The vielle or medieval fiddle was the most popular instrument in its heyday for secular song accompaniment. It first appeared in western Europe in the 11th century and continued to be played until the middle of the 16th century, flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries. There is a wealth of vielle iconography, which can tell us a great deal about the variety of its form and the context of its use. There is a medieval source for its tuning, Jerome of Moravia in the 13th century, who gives 3 tunings for 5 strings, leaving us with some puzzles as to what exactly they mean in practice, and whether they can be applied to fiddles with fewer than 5 strings. Our only renaissance tuning source is Johannes Tinctoris in the 15th century, which isn’t entirely clear in its meaning.
This page provides a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth or bowed lyre, demonstrating that they were identical in style, having more in common with the hurdy gurdy family than modern bowed strings.
There are two editions of this article. This one includes detailed analysis. For a brief introduction, go to On the medieval fiddle: a short introduction to the vielle.
The importance of the vielle
The importance of the vielle in mid to late medieval European culture is clear from surviving historical artefacts, paintings and manuscripts. From the 12th century on, the vielle was associated in literature with both amateur and professional players (along with the citole and harp), as an instrument to play dance music; to accompany others’ secular songs; to self-accompany secular singing; and, perhaps surprisingly, as an accompaniment to religious song.
The vielle found favour in royal and noble households. The seal of Bertan II, Count of Forcalquier, France, dated 1168, has him armed with a sword and shield on horseback on one side, and sat playing a vielle on the other; King Ottokar II of Bohemia, writing in the early 13th century, gave the names of 17 fiddlers at King Manfred of Sicily’s court, implying that there were many others; and Duchess Isabella, wife of Duke Philip the Good in 15th century Burgundy, employed two blind Portuguese lutenists who also played vielle and other “soft”, i.e. indoor, instruments.
The medieval fiddle is a regular element in decorated manuscripts and paintings of the period, and features in religious paintings played by angels or humans in attendance of the holy, sometimes on its own, often among other instruments.
Minstrels, servant musicians in the employ of wealthy households, used the fiddle to accompany others’ singing; and jongleurs, French musician-poets who performed both in the service of the wealthy and freelance, used it to accompany dancing and their own singing of chansons de geste, songs of heroic deeds, a popular genre in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The troubadours, French Provençal lyric poets and singers of the 11th to 13th centuries, now have the reputation of having the vielle as their favoured instrument, as do the trouvères, the epic poets and singers of northern France in the 11th to 14th centuries. This idea seems to have arisen from two 13th century manuscript depictions of the troubadour Perdigon playing the fiddle, and from an account of the French trouvère, Blondel de Nesle, searching for Richard the Lionheart, King Richard I of England. The mid-13th century Récits d’un Ménestrel de Reims (Stories of the Minstrel of Reims), relates that Blondel wandered for a year through strange lands in search of Richard, his captive master. Arriving at the castle of the Duke of Austria, Blondel heard the King, high in the tower, singing an unspecified song only the two of them knew. Blondel returned to the room in which he was staying and played the vielle with joy. He left for England to tell the story so that emissaries could bargain for Richard’s freedom. It has been repeated in many accounts since. For our purpose, the key feature is the inclusion of a vielle. This does not tell us, however, how any other particular troubadour and trouvère accompanied songs, or indeed if they did.
Distinctive structural features
The consensus of the many available vielle images demonstrate a range of distinctive structural features that distinguish it from any modern bowed instrument.
The first is the option, on a 5 string vielle only, of a bourdon. Harps and psalteries had bourdons, too. In their case, it was a low pitched string, sometimes pitched several steps below the next string in the sequence, that acted as a drone string. In the case of the vielle, it was a low-pitched string placed off the fingerboard and attached to the side of the pegbox by passing through a hole, so it could only be played open. As we see from the angle at which the bourdon leaves the bridge to reach the pegbox on the angel in green painting on the right, this made it possible to play the bourdon by plucking with the left thumb. Dominican friar and music theorist, Jerome of Moravia, writing in c. 1280, made it clear that the bourdon could also be bowed.
The second and third features are a variety of body shapes, some very wide, and a variety of bridges. The bridge height was either less than its width or equal to its width (unlike on a violin), making for a low action (the relative height of the strings to the instrument). The iconography suggests most strongly that the bridge was often flat, unlike the marked arc of a violin bridge, severely limiting the angle at which strings can be bowed and positively necessitating drone playing on most or all strings at once. This fits the logic of the tuning system, as will see below.
Above we see illustrations of the three types of bridge on a vielle. In all these cases, there is a separate string-holder which has a particular effect on string pressure, creating downward tension on the soundboard, whereas a fixed and glued bridge without a string-holder creates an upward pressure on the soundboard.
On the left, from Hans Memling, Angel Musicians, Antwerp, 1480s, we see a flat bridge and therefore strings of equal height. Often this would be a simple wooden block. In this case and in some other iconography, the block is castellated, possibly to allow tuning of individual strings. Luthier Chris Doddridge tells me that castellation also has a beneficial effect on string vibration and overall timbre. Castellated bridge or not, strings would generally have to be bowed as a humming block.
In the centre is a detail of a vielle from Sano di Pietro’s Madonna enthroned with baby, Siena, c. 1428. Here we see a bridge with a definite arc, probably not at an angle sufficient to easily allow the playing of single strings, but enough to bow adjacent courses without having to bow all strings at once. This vielle has a bourdon (which will be significant in a later discussion).
On the right, in a detail from Sano di Pietro, Assumption of the Virgin, 1448-52, the strings are on a flat plane, tied onto the string holder which is supported by a post.
Overall, historical images show us a range of sizes; a variety of shapes, most typically having a body shaped as an oblong box with rounded edges or with a gently curving waist; the neck was sometimes fretted with gut, more often unfretted; string numbers were usually 4 or 5, but sometimes 3 and possibly 6; it was played on the shoulder or against the upper chest; and played with bows of various sizes, lengths and curvatures.
