bohemarius maior, 1369, in the Crux of Telč manuscript, c. 1450, in the Olomouc Bible, 1417, and in the Pernštein Bible, 1471.

Above right is one of 76 illuminations in the Olomouc Bible, the earliest surviving Czech translation of the whole Bible, dated 1417 (Olomouc University Library MS III). The instruments in this scene, left to right, are nakers, vielle (medieval fiddle), oliphant (horn), triangle, koboz and bagpipes. As with almost all medieval iconography, the instruments are not labelled, but given that the word koboz is used in the text we can assume that the penultimate instrument was given this name, though its apparently separate neck and the nature of the pegbox show that it is not of the type we are seeking.

The western wall of the church in Voroneţ Monastery, Romania, painted in 1488, includes a depiction of King David playing a plucked chordophone (above) that looks like a lute without the frets depicted (as noted in section III of the first article, the lute was well-known and loved in Romania). It is usually, in modern commentary, described as a cobză, but it doesn’t resemble the kobza we are looking for. It is impossible to judge whether it is monoxyle.

16th century Polish chronicler Mateu Strikovski wrote of the lutes, cobzas and harps played at the courts of Polish princes, confirming the high status of all three instruments; and in Hungary at the end of the 17th century, the kobza continued to be depicted as the instrument of King David, as we see on the right from a painting in the church of Hurezu (Horezu), dated 1692. This depicts the scene in the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 16: 23: “So it came about whenever the evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the kinnor [Hebrew for lyre, shown here as a koboz] and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him.”

So far this survey has been conducted on the basis described above, that a koboz compared to a gittern is fretless, has a wider fingerboard, and strings that widen considerably more than a gittern from the nut to the bridge. From this point the picture becomes more complicated, as the following two images from central Europe throw a significant question mark over the universality of the second and third parts of that distinction between gittern and koboz.  

One of the 14th century murals in Sântana de Mureş, a Reformed Church in Marosszentanna, Romania, shows a player of an instrument that is in the shape we would expect for a gittern, but it is shown as fretless (below).

It would be easy to see this as one of the many images of an instrument depicted with missing details, a fretted gittern on which the artist has omitted the frets, as well as the rose, were it not for the two details below from the fresco, The Adoration of the Lamb by the Elders and Virgins of the Apocalypse by Nicolaus Wurmser (known as The Master of Luxemburg), in Karlštejn Castle, Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, painted in 1360, in the same century as the Sântana de Mureş mural above.

First we see a man clutching a lute (above). It is fretless, as we would expect in 1360: European lutes were not fretted until the early 1400s. There is also an unexpected detail: we see the separate bridge and saddle as on the modern koboz, but in 14th century Bohemia.   

The second detail (above) shows an instrument that has features we would associate with a gittern: a sickle-shape peg box, though unusually without a decorative carved head; a slim neck, clearly distinct from the body, and strings attached to end-pins or hitch-pins rather than to a glued bridge. There are two features of particular note. First, like the lute, this instrument has the separate bridge and saddle also seen on the modern koboz. Second, this instrument, like the lute, is fretless. The amount of detail in this painting strongly suggests that the lack of frets is not an omission. So, with both the Sântana de Mureş and Karlštejn Castle instrument, we must ask: what distinguishes this as either a gittern or a koboz?   

To search for an answer, we turn to Castilian poet, Juan Ruiz. In his Libro de buen amor (The book of good love), c. 1330, he stated that the laud (lute) and viüela de pénola (vihuela with plectrum) are suitable for Arabian music, but the çitola (citole) and guitarra (gittern) are not. He doesn’t state why, but the most obvious explanation is that only unfretted instruments are suitable for the quartertones required in Arabian music. This distinction raises the following possible accounts to explain whether the fretless Sântana de Mureş and Karlštejn Castle instruments are gitterns or kobzas.  

First account. Despite Ruiz’s comment that the gittern is not suitable for Arabian music, presumably because the gittern is fretted, there were fretless gitterns that Ruiz was not aware of. This would mean that perhaps some of the gitterns in iconography that appear to be fretless were indeed fretless, despite Ruiz’s commentary apparently to the contrary.

