The medieval harp (1/3): origins and development

This article, the first of three about the medieval harp, sets out what we know about its earliest known development, looking at harp forms, decoration, stringing, and the problem of language in original sources. We see surviving instruments and manuscript illustrations from ancient Egypt to the middle ages – arched harps and angle harps, open harps and pillar harps – leading to the development of the bray harp and the Irish/Scottish cláirseach/clarsach of the early renaissance.

This is followed by a second article about medieval harp symbolism and a third about medieval harp performance practice.

Each article begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to historically attested performance principles. This article begins with La quarte Estampie RoyalThe fourth Royal Estampie.

Click the picture to play the video.
La quarte Estampie Royal from Manuscrit du Roi, a manuscript of troubadour
and trouvère songs written c. 1250, with instrumental pieces such as this estampie
added c. 1300. The fourth Royal Estampie is played on medieval harp by Ian Pittaway
to medieval musical principles described in the third article.

Early lyres

The harp is part of a family of musical instruments with unfretted strings of different pitches stretched across a frame. The earliest instruments of this type to have survived are the three magnificent lyres of Ur, southern Iraq. They were excavated in 1929 by British archaeologist, Leonard Woolley, from royal tombs dated 2600–2400 BCE. A reconstruction of one of those lyres in the British Museum is shown below.

For more on the Ur lyres, and to hear the sound of its close relative the begena, the Ethiopian 10 string lyre, click here. The above photographs are © The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window; click in the new window to further enlarge.)

Lyres, like harps, have been made historically in a variety of forms. There is a great deal of difference, for example, between the size of the free-standing Ur lyre, 112.5 cm tall, and the small hand-held lyres of classical Greece. Below, for example, is an image of the god Apollo with a chelys, a type of lyre with a tortoise shell resonator (detail left). This appears on a kylix, a wide drinking cup, excavated from a tomb in Delphi, dated to 480-470 BCE, now in the Delphi Archaeological Museum.

Photograph by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Early harps

The instruments above are classified as lyres on the basis that the strings pass over a bridge, as we see clearly above on the Ur lyre, whereas on harps the strings pass directly from the soundboard to tuning pins, without a bridge.

The earliest harps known were discovered during early 20th century excavations of Egyptian tombs. They were made in two forms, arched harps and angular or angle harps.

The arched harp consisted of a curved neck with a tuning collar for each string, the neck attached to a hollow sound-box carved from solid wood. The earliest depictions of arched harps are from the 5th Dynasty, a period of around 150 years from c. 2500 to c. 2350 BCE. (The precise dating of the period varies among Egyptologists.) Below we see two views of an arched harp dated c. 1390–1295 BCE (The Metropolitan Museum, New York). Like later medieval harps, some ancient Egyptian harps were plain, some had a little decoration such as the carved head we see here, and some were highly ornate.

Another surviving arched harp is below left, dated to the New Kingdom era, 16th–11th  century BCE (from an auction by Pierre Bergé & Associés). In the middle is a plain harp of precisely the same design, from the decorations in the tomb of Nakht, 8th Dynasty, 1450 BCE. The figure on the right, a detail from a fresco in a tomb in Thebes, 1425 BCE, illustrates why arched harps are sometimes known as shoulder harps.

The other Egyptian harp type, angular or angle harps, were distinguished by the sharp right angle between the rod to which tuning collars were tied and the oblong sound-box. The earliest evidence of angle harps is from the New Kingdom period, 16th–11th  century BCE. Three are shown below. Left, a harper playing for the god, Rê-Horakhty, 1000–800 BCE (The Louvre, Paris); centre, a wooden statuette playing an angle harp, made in the Late Period, c. 664–332 BCE (British Museum, London); and right, an angle harp also from the Late Period (The Louvre, Paris).