Left: Two details from The Way of Salvation fresco in the Spanish Chapel, Florence, by Andrea di Bonaiuto, 1365. Here we see the low, flat bridge and the use of a bourdon on a 5 string vielle. The position of the thumb and bow suggests the bourdon here is plucked while the other strings are bowed. The illustration bottom right, from the Boethius manuscript, De Musica, 14th century, suggests this, too. Compare the shape and the low height of the vielle bridge from the green angel in the Immaculate Conception Altarpiece above and from The Way of Salvation fresco with that on the detail of the baroque violin, top right, from Orazio Gentileschi, Young Woman Playing a Violin, c. 1612. The low, flat vielle bridge would facilitate playing all the strings as one sonic block, not possible on the curved violin bridge, and would make the vielle much fuller-sounding but quieter than the violin.
A variety of sizes, shapes, strings, and bourdon / fret choices (click picture to open in new window).
From left to right:
Lincoln Cathedral, 13th century: 5 strings, no bourdon, fretless.
Gloucester Cathedral, c. 1280: 3 strings, fingerboard not visible.
From the Chapel of San Nicola in Tolentino, Italy, after 1305: 5 strings, bourdon, fretless.
Manuscript in Austria, c. 1300–1350 (Universitätsbibliothek Graz 32, fol. 106v): 4 apparent strings but 6 pegs, no bourdon, apparently fretted. There are occasional depictions of 6 string vielles. Does this image suggest 6 strings in 3 or 4 courses, or is this artistic license we shouldn’t take literally?
Hans Memling, Antwerp, 1480s: 5 strings, no bourdon, fretted.
Nomenclature: fiddle, vielle, rebec
Some modern writers about medieval instruments will sometimes use the generalised term fiddle to signify any bowed instrument, rather than the more specific terms vielle or rebec, for example. In doing so, such writers are, in a way, following the vagueness of collective medieval music commentators, who were wont to use the same word to mean several apparently unrelated instruments (more explanation of which in the first section of this article), or they used different words to denote the same instrument. Modern writers following suit doesn’t help us today in the task of categorisation in the service of understanding. What was the difference between the vielle and the rebec?
The first evidence of the word rebek is in an early 12th century table of Arabic and Latin terms (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, Ms. lat. 14754). However, there is no illustration. Bearing in mind the slippery problem of medieval instrument naming, we cannot be sure what rebek meant in this context.
Some vielles and all rebecs share a piriform shape when viewed from the top, so they need further criteria to distinguish between them: rebecs had a sickle-shape peg-box, a round back, 3 strings and were (usually) fretless, appearing from c. 1400; whereas the vielle had a variety of peg-box shapes, a flat back, and 3 to 5 or possibly 6 strings, appearing from the 11th century.
Christopher Page (1987) observes a further distinctive factor of instrument names built upon r-b – rubeba, rubeb, rubeba, rebecca, rebeccum, rebec: their small size. Jerome of Moravia in the 13th century, and Jean Charlier de Gerson and Johannes Tinctoris respectively in the 15th century, all describe the rebeba / rebecca / rebecum as small, or smaller than the vielle. Since small and large are relative terms and the vielle was made in a range of sizes, this distinction, though generally useful, is difficult to apply practically in some cases.
The are two late surviving English fiddles. Ironically, they were not preserved through being in someone’s private collection, but because they sank to the bottom of the Solent – the strait between the Isle of Wight and mainland of England – on board Henry VIII’s ship, the Mary Rose, on 19th July 1545. It wasn’t until 1971 that the wreck was discovered, and not until 1978 that the initial excavation work began. Unsurprisingly, then, neither of the found instruments have survived intact; but the remains do show that they were carved from solid wood, as we would expect of a vielle.
The elongated box shape with rounded edges was common for a medieval fiddle, and these examples show that this general shape continued into the mid 16th century. However, the inward curves of the four corners give these instruments an unusual outline compared with earlier fiddles and they are considerably smaller than one would expect at 12 centimetres across. They are similar in proportion, though different in outline, to two instruments shown in Italian painter Cosmè Tura’s Madonna with the Child Enthroned, a panel from the Roverella Polyptych, painted in 1474. A similar instrument is shown on a table in A Concert, 1485-95, by another Italian painter, Lorenzo Costa, and a 1524 engraving by Dutch artist Lucas van Leyden shows an instrument with a very similar shape, but larger and apparently with a bowl back. Since the lute’s 4 single strings and only 4 frets in the same depiction are impossible, the accuracy of the bowed instrument is a moot point. These instruments may be related to the Mary Rose fiddles.
Three vielle tunings
Though we have plenty of iconography for the vielle, its manner of playing needs some decoding. We have one key medieval source for its tuning, Tractatus de Musica, written in Paris in c. 1280 by Dominican friar and music theorist, Jerome of Moravia, and another source, also Parisian, from before 1361, more of which below. Tractatus de Musica was written for inexperienced church musicians, for “the friars of our orders or of another”, to help them understand and perform ecclesiastical chant.
In the final short chapter, Jerome moved his attention to bowed strings and, for this reason, Jerome’s writing is very special for early music researchers, being the earliest surviving record of the construction and tuning of medieval instruments. He described the two-stringed “rubeba”, meaning a rebab, stating that it is less important than the “viella”, the medieval fiddle. Jerome was moved to give instruction on the religious and secular use of the vielle, showing that in his day it was considered a suitable instrument for accompanying church music.
Jerome described the vielle as an instrument for singers to self-accompany; for heterophony, i.e. for playing simultaneously different versions of same melody so that, for example, at one point in the tune the voice may fall but the fiddle rise, creating a brief harmony, perhaps particularly at a point where that note is not available on the fiddle due to its tuning (as we’ll soon see); and biphonic music, i.e. a melody over a drone.
He wrote that the vielle “has, or should have, 5 strings.” The iconography shows that both 4 string and 5 string vielles, and some apparent vielles with 3 strings, were widespread. The first string on the 5 string fiddle is used as a bourdon in two of Jerome’s three tunings. Since there is no evidence of bourdon practice on the 3 or 4 string fiddle, perhaps Jerome considered this option, only available with 5 strings, to be integral to the instrument, his “should have 5 strings.” His three tunings mark the vielle out as very different from other European bowed instruments, then or now, and the tunings he described help us make sense of the vielle’s flat bridge.