I am not convinced by this first account as there are no written accounts of fretless gitterns. We would need specific evidence for the claim that there were unfretted gitterns Ruiz was unaware of, and that evidence is lacking.

Second account. Ruiz’s observation was correct: gitterns were fretted – and kobzas were not. It follows that gitterns always had to have a neck profile that could take frets and kobzas did not require such a neck profile. We see this on the Elbląg instrument, on which tied frets are impossible (described in the first article). On this account, we can accommodate the idea that there were some kobzas in central Europe with slimmer necks that would have been capable of having tied frets, though they did not have them. The images in Sântana de Mureş, Romania, and Karlštejn Castle, Bohemia, may be two such examples of slimmer-necked kobzas.

On this second account, the question of organology and nomenclature becomes important: what is the difference between a fretless kobza with a slim neck and a fretted gittern with a slim neck, other than the presence or absence or frets? There may indeed have been no other significant organological difference: the nomenclature may simply reflect central/eastern and western European ideas of the instrument, the presence or absence of frets, and the wide variation of neck width possible on a fretless koboz compared to a fretted gittern.

I find this second version of events more convincing because it does not contradict Ruiz, it takes account of the ever-present variety within an instrument type, and it maintains the regional east/west distinction between the terms koboz and gittern.   

It is therefore possible that the three apparently fretless instruments in the 14th century manuscript, Archivio del Capitolo di San Pietro A.24, Vatican Library (reproduced again below), are all fretless kobzas, despite their different neck profiles.

So we turn to western iconography: are there unambiguous examples of kobzas, distinct from gitterns? This question is complicated at this point in the discussion. If the distinction between koboz and gittern is only the absence or presence or frets and regional nomenclature, with the difference in neck profile a probable but not definitive distinction, then a significant proportion of iconography may be judged as insufficiently detailed to make a secure distinction. Where there is a wide neck profile that looks likely to be incapable of taking frets, the delineation between koboz and gittern is more secure.

We will view the images in roughly date order.  

In Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 264, a French manuscript of Roman d’Alexandre and other works, 1338-1410, we see instruments that we would usually think are clearly gitterns on folios 3r and 21v (below left and centre), but without the frets being drawn. In this particular manuscript, these images are small scale, and medieval artists were not draftsmen, measuring and depicting every detail for construction, so missing frets, bridges, roses, pegs, plectrums and so on were common, as was perspective distortion and exaggeration of some features, as we see on the oversize peg box of both gitterns and the oversize chanter of the bagpipe on folio 12v (below right).

On folios 42v, 51v, and 58r, below, again we see fretless necks, but combined with the wide proportions of the fingerboard, these instruments resemble kobzas much more than they do gitterns. We may well ask: if the artist could show horizontal lines for strings, then why not vertical lines for frets, if these instruments had frets?

The date of the manuscript, 1338-1410, fits the date of the Elbląg koboz, 1350-1450. I know how easily this can be seen as wishful thinking, so I am raising the question rather than making a definitive claim. Such a claim would beg the question: is it credible that we would see a koboz in a 14th or 15th century French or western European source? Austrian author Heinrich von Neustadt’s reference in 1312 to “die kobus mit der luten”, the koboz with the lutes, suggests it is. We will return to this question below after viewing more evidence.  

There are many images of gitterns in manuscripts and on altarpieces about which we can easily judge that the shape is right but the frets have been missed from the depiction, but there are difficult cases, such as folio 166r of The Canterbury Psalter, below. The decoration was started c. 1200 in Canterbury and completed c. 1300-50 in Catalonia, this folio being part of the latter stage. Here we apparently see amassed gitterns, but closer examination shows that they are all fretless and there is no clear distinction between neck and body, a feature more typical of a koboz. Without original instruments, we have no way of checking what is being depicted, but it is at least worth raising the question for reasons that I hope will become cumulatively clear.