Cithara and lira: the problem of language   

The earliest known lyre of Iraq and the earliest known harps of Egypt form part of the larger picture of early music-making, including lyres and harps widespread in the ancient world. While the lyre and the harp are broadly similar, it would be a leap of faith to say that the harp was a development of the lyre or vice versa. In the field of human invention, technology and ingenuity, across wide geography, long history and a variety of cultures, the picture is complex and our knowledge often fragmentary. The archaeological and written record is too incomplete to make any firm claims about any connection between the development of lyres and harps.

The two instruments are certainly connected by language, both in ancient Greek and medieval literature. The Greek kithára (κιθάρα), Latin cithara and Assyrian chetarah are the 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. Medieval and renaissance musicians and writers, wishing to link their musical instrument names to ancient Greek and Roman sources, used kithára/cithara as the root word for citole, cittern, gittern, guitar, and so on, or used the actual word indiscriminately for lyres, harps, citoles, psalteries, citterns, guitars, orpharions, and indeed for any instrument with strings, just as the Greek writers of the 9th or 8th century BCE onwards did. Likewise, 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.

Above is a very rare example of medieval instrument illustrations that are labelled, to demonstrate the problem of vague and contradictory nomenclature. This is a detail from folio 13r of Liber astrologiae, an abbreviated version by Georgius Fendulus (12th century) of an astrological treatise by Abu Ma’shar, also known as Albumazar (787–886 CE). This copy was made in The Netherlands in c. 1325–75 (British Library Sloane 3983). Even here, the picture is complicated, as there is more than one way of interpreting the labels. We see the labelled bow for the fiddle, “arcus viole”, next to the “viola”, in other sources called a viella, vielle, viguela, fedele, vedel, or phiala, called a medieval fiddle in modern parlance. Above that is an unlabelled instrument. Is this another “viola”? That would have to be ruled out, as fiddles of this shape with a pear-shape body and sickle-shape peg-box did not appear until c. 1400, so this must be an unlabelled gittern. On the right is a harp, labelled above with “Giga”, a cross-like sign, then “lira”. If we read this as “Giga et lira”, then the simfony (symphonie, symphonia, other variant spellings, organistrum) on the left of the harp is here called a “Giga”, a word used in other contexts for fiddles; and the harp, in other sources called harpe, arpa or cithara, is here called a “lira”, a word used in other contexts for a lyre. However, it is odd that “Giga” is above the harp rather than the simfony, and the cross-like sign would usually be read as “vel” rather than “et”, thus “Giga vel lira”, Giga or lira. This means the harp is given two alternative names, “Giga”, a term usually used for fiddles, “or lira”, a term originally meaning lyre, and the simfony is not labelled at all.

This inconsistency of language is repeated across a range of medieval literature, illustrating that, in trying to delineate lyre and harp development or even simply identify an instrument from the written word alone, language often hinders rather than clarifies.

This is further illustrated by a passage in Conflictus Ovis et Lini (Dispute Between Sheep and Flax) by Winrich von Trier (also known as Wenrico), fl. 1080–90, in which a sheep describes the uses to which her body can be put: “the intestines in our body give sweet enjoyment for the delight of man. The divine string resounds with sweetness suitably joined to the lyra, the psalterium and the cithara.” To which instruments is Winrich’s sheep referring? Gut was the chief string material generally, so that yields no clues. The psalterium cannot be the psaltery, as that was strung with wire. Lyra and cithara may mean lyre and harp, or they may be two words for a lyre, but since both words were used to describe any stringed instrument we are left to guess Wenrico’s intention. He may have used these terms to be deliberately vague, to signify any stringed instruments.

The point about Wenrico’s mysterious psalterium is explained further by reference to Petrus de Palude (c. 1275-1342) who, as an act of literary devotion, tried to find connections between modern instruments and those of the Psalms in his In Psalmos (Bibliothèque Municipale, Douai, France, MS 45, volume 9, folio 262v). Petrus makes an unlikely comparison between the “viella” (fiddle) and the “psalterium”, by which he means a form of psaltery he understood to have been used in The Bible, which “was not the same as the form we now use.” In straining against all logic to find a connection between two unrelated instruments, the bowed viella and the plucked psaltery, Petrus illustrates the extraordinary lengths to which medieval writers went to justify current practice from The Bible or from Graeco-Roman culture.