Before we turn to that, a quick note about the Guidonian hand, the theoretical range of available notes in medieval music, which will soon become important.
The Guidonian hand and medieval modes
Guido of Arezzo (Guido d’Arezzo, Guido da Arezzo or Guido Aretinus) was an 11th century Italian Benedictine monk seminal to the development of music, responsible for creating the first version of modern musical staff notation, which eventually supplanted earlier neumatic notation. (For an explanation of neumes, see Bird on a briar: interpreting medieval notation, with a HIP harp arrangement.)
Guido saw the need for some musical education, as some monks found the melodies of Gregorian chants difficult to memorise. So he created the hexachord, a six note scale whose note names derive from the first syllable of the first six phrases of the then-familiar hymn, Ut Queant Laxis, those syllables being ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la – which is, of course, the basis for the now-familiar eight note scale, do, re, mi, fa, so(l), la, ti, do.
The hexachord was later developed into the Guidonian hand, an ingenious chart of all available notes in his system, mapped onto the hand by associating each note with a joint, fingertip or the palm. You can see an entertaining video of (an updated version of) the Guidonian hand in action by clicking on the picture below (opens in new window). Lovers of Sacred Harp music will notice a similarity.
A modern musician may notice something which appears odd about all the available notes in the medieval gamut: there are B naturals and B flats, but no other note is available either flattened or sharpened. This is not an omission, but integral to the way medieval modes worked.
All modern major scales work to the same musical principles, with identical gaps between the 8 notes of the scale: so C major and D major sound the same, except that D major starts a tone higher, in this case making F into F# and C into C# to maintain the same pattern of tones and semitones in all major scales. It is not so with modes, which lacked sharps and flats, except for the occasional use of Bb, to avoid the tritone – three tones – between B♮ and F, when sung one against the other. This means that the relationship between notes for a mode starting on D (dorian) is different to a mode starting on E (phrygian). In addition, each medieval mode has a returning note which plays a key role in the melody, this note known as the tenor, tuba, dominant, repercussa, or reciting note; and each mode has its own characteristic figures or melodic clusters of notes. Add to this the fact that some modes started and ended in the same place, known as authentic modes, and others started on one note and finished on another, known as plagal modes, and we see that the medieval conception of sound was unlike ours.
The gamut notes in this system were known as musica recta or musica vera, meaning right or true music. It is precisely in these terms that Jereme of Moravia described the notes on the vielle. This implies that any changed notes – flattened or sharpened from the gamut notes – were wrong: each mode had a particular sound and was associated with a particular mood, so changing notes would sully the nature of the mode or mood. However, by the early 14th century, ecclesiastical singers did sharpen or flatten change notes in performance (rather than in writing), calling those altered notes musica ficta or musica falsa, meaning feigned or false music. (For a fuller explanation, see the section, Medieval modes, in this article.)
Of course, what the church taught for ecclesiastical music and what people actually did in secular music are two different prospects and, as we’ll soon see, Jerome of Moravia’s three vielle tunings take account of this.
Tuning 1: d’ – d’ – g – G – d bourdon
In Jerome’s day we are a long way historically from fixed or standardised pitch, so the important aspect of these tunings is the relationship of the notes to each other, rather than the modern idea of absolute pitch. What sets the theoretical relationship is the note G, the lowest note of these tunings and the lowest possible theoretical note in the gamut.
On modern bowed instruments, we tend to count strings from the highest string down: Jerome works from the other side, so I have given his tunings above and below in reverse order to his written account. Two of the tunings he describes are re-entrant, meaning they do not strictly follow the pitch order of high to low (or, as Jerome writes it, low to high). Since one string does not follow this low to high pattern, the next string has to re-enter the sequence, hence the term.
While the same gut string can be quite forgiving being tuned to different pitches and therefore at different tensions, these 3 tunings cannot be accommodated on a single instrument with the same set of strings, as no gut string can be tuned successfully to the tensions required for both G and d, or both g’ and d’. In this sense, vielle tunings are like baroque guitar tunings, in that there were three different ways of tuning that could only be effected by changing strings or having three different instruments.
How was the bourdon used on the vielle? Jerome of Moravia wrote a passage about its use that is not immediately clear: “that which is most difficult, serious and excellent in this art: to know how to reply with the bourdon in the first harmonies to any note from which any melody is woven”. Reply with the bourdon? First harmonies? Pierre de Limoges, who owned the only complete copy of the Tractatus, felt this needed an explanation, and added a note before 1306: “The d bourdon must not be touched with the thumb or the bow save when the other strings, touched by the bow, produce notes with which the bourdon will make any of the aforesaid consonances, that is to say: fifth, fourth, octave, and so on.” “And so on” seems to mean unisons and the octaves above the intervals he mentions. Pierre takes Jerome’s “reply with the bourdon” to mean the bourdon is not sounded continuously as a drone or arbitrarily, but is only ever sounded in consonance with the bowed strings. Though the bourdon can only sound one note, this description suggests that on the vielle the bourdon was not considered a drone string, but a harmonic string, and it therefore has no application to drone technique, even on the vielle, which was often a humming drone instrument. The description perhaps suggests that the vielle bourdon was only bowed or plucked as emphasis at resolving consonant cadences, though this is not stated explicitly.
In the first tuning, the 5th string d is a bourdon, plucked or bowed open. The next string, tuned to G, can play only G, A, B and c, according to Jerome, thus assuming that the player will not move out of first position, which appears to be a universal assumption in this period. The third string is tuned to g, so plays the notes an octave above the second string: g, a, b and c’. The 1st and 2nd strings are both tuned to d’ and so, Jerome states, they can play d’, e’, f’ and g’ and, with the application of the little finger, a’. This means the notes e and f are missing, supplied by the 2 top strings at the octave above.