Folio 166r of the Anglo-Catalan (Great) Canterbury Psalter
(Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 8846).
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

Above is the collection of musicians at the foot of Jacopo di Cione’s San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece, Florence, 1370-71. From left to right we see portative organ, harp, singer, gittern, two onlookers, vielle, onlooker, singing psaltery player, and bagpipe. Below is a detail of the gittern. Since we see such great detail in the finely decorated clothing and ornamented instruments, is it credible that Jacopo would miss the frets from the gittern if it had them? Or is it more credible to believe that the decorated fingerboard was there to give the player finger placement and that the neck was actually fretless, as shown? Should we consider this a koboz? As with the French MS. Bodl. 264 and the Anglo-Catalan Canterbury Psalter, we have no way of checking what is depicted with reality and, as with the instrument on the wall of the 14th century Sântana de Mureş in Romania and Karlštejn Castle in Bohemia, it raises the question of what distinguishes a gittern from a koboz.  

There are other sources in medieval western art that are more definitively suggestive of the koboz rather than the gittern, with wide fingerboards and without frets. The first five are French.

Folio 273r of a Bible historiale illustrated by the anonymous Master of Jean de Mandeville, c. 1360-70 (Getty Museum, California, Ms. 1, volume 1, shelf mark 84.MA.40.1), shows King David with a harp in its bag, next to a psaltery and an instrument that is fretless but is probably meant to be a gittern (below left), though it has a disproportionate shape. As an accurate depiction, it can probably be dismissed given that the artist depicted the strings of the harp attached impossibly to the forepillar. 

A French edition of Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris mulieribus (Of famous women) was produced in 1403 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 598). On folio 188r (above right) is a scene showing a harp, a psaltery, and a fretless chordophone on which the neck widens considerably more than the strings. If taken literally, this makes it a koboz.

Again we are up against the limitations of medieval iconography. Can we trust the accuracy of the shape? Does a fretless neck depict reality, or did the artist not reproduce all details? A comparison of these two instruments on the right shows that the Bible historiale instrument (left) is not a realistic shape for a gittern or koboz, lacks a bridge, has 5 strings and 9 pegs, and lacks frets; whereas the Français 598 instrument (right) is a realistic shape for a koboz, has a bridge, has 3 strings (or courses), lacks frets, has the neck widen at a greater angle than the strings, and has no clear distinction between the neck and the body, all as we would expect on a koboz.    

Details of the Psautier de Jean de Berry,
1380–1400, folios 85r (left) and 153r
(right). As with all pictures, click to
see larger in a new window, click in
the new window to further enlarge.

The Psautier de Jean de Berry, 1380-1400 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 13091), has two instruments of the same type that fit all the criteria for a koboz. On folio 85r (above left, detail right) we see King David kneeling before God and saints, with three instruments before him: harp, psaltery and koboz. On folio 153r (above right, detail right) we see King David playing hammered bells, with a psaltery and koboz below him. In both cases, we see a shape remarkably like that of the Elbląg koboz, fretless, without a clear distinction between neck and body.  

Another French edition of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris mulieribus was made c. 1440, called Des cleres et nobles femmes (From clerics and noble women – now in the British Library, Royal MS 16 G V). On folio 3v (below) are a group of musicians, including a player of either a fretted gittern on which the frets are not shown or a koboz.

I am aware that in presenting these images as possible western sightings of kobzas, I may be accused of special pleading simply because the idea is unfamilar and, while some of the evidence I have presented above is clear and unequivocal, some is speculative. To the notion of special pleading, I have three answers.

Firstly, as noted above, the Austrian author Heinrich von Neustadt wrote of “die kobus mit der luten” – the koboz with the lutes – in 1312 in Von Gottes Zukunft (Of God’s Future), which suggests that the appearance of kobzas in western Europe should not come as a surprise, especially when we consider that: Austria shares a border with modern Hungary and the Czech Republic, from which there is clear evidence of koboz players; Hungary and the Czech Republic share borders with Poland and Romania, from which there is clear evidence of koboz players; Austria shares a border with Germany, which once owned Elbląg (see the first article), where the 14th-15th century koboz was found; and that Germany shares a border with France which, as we will see, has clear evidence of koboz players.