The result is vagueness and confusion for any harp historian. Incomplete archaeological records of lyres and harps cannot be filled in by reference to either ancient Greek or medieval literature, as the imprecision of nomenclature pushes language to the point of meaninglessness. Because the words kithára/cithara and lira/lyra were used by medieval writers to associate their present-day musicians on any stringed instrument with ancient Greek bards, for whom the word could also apply to any stringed instrument, the meanings of both words are variable, imprecise, dependent on context, and sometimes obscure.

Open harp, pillar harp and rota

Some of the earliest European harp iconography is in the French Utrecht Psalter, made 820–30 in Reims, or in the nearby convent of Hauvilliers. In the details below, we see that early forms of European harp were triangular and without a forepillar, like Egyptian angle harps. Such instruments without a forepillar are now designated open harps.

Left: From left to right is a lyre, an open triangular harp, and a double-headed
hand-drum in a detail from folio 37v of The Utrecht Psalter, 820–30.
Right: A more ambiguous harp on folio 48r. Does the thicker line at the front of the harp
indicate a forepillar, or is this an open harp drawn by an artist with an excess of ink?
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Other images in The Utrecht Psalter that are the shape of triangular harps may be a different instrument. Below we see three details in which we cannot see through the strings to the other side, as we can in the images above. This may just be a detail missed by the artist on these folios, but since other images clearly show two hands either side of the strings, it seems more likely that there is a sound-box behind the strings. In that case, the triangular shape indicates that these instruments are examples of the rota (rote, rotta, or rothe). In his work of 1210, Conseils aux Jongler (Advice to Jongleurs – jongleurs were professional entertainers), Gascon troubadour Giraut (Guiraut) de Calanso (Calanson) mentions a 17 string rote (presumably meaning 2 rows of 17 strings) as one the instruments a jongleur must know how to play. Petro (Petrus) de Abano, in his Expositio problematum Aristotelis (The explanation of Aristotle’s problems), 1310, described the rota as having 2 rows of 22 strings either side of a sound-box. The anonymous Surgical Treatise, 12th century, and Jean de Brie, Le Bon Berger, 1379, confirm that rota strings were made of gut.

Instruments that are either triangular harps or, more likely, rotas, in The Utrecht Psalter. Left to right, details from folios 28r, 54r, and 63v. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

Below are two rare examples of the biblical King David shown playing a rota rather than a harp: left, from the Gradual of Saint-Etienne of Toulouse, France, 1075–1125, France (British Library Harley 4951, part 2, folio 295v); right, from the Italian Polirone Psalter, Polirone Monastery, San Benedetto Po, before 1086 (Library of Mantua, ms. 340, folio 2r).

Rotas appear regularly in iconography of the 11th-14th century. Below are two further examples, both ecclesiastical carvings, both in France.

Rota, unusually labelled in the inscription, on a capital in the cloister of the
Abbey Church of Saint Pierre, Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, France, dated c. 1100.
An ape playing a rota, carved on the outside of the 12th century church,
Notre-Dame de l’Assomption, Surgères, France.

Cuthbert, Abbot of Jarrow, England, wrote to Lull, Archbishop of Mainz, Germany, in 764, requesting a “cytharista” because he had a “rotta” and no one to play it. Musicians playing either harps or rotas were referred to in Latin as “cytharistae”, and we have seen above the complications of medieval language, that “cytharistae” could potentially refer to a musician on any type of stringed instrument.

The rota is not mentioned in surviving medieval music treatises as a harp type so, though it functions essentially as a 2 row harp, it seems not to have been thought of as a class of harp. This is apparently confirmed by another manuscript of Georgius Fendulus’ Liber astrologiae. Below we see a different version of the page shown above, another copy dated to the 14th century (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 7330, view 16, no folio given). We see that the labelled “viola” and its bow appear as before, but the simfony and gittern are gone, replaced by a “rota” (and note that this time the harp is labelled “Giga” compared to Sloane 3983’s “Giga vel lira”). The presence of both the rota and the harp together, separately labelled, only makes sense if they were considered different instrument types. 