This begs two related questions: In what kind of music is it permissible to have notes missing in the sequence which can only be played instead at the upper octave? And what sort of music is intended with a bourdon that can only pluck or bow a drone? Jerome implies an answer when he states that “a vielle tuned in this fashion can play all the [church] modes”. So if, as Jerome implies, this was a tuning for church music, therefore likely to be accompanying voices singing in different octaves, then it doesn’t matter if two missing notes in the sequence are transposed up or down an octave. Whether this tuning was used in other contexts or exclusively in a church setting is impossible to know.
Christopher Page (1979, 1987) makes suggestions for vielle tuning which go beyond Jerome’s statements, which he writes are on “uncertain ground”, but which do help make sense of Jerome’s intent more readily and logically: the flat bridge necessitates playing all strings except the bourdon at once, and the adjacent strings in unison or octaves were paired courses. On this basis, for the first tuning he proposes 3 courses: d’/d’ – G/g – d bourdon. This makes an octave between the bourdon and the highest-pitched bowed course. Played as a block of strings with a flat bridge, this would produce parallel moving octaves (octave organum) on the middle course which come and go, depending on whether this course is playing the tune or an open drone.
Some iconography suggests that all 5 strings of the fiddle were played singly; other images of fiddles certainly do confirm Christopher Page’s conjecture in the first tuning. Whether all 5 string fiddles had double courses, so iconography suggesting otherwise is inaccurate, or there was variety on this matter, is impossible to state with certainty.
Tuning 2: g’ – d’ – g – G – d
The second tuning is the same as the first, except that the highest string is raised from d’ to g’, and the 5th string d is not a bourdon.
The second of Jerome’s vielle tunings is, he states, “necessary for secular and all other kinds of songs, especially irregular ones, which frequently wish to run through the whole hand.” A little decoding may be necessary: “irregular” songs are either those employing musica ficta, or otherwise songs that do not follow the ecclesiastical modes, hence “secular and all other kinds of songs”; and “the whole hand” is the Guidonian hand, the whole gamut, as described above.
Christopher Page’s flat-bridge solution to tuning 2 is 4 courses: g’ – d’ – g/G – d. With the d string not a bourdon drone and the highest string now up to g’, this tuning has (almost) the whole gamut of two octaves and a sixth available (it has two octaves and a fifth, as e’’ doesn’t seem to be possible) while, assuming a flat bridge, the non-stopped strings continue to play drones. All strings are single except for the octaves on the g/G course, so it retains an element of octave organum. On this octave course, the ear would automatically pick out the octave intended for the melody and hear the other octave as parallel organum (as is also true on the octave course of, for example, the renaissance cittern, in my experience).
It may be quite a shock to the modern ear to hear all of those strings being played at once as a drone block except for the one melody note being picked out. We don’t have evidence for which of these tunings were used with a curved bridge, enabling the player to select single strings, but the arrangement of pitches in this tuning, meaning that all notes are available in first position to “run through the whole hand”, makes it the best curved bridge candidate. However, if the details of the vielle in Sano di Pietro’s Madonna enthroned with baby are correct (shown above among the illustrations of bridges), showing an arced bridge and the bourdon which the second tuning lacks, then the first tuning that “can play all the [church] modes” is the best candidate for the arced bridge. It all depends on the accuracy of Sano di Pietro’s depiction, which is something we cannot corroborate.
Tuning 3: c’ – c’ – d – G – G
Played as 5 single strings with a curved bridge, this tuning is impossibly odd. A copy of Jerome’s treatise came into the possession of Jerome’s contemporary Pierre of Limoges, who annotated his copy sometime before 1306. Jerome is clear that the first tuning has a bourdon and the second does not. Of the third tuning, Jerome makes no comment about a bourdon, but Pierre’s additional notes identifies the first G as a bourdon.
An anonymous commentator added, “I do not see how note b is sounded”, and neither can I. Jerome didn’t state what kind of music this tuning is designed for and, if Pierre de Limoges knew, he didn’t write it down.
Christopher Page’s flat bridge solution for string arrangement is 3 courses as c’/c’ – d – G/G, or 4 courses as c’/c’ – d – G – G bourdon. It may appear that, with the bridge completely flat, with a constant “humming block” (as Christopher Page evocatively calls it), it doesn’t matter if the strings are arranged singly or in courses. For the bowing hand, this is true; but for the stopping or fretting hand, it is most important, as two strings placed together in unison or in octave courses need to be placed such that they can be stopped together.
Christopher Page suggests that because some notes are missing in tuning 1, playable only at the octave above, then it is conceivable to have many more missing notes in tuning 3, and not available at all, with the melody played only on course c’-c’, and with d and G-G playing only drones. Realistically, this only gives the player a range of a fifth. He cites the only surviving example of a chanson de geste melody, Audigier, dit Raimberge, which has a range of only a fourth and could therefore be played in this tuning. He argues that if we cease to think of the vielle as a melodic instrument, but as an accompanying instrument, then the tuning could work in the suggested way. He may be right, but the circumstantial evidence of a single song doesn’t seem strong grounds on which to base a whole repertoire for a tuning with such a small range.
I’m going to suggest that there is a more viable and historically-attested solution for tuning 3, arrived at through comparison with crwth tuning and technique.
The implications of crwth technique and tuning
The European bowed lyre or bowed rote was a development that emerged in AD 900–1000 from the plucked lyre, which dates back to 2000 BC. Forms of this bowed instrument with a flat bridge have been known by various names in different times and places, with various numbers of strings: crwth (Welsh), crowth, crouth, crowde (Middle English), crout (French), cruit (Gaelic), crot, cruit (Irish), chrotta, hrotta (German), talharpa, tagelharpa, stråkharpa (Scandinavia), jouhikko (Finland).
The crowth flourished in western Britain from the 11th century, and pockets of crwth players continued to play in Wales right through to the 19th century. Before the 16th century there is, unfortunately, no surviving crwth iconography in Wales, but plentiful literary evidence of its importance in Welsh musical culture. In Llyfr Taliesin (Book of Taliesin), Peniarth MS 2, 14th century, for example, are the poetic words of the deceased Marwnat Vthyr Pen[dragon] who, among his boasts of violent daring deeds …
Neu vi a torreis cant kaer.