Secondly, when dealing with the sometimes sketchy depictions in medieval iconography, it can be easy to fill in the missing details with what we expect to see. This is clearly necessary with missing bridges and missing tuning pegs, as an instrument cannot function without them. Frets are another matter: an instrument can function without frets, and that changes the nature of the instrument. Since some depictions of fretted instruments do not show the frets and the viewer is expected to know and assume the missing details, this does not necessarily mean that all instruments shown without frets did have them: some depictions may be missing frets because there were none. We know this to be the case with most ouds and with all western lutes until c. 1400. In such cases, we would not ‘fill in the blanks’ and assume frets. Since, as I have shown in the first article, there were trade links between western and central Europe in the medieval period, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a koboz would be played in western Europe. In iconography, this may not be easily distinguished from a gittern with missing frets, other than by a variation in body outline. In some of the images presented above, that variation in body outline is unambiguous.

My third answer to the possibility of special pleading is the fifth French source for a western koboz sighting, of which I am in no doubt. The collegiate church of Saint-Bonnet-du-Gard in France was mostly complete by 1418. The building was funded by Bonnet Grayset, who died in 1426, and whose tomb is in the lower chapel. The ceiling of the chapel was painted by Louis Vobis, who was working at the time for Anna d’Auvergne (1358–1417). Anna d’Auvergne was Sovereign Dauphine of Auvergne and Countess of Forez, Dame de Mercoeur and Duchess of Bourbon by marriage to Louis II, Duke of Bourbon. It is probably because the chapel served as an oratory for her that Louis Vobis painted the ceiling as he did, with angelic musicians playing portative organ, harp, rubeba, vielle, lute, psaltery, singers and, as we see above, koboz.

Just as the koboz was the instrument of King David in medieval central European iconography, and 16th century Polish chronicler Mateu Strikovski wrote of the cobzas played at the courts of Polish princes, so this instrument painted for the Dauphine of Auvergne and Countess of Forez meets all the criteria for a koboz: the overall half-pear shape is clearly distinguished as that of a koboz by its wide fingerboard, sloping away from the strings, wider than that for a gittern, with little or no distinction between neck and body; the string spacing widens considerably from the nut to the bridge; the peg box is sickle-shape; and the fingerboard is fretless. Not only is the neck fretless, it is not possible that such a neck could be fretted. As we see below, the design of the Saint-Bonnet instrument, top left, makes a telling comparison with the surviving gittern by German luthier, Hans Oth, made 1432-63, top right, and the Elbląg koboz, bottom left, shown in the drawing by Elbląg Museum, bottom right (with strings and pre-damaged outline added in red by luthier Paul Baker). Here we see that the outline of the Saint-Bonnet instrument and its string spacing are that of Elbląg, not of Oth. These cumulative features securely identify the Saint-Bonnet instrument as a koboz.  

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

So my judgement is that, because of the clarity of the Saint-Bonnet instrument, it is credible that we would see a koboz in a 14th or 15th century western European source; but the question is still potentially problematic in particular instances. Since the gittern and koboz are alike, differing only in proportion – usually – and the presence or lack of frets – always, we should be careful with iconography that distorts proportions and omits details such as frets, as in such cases we ask a question which the medium may be ill-equipped to answer. We therefore need to judge each image on its merits and use discernment according to the accuracy, realism and overall credibility of the source.

From the early 15th century, we have an extraordinary and striking example of musical iconography in the roof angels of Saint Nicholas’ Church, King’s Lynn, Norfolk. These angels are four and half feet tall, almost life-size figures, looking down impressively on the congregation. As we see above, two of these angels play chordophones shown as fretless. As on the Elbląg koboz, the strings are attached to hitch pins on the tail, there is no distinction between neck and body, and from the front the wide neck curves considerably away from the strings. One has a sickle-shape peg box with a decorative carving as in Elbląg, the other a straight peg box as on a lute. If we judge these carvings as accurate in every detail then we have two clear examples of kobzas in England; if we judge the width of necks to be exaggerated and the frets omitted by the carver then one is a gittern and the other a lute with hitch-pins.

Photograph kindly sent by Steve Terry.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

There is the same question of judgement in the stained glass window above, probably 15th century, from Saint Mary’s Church in Shotesham, Norfolk. Familiarity with western medieval instruments would lead to an immediate identification as a gittern, but there are two unusual features. First, we would usually expect gittern strings to be attached to hitch pins on the tail or, in a small minority of cases and mostly in the 15th century, tied to the bridge. I believe this instrument to be unique in showing neither, but a trefoil, as on a citole. Secondly, and more importantly for our purpose, the neck widens considerably more than the strings, as we would expect on a koboz. In addition, there are no frets, but that alone cannot lead to identification in this case: whereas some depictions of fretted instruments in stained glass clearly show frets, as we see on the gittern and citole in the minstrels’ window, Lincoln Cathedral, c. 1385 …

Lincoln Cathedral minstrels’ window, c. 1385. Photographs © Ian Pittaway.
(Click to see larger in a new window, click in the new window to further enlarge.)

… others omit them, as we see in the window in Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Newark, Nottingham, which depicts a lute and gittern, both of which were fretted at the time of the window, c. 1450, but the frets are not shown here.  

Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Newark, Nottingham.
Photograph by Jules & Jenny. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

As we see below, a more definitive depiction of an English koboz is shown in a 15th century stained glass window in the church of Saint and Saint Paul, Sustead, Norfolk, with its overall shape, lack of neck/body distinction, fretlessness, and the neck widening more than the string band. This photograph was kindly sent to me by Peter Forrester, who observes that in the original window, before the pieces were dispersed and later put back together, the bagpiper and koboz player probably formed a musical duo. 

Many thanks to Peter Forrester, who made this sighting and send his photographs.

Turning to Italy, the present form of the Doge’s (Duke’s) Palace in Venice was built in stages from 1340 to 1565. The location of the carving of the musician below isn’t clear to me, so I cannot give a more precise date for its construction. The top end of the neck and the peg box, being smoother and a different colour to the rest of the carving, appear to be a restoration. The overall shape and the very wide spread of the strings across the body towards the bridge give the distinct impression of a koboz rather than a gittern.   

There is an instrument in a 16th century Flemish engraving which can only be a koboz. In 1538, Cornelis Massijs (Massys, Matsijs, Matsys, Messijs, Messys, Metsijs, Metsys) made a set of 12 engravings, each only 58 x 45 mm, known as The Dancing Cripples. There are 4 instruments. As displayed below, the first engraving has a man playing tabulae (percussive clappers), accompanying a vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy) player; and the last engraving shows a woman playing tambourine, dancing with a man who has a koboz on his back.

Cornelis Massys, The Dancing Cripples, 1538,
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (State Museums in Berlin),
Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings).

Below is that last engraving in isolation. Just as the Saint-Bonnet instrument meets all the criteria for a central European koboz, but in 15th century France, the Massijs engraving meets all the criteria for a koboz, but in 16th century Flanders: it has an overall half-pear shape clearly distinguished from the gittern by its wide fingerboard, sloping away from the strings; the string spacing widens out considerably from the nut to the bridge; the peg box is sickle-shape; and the fingerboard is fretless. The Saint-Bonnet painting and the Massijs engraving are so detailed in every other respect that it is not credible to suggest the artist omitted only this one detail of frets.

VIII. Conclusions

We saw in Part 1: Why the koboz was misidentified that the Elbląg koboz, found in a latrine and dated 1350-1450, is rough and rudimentary, and is special for just that reason: it did not belong to the middle class or aristocracy, as almost all preserved instruments did, but to the urban poor. Since the find is called a gittern in all literature after its discovery in 1986, when I had a copy made I had my preconceptions rudely shaken by the instrument in my hands. The wide neck on which frets had to be forced, leading to the realisation that the original didn’t have frets, and the expansive gaps between courses at the bridge, led me to the conclusion that this ‘gittern’ is a koboz. It had been misidentified due to researchers looking to western European music history, rather than to central and eastern Europe, because of modern assumptions about geography which differ from the renaissance worldview, and because the Nazis and the Soviets nearly succeeded in annihilating Polish material culture and history.