Neu vi aledeis cant maer.
Neu vi arodeis cant llen.
Neu vi aledeis cant pen.
I broke a hundred forts.
I slew a hundred stewards.
I bestowed a hundred mantles.
I cut off a hundred heads.
… he lists his musical skills:
Wyf bard ac wyf telynawr.
Wyf pibyd ac wyf crythawr.
Seith vgein kerdawr dygoruawr
I am a bard, and I am a harper,
I am a piper, and I am a crythor [crwth player].
Of seven score musicians, the very great enchanter.
On a depiction of a (bowed?) lyre of the 11th century, in Durham Cathedral Library, MS Hunter 100, folio 62v (above left), we have the first indication on a lyre of bourdon drone strings, 2 strings positioned across the bridge and then off the fingerboard which, on a bowed instrument, would be either plucked by the player’s left thumb or bowed. The evidence for the bourdon strings then becomes problematic, since this feature does not appear again in surviving evidence until the 14th century. There are two possibilities: that bourdons on lyres were in use from the 11th century continuously, but the evidence has not survived; or that the use of bourdons came and went. The first scenario would certainly be neater, but it is the second which fits the current evidence. Bowed lyres of c. 1385 onwards looked recognisably similar to the modern crwth with bourdons, such as the instrument now kept at Saint Fagan’s National History Museum, Cardiff (pictured below), made by Richard Evans of Llanfihangel Bachellaeth, Caernarfonshire, in 1742.
Bowing the bourdon is possible as the crwth has no pegbox and all strings are on the same plane. Bourdon bowing and plucking was still used in 1768-9 (testified by British Library Add. MS 15020:91) and until the instrument’s demise in the 19th century. Since this practice began in the 11th century and became commonplace in the mid to late 14th century, we can speculate that either the 5 string vielle with a bourdon was influenced by the crwth, or that the crwth took on a feature of the vielle. Either way, the bordon, the flat bridge and their tuning links the two instruments.
For our purpose, it is the tuning of the flat-bridged crwth that is of most importance. In his A Tour Round North Wales, volume ii (London, 1804), William Bingley interviewed a crwth-player in Caernarfon, who gave a 3 course tuning of fifths doubled with octaves. In relative terms (the actual pitches may vary), he gave the tuning as b’/b – e’/e – a/A. That tuning is clearly very late for our purposes. Jerome’s vielle tunings only had one interval of a fifth: this crwth tuning, with two fifth intervals, may have been influenced by the violin, given the date. Certainly, a tuning in fifths does not sit easily on an instrument with a flat bridge.
There is a tuning recorded slightly earlier, which is not possible on the same strings. British Library Add. MS 15020:91, dated 1768-9, with a copy in Wales now known as Aberystwyth MS 168:6, gives relative pitch instructions which are very clear. The strings are tuned: d’/d – c/c’ – g/G. This tuning is accepted by researchers and players as traditional for the instrument. This cannot be proven and I’m going to need to convince you of its relevance. We are comparing two different instruments, and there is a gap of nearly 500 years between Jerome of Moravia’s description of vielle tuning in c. 1280 and the nearly identical British Library ms. description of crwth tuning in 1768-9.
The available notes in Jerome’s third vielle tuning, c’ – c’ – d – G – G are, low to high and presuming no bourdon, G A B c d e f g a c’ d’ e’ f’ g’. The available notes on the crwth in the similar tuning, d’-d, c-c’, g-G bourdon, are almost identical. The only differences are the availability of A and B on the vielle but not the crwth, and the addition of a’ on the crwth. An anonymous commentator wrote in the margin of Jerome’s manuscript for his third vielle tuning, “I do not see how note b is sounded”, and the same is true in crwth tuning.
So both the 5 string vielle and the crwth employ a bourdon off the fingerboard; a flat bridge to effect a block of strings played as a drone; both use strings in courses tuned in octaves; and Jerome’s third vielle tuning is, for all practical purposes, virtually identical to traditional crwth tuning. I suggest that there are no significant differences in playing technique between the two instruments. This needs some explanation.
To make the point clear, there follows two almost identical paragraphs on actual crwth technique and my imputed vielle technique in the third tuning, with some words in bold for ease of comparison.
Crwth. With the melody played on the flat-bridged crwth on the d’/d course, we have a c/c’ g/G drone. Thinking in modern terms, we could say this is nominally a modern C chord without a third. Playing the melody on the c/c’ course gives a d’-d g-G drone, so nominally a modern G chord without a third. This means, in modern terms, we have practical drones for I and V in nominal C, or drones for I and IV in nominal G, constantly available. This changing accompanying drone is established crwth technique.
Vielle. With the melody played on the flat-bridged vielle in the third tuning on string d, we have a c’/c’ G/G drone. Thinking in modern terms, we could say this is nominally a C chord without a third. Playing the melody on the c’/c’ course gives a d G/G drone, so nominally a modern G chord (without a third). This means, in modern terms, we have practical drones for I and V in nominal C, or drones for I and IV in nominal G, constantly available. This changing accompanying drone appears to have been vielle technique in the third tuning.
The string spacing on the crwth is such that gaps between strings of a course are smaller than between courses, as one would expect, enough to identify each pair of strings. At the same time, the gaps between the two strings of a course are still enough that a player can easily chose to split the course, to stop one or the other octave of a course, or stop both together. A significant amount of iconography of the medieval fiddle appears to show equal string spacing: it could be that double-strung fiddle courses had similar string spacing, that looked equal to a non-player, enabling the vielle player to split a course when required, as on the crwth.