In part 2, we have seen that just as the Greek kithara and its linguistic cognates refer to a dizzying number of instruments in western European history, with many different instruments given the same name and the same instrument given different names, the same applies to kobuz and its historical cognates in central-eastern Europe and Asia. Some written descriptions are nonetheless clear enough to locate the thread of history that applies to the specific type of koboz found in the Elbląg latrine, an instrument currently enjoying a revival in Hungary, stemming initially from the cultural resistance to Soviet domination in the 1970s and ’80s.

Crawford Young (2015) shows comprehensively that two terms used in several French written sources and one Spanish source, guiterne moresche or guitarra morisca and guiterne latine or guitarra latina, refer respectively to the European gittern and the Italian cetra. What he doesn’t pick out and I’d like to highlight is that the use of the term guiterne moresche – Moorish gittern – provides a telling link in the minds of medieval writers between the gittern and the koboz. The view of Laurence Wright (1977) was that “the guitarra morisca or guiterne moresche … corresponded to the instrument known in Turkey as the qupuz and in Middle High German as the kobus, and that it entered Eastern Europe through Hungary (and Bohemia)”. This direction of travel is exactly in line with the literary and iconographical evidence I have given in these articles. The only change I would make to Laurence Wright’s statement is that the guiterne moresche is not the qupuz or kobus but the fretted gittern, in line with Crawford Young’s conclusion, and that the fretted guiterne moresche was a western European development of the fretless central and eastern European koboz.

My reasoning is as follows.

Johannes de Grocheio, De musica, c. 1300, uses the term, quitarra sarracenica, Saracen gittern. Jean Corbechon, De proprietatibus rerum, 1372, a French translation of Bartholomeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum (The properties of things), c. 1240, refers to the guisterne de barbarie, barbaric gittern. Payment for minstrels in the records of John II, Duke of Normandy, 1348-50, and King Charles V, 1364, record that they played the guiterne moresche. All these sources thereby show awareness of the fretted gittern’s Saracen or Moorish heritage. This is confirmed in the Berkeley theory manuscript (Berkeley MS 744), Paris, before 1361, in which a citole is given the tuning c’ d’ g’ c’’, followed by the commentary that “Thebeus the Arab loosened the lower string, adjusting a fourth between it and its neighbour” to give the gittern a tuning of a d’ g’ c’’. Though the term Moorish gittern is not used in the Berkeley manuscript, the link is clearly suggested by reference to Thebeus the Arab loosening the lower string to give gittern tuning.

According to Libro de buen amor (The book of good love), c. 1330, by Castilian poet Juan Ruiz, the gittern was considered unsuitable for Moorish or Arabian music. He states that the laud (lute) and viüela de pénola (vihuela with plectrum) are suitable for Arabian music, the çitola (citole) and guitarra (gittern) are not. As explored above, the obvious explanation is that Arabian modes use quartertones, requiring either the freedom of an unfretted neck or a neck with more frets than appear on a western instrument. When Juan Ruiz wrote in c. 1330, the lute was unfretted, and did not gain frets until c. 1400, so that was suitable for Arabian music. The identity of the viüela de pénola is uncertain, but the name suggests an oval-bodied plucked chordophone, and just such an instrument appears twice in the Iberian Cantigas de Santa María, Códice de los músicos, 1257–83 (Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, RBME Cat b-I-2), fretless in both depictions, as we see below.