Aberystwyth MS 168:6 gives crwth tuning as d’/d – c/c’ – g/G, very close to Jerome’s third tuning, c’/c’ – d – G/G. There are differences: c-c’ on the crwth becomes c’-c’ in Jerome, d’-d becomes d, and the order of these courses is reversed. The crwth’s re-entrant tuning makes a world of difference as to whether this matters, particularly when there’s a flat bridge, as with the crwth and quite possibly Jerome’s third tuning. On plucked instruments with octave stringing, such as the early renaisssance lute and cittern, tablatures sometimes make deliberate use of the octaves. For example, a phrase begun on upper unison strings may continue in the same octave on lower courses, making use of the upper octaves of lower courses. The ear doesn’t hear this as odd, but automatically picks out the appropriate octave and hears the other octave as additional. This being the case, with the flat bridge on the crwth and presumably in Jerome’s third tuning, the open strings c’ d G are in common, and the octaves of the crwth make the octave effect just described entirely possible, making the reversal of the top two courses in string order potentially irrelevant, at least when making use of octaves as just described. In addition, presuming both have flat bridges, whichever course the melody is played on would produce, for practical purposes, identical drones on the crwth and in Jerome’s third tuning, described above. There appears to be a very real and practical relationship between the way these tunings function.
So what looked like an unpromising vielle tuning has a playable range of two octaves, with only the note b missing, which is available at the lower octave if we work on the same principle as Jerome’s first tuning, that missing notes in one octave can be played in another. In practice, this can clearly only be achieved if the whole phrase with b in it is played at the lower octave. In any case, the missing note b could simply give rise to a moment’s heterophony. If, for example, the fiddle is tracking the vocal melody for a tune that goes from c’ to b (for example), the player could simply have a moment’s harmony and play c’ to d’. The player may not be tracking the vocal melody at all, in which case the problem goes away.
It is tempting to suggest that these two instruments are so closely related that it cannot be a coincidence. Though there is no direct evidence, it may be that the vielle was a development of the bowed lyre, just as the crowd/crwth was a development of the lyre. Both crwth and vielle use tunings designed around open strings c d and g in different octaves, and both bring out an alternative drone when a different course is used to play the melody. The drones available for crwth and vielle are functionally identical.
Above is a detail and the whole of Pluto and Persephone enthroned, from Le livre des échecs amoureux moralisés (The book of moralised defeats in [the game of] love), a late 15th century manuscript by Evrart de Conty, illuminated by Robinet Testard, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (BNF Fr 143). In the background and right we have harpers; but what is the instrument being held in the left corner? It is usually identified as a rebec but clearly it is not: it has four strings; a wide body making the playing of individual strings impossible; and therefore of necessity a flat bridge. Its body shape has both crwth and vielle characteristics.
Certainty is impossible, but it is tempting to link the 3 styles of bridges to the 3 tunings. It seems sensible to suggest that tunings 1 and 3 required a flat bridge, while tuning 2 was played with a curved bridge; or that all tunings could be played with a flat bridge, but only tuning 2 could be played with a curved bridge.
4 and 3 string fiddle tunings: some suggestions
Now let’s turn to another gap in the historical record, and see if we can reach viable and justifiable answers. Above we discussed that Jerome of Moravia stated that the vielle “has, or should have, 5 strings.” What this means is open to interpretation. It appears to indicate that some vielles had fewer than 5 strings, but Jerome didn’t favour them. Certainly, there were instruments that appear visually to be vielles with fewer strings, such as that carved in Beverley Minster, c. 1335-50, seen below, which clearly shows 4 strings in 2 paired courses. The following discussion makes the assumption that instruments with fewer than 5 strings which appear to be vielles were indeed considered to be vielles. Though evidence is lacking, it seems sensible to suggest, on the basis that 4 string fiddles did not have a bourdon, that they were tuned as 5 string fiddles but without the potential bourdon string, what Jerome calls the first string. This may be the reason Jerome gives no tunings for 4 or 3 string fiddles, since they “should have” 5 strings, i.e. they “should have” the possibility of a bourdon.
In this case, Jerome’s first 5 string tuning, d’ – d’ – g – G – d bourdon, arranged in 3 courses, d’/d’ – G/g – d bourdon, with 4 string in 2 courses becomes d’/d’ – G/g. It now becomes obvious that this tuning on 4 strings comprises an octave course and a unison course, in line with both Christopher Page’s suggestions and crwth practice of doubling strings in octaves. So it is most intriguing that the carving of a 4 string fiddle in Beverley Minster, Yorkshire, England, dated to c. 1335 (below), suggests exactly this arrangement, with a wider gap between the middle strings than between the first two and second two strings, and with a flat bridge. The notes e and f were already missing in this tuning: without the re-entrant d string, d is also lost, available, like the other lost notes, an octave higher. It would also be possible to have this as a 3 string fiddle tuning in 2 courses without losing any range, simply by not doubling the d’ string: d’ – G/g.
Jerome’s second tuning – g’ – d’ – g – G – d, arranged in 4 courses g’ – d’ – g/G – d – lacks a bourdon, giving more potential options for which string to miss with 4 strings. If we work on the conjectural principle that the re-entrant string is always the addition when moving from a 4 string to a 5 string vielle, then the second tuning becomes a 3 course arrangement of an octave pair and 2 single strings – g’ – d’ – g/G – a repeat of the first tuning on 4 strings but with an extended upper range. Without the re-entrant d string, the effect is to lose the notes d, e and f, still available an octave higher. A 3 string fiddle tuning then suggests itself without the lower octave G, 3 single strings – g’ – d’ – g.
Jerome’s third tuning – c’ – c’ – d – G – G – arranged in 3 courses as c’/c’ – d – G/G – also leads us to possibilities for both the 4 string and 3 string vielles: 4 strings would become c’/c’ – d – G in 3 courses, doubling the top c’; with the 3 string fiddle having a single c’.
If these suggestions are correct, then the removal of the bourdon thereby removes re-entrant tuning on the 4 and 3 string vielle; and all tunings with 5 strings are available on 4 and 3 strings, but with a loss of range, as one might expect when reducing string numbers.
That is one solution. Another is to miss out the lowest string. It could be argued that this is a more logical step for the 4 string fiddle. When the lute, over the course of its development, gained a wider range of pitch, it was generally the bottom end that was added. The vielle appeared in the 11th century and Jerome was writing in the 13th, so if the same is true of the vielle as of the lute, then it could be that the 5 string instrument developed from the 4 string when the low G was added in order to achieve the whole gamut, perhaps as string technology improved.
Removing the low G would make the 4 string version of Jerome’s first tuning d’/d’ – g – d bourdon in 4 courses, with an option for the 3 string fiddle of a single d’.
The second tuning would become g’ – d’ – g – d, of necessity 4 single strings.
Using this method of removing the low G, the third tuning c’/c’ – d – G/G would be impossible with 4 strings, as both low Gs would have to be removed. 3 string tuning would have 2 courses – c’/c’ – d – giving a range of d to g’ with b missing, an octave and a fourth. This is a smaller range than Jerome’s fiddle tunings, but there were other instruments with a range of little more than an octave – bagpipes, flutes, flageolets – so the idea is certainly not outlandish.
The first solution for 4 and 3 string vielle tunings retains the integrity of Jerome’s three tunings; the integrity of what the evidence suggests about fiddle drone playing; and the implications of crwth playing style for the fiddle. The second theoretical solution, removing the low G to arrive at 4 and 3 string tunings, undermines the proposed close relationship between the crwth and the vielle, which necessitates the low G. The evidence in the round suggests that if 4 and 3 string fiddle tunings were reduced versions of Jerome’s 5 string tunings, the obvious relationalship between the third fiddle tuning and the crwth makes the first solution more likely.
For the modern player who wishes to stay with 4 single strings rather than strings doubled into courses, a combination of Jerome’s essential open strings d and g is immediately user-friendly and retains the historical drone characteristic. On the basis that it is the relationship between pitches that is important rather than absolute pitch, and that players will have voice pitches and other accompanying instruments to match, musicians always need to make their own creative adaptations. Helen Wilding, fiddler with medieval trio Fleurs de Lys, utilises just such an adaptation for her melody-in-drone playing to suit bagpipes and hurdy gurdy – d’ – g – d – G – very close to my proposed 4 string adaptation of Jerome’s second tuning.
The Berkeley Theory manuscript tuning
Up to 80 years or so after Jerome of Moravia’s treatise, we have a quite different tuning in the Berkeley Theory Manuscript. The author is uncertain, but Christopher Page (1980) has presented strong circumstantial evidence for it being Johannes Vaillant, a 14th century Parisian music teacher, who died in 1361. This puzzlingly neglected source shows a tuning of c’ g d c or c” g’ d’ c’, depending on which octave we judge it to be in. This is, low to high, a tone followed by two fourths, without a bourdon and without Jerome’s re-entrant tuning.
This would be a most unusual tuning for a fiddle, and there is some doubt about the instrument’s identity. Christopher Page works on the assumption that this is a vielle and, as such, comments that the illustration is curious: the usual tail-piece is too short and the wrong shape, and peg boxes, such as those on gitterns and citterns, are often decorated with carved heads or other ornamentation, but to have a carving on a vielle head is unusual, though not completely unique.
My view is that this isn’t a fiddle, but a citole. While the instrument is in one of the shapes used for the vielle, it is also in one of the shapes used for the citole and, if it is such, the decorated peg box is standard. The string-holder or tailpiece is still problematic, but its shortened depiction is not unique, as we see on the citole below left in the minstrels’ window of Lincoln Cathedral, 1385. A citole of a similar shape is seen below right in the minstrels’ gallery of Exeter Cathedral, 1360.
The Berkeley instrument is shown without frets. While fiddles were often fretless and citoles were always fretted, the lack of frets does not preclude this being a citole, since all of the Berkeley illustrations are incomplete, including an apparently fretless gittern on the same page and a harp with only 4 strings. The author drew just enough to make his point.
The name given to the instrument in the text is cithara, which is where the problem arises. Music theorists of the medieval and renaissance periods loved to give instruments antique names, to link them to ancient practice. Thus the cithara, from the Greek kithára (κιθάρα), the Assyrian chetarah, and from the Latin cithara – a lyre for which there is evidence dating back to 1700 BCE – was the same name used indiscriminately by many writers for lyres, harps, psalteries and, indeed, it sometimes seems, for almost any instrument, open-stringed or fretted. The cithara in Berkeley is a case in point, a word by then more associated with the citole than the vielle. What muddies the waters is that ancient Greek comic playwright, Aristophanes, gave the first recorded version of the word for fiddle – but not to describe a fiddle. The Latin fidiculae (fidēs = chord + culae = diminutive suffix) in his play of 405 BCE, Ranae (The Frogs), described a kind of cithara or lyre. The Latin fidiculae gave rise to associated words for both bowed fiddles and plucked vihuelas: the German fidula and videle, the French vielle and viole, the Italian viola and violino, the Spanish viguela and vihuela, the English fithele and fidel, and so on. It can be frustrating and confusing, and that is why, to be certain of a medieval instrument’s identity in a written description where that name has several meanings, it is necessary to corroborate the meaning with the historical/social context, a physical description or an illustration, and they are not always available or conclusive.
My conclusion is that the Berkeley cithara is a citole. If so, this means we don’t have an additional tuning for the vielle, but we do have the only surviving tuning for the citole.
Were there other vielle tunings?: a lesson from the wheel fiddle
Evidence is lacking about fiddle tunings from its early life in the 11th century. Since there were 3 known tunings in France in c. 1280, we can legitimately ask if they were tuned the same way contemporaneously in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and England, and if tunings changed over time.
I suggest a general answer can be reached with a degree of certainty though, without corroborating evidence, a definitive answer is impossible. The structure and tuning of the flat-bridged medieval fiddle (putting aside for the moment those with curved bridges) suggests that it should not be thought of in the same musical category or soundworld as later bowed instruments such as the viola da gamba and violin, which generally function to play a single-line melody, sometimes with adjacent-string harmonies. Rather, the vielle should be associated with the family of instruments which function as a melody played over or within a continuous drone, as with the crwth.
Characterised in this way, there is an instrument which, like the vielle, was used in church music: the organistrum or simfony, which developed in c. 1500 into the vielle à roue.