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

That the gittern – and specifically, the gittern with the adjective Moorish – was fretted is confirmed in writing in the late 14th century by Evrart de Conty, Livre des échecs amoureux moralises (The book of moralised defeats in [the game of] love), in which he states that some “instruments are marked across [by frets] in many places of the strings while guarding the measure[d intervals] mentioned above and the proportions of the monochord for to know where the finger must touch the string, as we see on guyternes mouresques”. This leaves us with the paradox of a Moorish gittern being unsuitable for Moorish music. The implication I draw from this is that, in using terms such as quitarra sarracenica, guisterne de barbarie and guiterne moresche, medieval writers acknowledged the fretless Moorish origin of the gittern, i.e. the koboz. When the koboz was fretted by Europeans to become the gittern, it was rendered unsuitable for Moorish music. Since the koboz and gittern are alike in outline and construction, this suggests that the thick, wide, fretless and unfrettable eastern koboz neck was reshaped to be able to take frets, thus becoming the western gittern. If so, then the koboz is to the gittern what the oud is to the lute, an oriental fretless instrument that was absorbed into occidental culture by being slightly reshaped and then fretted.

In two works by French poet and song writer, Guillaume de Machaut, there are references to the morache. The works are his epic poem with music, Remède de fortune, before 1357, and Prise d’Alexandrie, c. 1370–77, a poetic chronicle of the chivalric deeds of Peter I of Cyprus. Morache may be a shortening of guiterne moresche, but given that this would be a unique abbreviation – all the other references being various spellings of guiterne – another explanation may be necessary. My conjectural suggestion is that morache may have been used to evoke the fretted guiterne moresche in the minds of readers and listeners, and using only the word morache may have indicated its Moorish fretlessness, i.e. that it was the koboz. This cannot be proven, but I add as circumstantial support that this is a French source, that French sources are prominent in the secure and potential sightings of kobzas in western iconography and that, of the written references to the quitarra sarracenica, guisterne de barbarie and guiterne moresche, all but one are French, meaning that the association between the gittern and its origin in the fretless koboz was particularly strong in France.

There is work yet to be done on the medieval and renaissance koboz, and I hope others will do further digging on written and iconographical evidence. But the first building block is certain: the Elbląg instrument is not a fretted gittern, but a fretless koboz; the koboz appears clearly in medieval and renaissance iconography in central and western Europe; and it played an important role in music-making from the royal court to the humble hovel. 

IX. Why the Elbląg koboz is important

Three views of the Elbląg koboz.

I believe there are three reasons the discovery of the Elbląg koboz – and its correct identification – is important.

First, for completion and accuracy, that the history of a ‘lost’ medieval and renaissance instrument be recovered, that its place in historical music-making may cease to be hidden from modern scholarship.  

Second, that the totalitarianism and cultural destruction by the Nazis and Soviets (recounted in the first article) not be allowed to prevail in any area of life, including music scholarship. 

Third, the social status of the instrument. When the luthier Paul Baker had completed carving his copy of the decorated head of the Elbląg koboz (Paul’s copy below left, the original right), he emailed me with his usual humour to say “I was rather pleased with this until I reflected that the ability to approximately reproduce awful medieval carvings is perhaps not a major achievement.” I replied, “It looks like the original, which is why I like it. It’s a curious mixture of an attempt to be like an ornate instrument played by the well-off, but clearly carved for someone on a budget and by someone with limited skills. I can’t recall any other examples like it and, in that sense, it’s a very interesting historical artefact.”

The same could be said of the Płock fiddle, discovered in Poland in 1985, dated to the mid-16th century, and the other instruments found in Elbląg (described in the first article). It is precisely their roughness that makes them special. The overwhelming majority of extant stringed medieval and renaissance instruments have survived because of their obvious quality, sometimes with ornate and extravagant decoration. Each of these surviving instruments is a valuable insight into what was coming out of the workshops of such masters as Hans Oth or Ott (gittern maker), Georg Gerle and Vendelio Venere (respectively lute makers), Joachim Tielke (maker of violins, guitars, viola da gambas, bell citterns, and lutes), and so on. But what of the instruments played by those whose budgets could not stretch to such luxury, more roughly fashioned, perhaps home-made? The music of such impoverished commoners is all but lost to us, and all their instruments, too, with the exceedingly rare exceptions of the Elbląg and Płock discoveries.  


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



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