From the 12th century we have evidence of the organistrum, a large instrument played by two people, one to turn the crank for the rosined wheel which acted like a continuous bow against the strings, and one to lift up the sliders, requiring two hands, which produced notes by shortening the vibrating string length of the strings. Later in the same century a smaller, one person version was developed. Many modern writers call this the simfony (simphonie, symphonia, etc.) and make it distinct from the organistrum, but historically the names organistrum and simfony/sinfony/symphony were interchangeable and referred to the same instrument in its various forms. By c. 1500 this had developed into the wheel fiddle, the vielle à roue, with its rhythmically buzzing bridge, which became known in later times as the hurdy gurdy (from 1749, according to the Oxford English Dictionary).
By the renaissance, the drone of open strings against the melody string was fundamental to its sound. If we assume this was also the case in the medieval period – we must assume this as the medieval evidence is lacking – then it seems sensible to assume that the wheel fiddle, the vielle à roue, gained its name, not just from the wheel acting like a continuous fiddle bow, but also that, or primarily that, the drone strings of the vielle à roue effected the same soundworld as the vielle. Certainly, Jerome’s 13th century drone tunings produce a style of music suited to the 12th and 13th century including, he tells us, sacred music, and the emergence of the vielle à roue in c. 1500 suggests that this style was still played on the vielle then. So, while we can’t say for certain that the exact tunings Jerome gives were used since its emergence (from the crwth?), we can suggest at the very least that the drone principles upon which his fiddle tunings were based remained a constant feature.
The renaissance vielle
The tunings explored so far cover the known and conjectural life of the vielle, but it is not the complete story.
In the 15th century, at the beginning of the renaissance, musical norms were rapidly changing. The vielle was still being played, but was past its dominance of musical culture. The discarding of the quill by lute players, spreading gradually from the 1470s to the 1530s, meant that a single player could produce complex solo polyphony with a wide pitch range using individually moving fingers. This was the dawn of the lute’s dominance of renaissance music. The musical shift which led to this advance led in turn to divergence of practice among fiddlers and some structural changes to the instrument. While the vielle played by the angel in green from the Immaculate Conception Altarpiece (pictured above), painted 1490–99, shows that old practices continued, others innovated, increasing the height of the bridge and normalising its arc such that each string could be individually bowed, thus enabling these fiddlers to play polyphony with others without having to play drones.
To answer this question we have to turn to the only renaissance witness in the matter, Johannes Tinctoris (c. 1435–1511), a Belgian composer and music theorist who lived most of his life in Italy from c. 1472. Tinctoris stated that the 3 string fiddle was tuned in fifths, which is the same tuning as the rebec, and he may have meant the rebec.
The 5 string fiddle, stated Tinctoris, had an arced bridge to facilitate the bowing of individual strings, and was tuned “unevenly in fifths and unisons”. What this means precisely he didn’t state, but Jerome’s first tuning can be seen to fit this description: d’/d’ – G/g – d bourdon has “fifths and unisons”, and the re-entrant tuning and the g/G octave course makes the pitch distribution “uneven”. So it may have been that this tuning continued to the 15th century, except now without the ability to play a drone block with all strings at once, as the bridge was now arced.
What of the 4 string fiddle in the early renaissance? Ephraim Segerman (2001) states that the “only historical evidence on the tuning of 4 string fiddles is the occasional 15th century picture that shows a string thickness sequence (low to high) of thickest, thinner, somewhat thicker and thinnest, seeming to imply two octave pairs a fifth apart.” If these depictions of string thicknesses are close to an accurate reflection of practice, then this 15th century arrangement doesn’t precisely fit any of my 4 string suggestions above, but it is close to my 4 string modification of Jerome’s first tuning: d’/d’ – G/g. To comply more with Ephraim Segerman’s observation, we make the top course octaves rather than unisons: d’/d – g/G, which also reflects crwth practice of courses in octave pairs.
The end of the vielle and the birth of a successor
The challenges to the vielle from the changing musical styles of the renaissance spelled its gradual decline, but not before it had inspired the birth of another instrument towards the end of the 15th century, whose lifespan overlapped the demise of the vielle in the middle of the 16th century. The lira (or lyra) da braccio (meaning bowed instrument on the arm) was to be short lived, appearing in paintings, mostly Italian, from c. 1490 to the early 17th century, leaving behind only a short section of music added to the Italian Pesaro lute manuscript (lute music c. 1490–1511) in 1540–45.
The lira da braccio music in the Pesaro manuscript is for 6 strings in 4 courses – a – d – g/G – d/D bourdon. This looks exactly like a version of Jerome’s first vielle tuning – d’/d’ – G/g – d bourdon – with an extra string pitched a 5th higher to increase the range upwards. Other witnesses for the lira da braccio give 7 strings in 5 courses: Giovanni Maria Lanfranco, Scintille di musica, Italy, 1533, has the same tuning as Pesaro but with an additional e’, once more extending the range; and Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum III: Termini musici, Germany, 1619, reproduces this but with a top string of d’.
Such a close similarity between lira da braccio and vielle tuning is the strongest justification for reading Jerome’s vielle string pitches as arrangements of courses. The lira da braccio shared many features of the vielle, but was different enough to accommodate renaissance music: its neck was usually unfretted but occasionally fretted; it had 6 or 7 strings, arranged in a combination of octave courses and single strings; with 2 strings as a bourdon in an octave course; it had a wide fingerboard and a bridge with a gentle enough arc to play triple and quadruple stops (3 or 4 strings at once) chordally, rather than as a drone, due its tuning.
So we see how the lira da braccio succeeded, for a brief time, in overcoming the melody-in-a-drone strength of the vielle in the medieval period which had become its outmoded weakness in the renaissance, with the flat-bridged humming block replaced by the gently curved bridge tuned in fifths, enabling a degree of harmonic playing more suited to the renaissance aesthetic.
This difference is illustrated in the final two videos: Igor Pomykalo plays a French estampie on vielle, then Joan Chic a saraband by John Jenkins on lira da braccio.
© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.
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© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.