Thank you to Jürgen Steiner for bringing this image to my attention.

The open harp preceded the harp with a forepillar, the latter known as the pillar harp or frame harp, and the two forms co-existed for a considerable time. For example, below left is an open harp on the Dupplin Cross, a Pictish carved stone cross, 2.5 metres tall, now inside Saint Serf’s Church, Perth, Scotland, dated c. 800. Below right, from the same period, is a pillar harp on one of the Monifieth sculptured stones, Pictish artefacts in Monifieth, Angus, Scotland, dated 700–900. These Pictish representations are the earliest surviving images of European harps.

Below left is what may be a pillar harp among the open harps in the French Utrecht Psalter, 820–30, a detail from folio 83r. The interpretation depends on whether we see the 2 vertical lines at the front of the harp as the forepillar of a pillar harp or as the first 2 strings of an open harp. Whichever is the case, we see the beginning of a move away from straight lines to curves modifying the triangular frame. We see the same move away from the strictly triangular shape in the earliest surviving image of an English pillar harp, dated c. 1000 and shown below right, from page 54 of Bodleian Library MS Junius 11, formerly known as the Cædmon manuscript. From the 11th century on, curves on the neck and forepillar would characterise the shapes of European harps. By the early 13th century, all European harps were pillar harps, open harps now having become absent from iconography.

The Bodleian Library MS Junius 11 image (right) is courtesy of Bodleian Library, Oxford.
The entirety of MS Junius 11 is available for viewing
by clicking here. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)


Iconography shows that many medieval harps were quite plain, either undecorated or sparsely decorated, as we see in four examples below. Left, an unusually late open harp in the hands of Provençal troubadour Guilhem (de) Montanhagol (fl. 1233–68), from a 13th century manuscript of troubadour poetry and accounts of their lives (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 854, folio 124r); right, a pillar harp in the English Luttrell Psalter, 1325–40 (British Library Add MS 42130, folio 174v); …

… below left, a copy of De Claris mulieribus (Concerning Famous Women) by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75), a French manuscript dated 1403 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 598, folio 118r); and below right, a Gothic bray harp in a painting from Cologne, Mary and child with virgins and musician angels, c. 1440 (now in Alte Pinakothek, Munich).

Where there was decoration, a common feature was the carved head of an animal, either protruding from the front of the neck or at a joint, positioned so that it appeared to be eating or disgorging the harp. The example below left is from the Cantigas de Santa María of Iberian King Alfonso X, produced 1257–83 (Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de el Escorial, Códice de los músicos, RBMECat b-I-2, folio 341r); below right from the San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece: The Coronation of the Virgin, 1370-71, from the workshop of Florentine artist, Jacopo di Cione (National Gallery, London).

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

Occasionally harps were more elaborately decorated on the forepillar, neck and sound-box, as we see below left, from the variously titled Crusader Bible, Saint Louis Bible, or Maciejowski Bible, France, c. 1240–50 (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, MS M.638, folio 39r); and right, Virgin of the Angels by Pere Serra, Catalonia, c. 1385 (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya).

String numbers and string materials

Gut strings are made by processing animal intestines, and there is clear evidence for their use in the ancient world. When archaeologist Harry Burton excavated the ancient Egyptian tombs of Thebes in 1823, he discovered harps that still had their gut strings intact and unperished, and remarkably they still played after 3,000 years. One such instrument is below, an arched harp from the tomb of Ani, 1250 BCE.

© British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The evidence of multiple medieval writers testifies to gut being the chief string material of the period in the west, not just for harps, but for stringed instruments generally. Sextus Amaricus, Sermones, c. 1100, and Bruno the Carthusian, In Psalmos, 12th century, state that harp strings are made of the intestines of a goat or ram, and sheep intestines are specified in the anonymous Secretum Philosophorum, 13th century; in Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Propietatibus Rerum (The Propieties of Things), c. 1250; and in John Lydgate, Horse, Goose and Sheep, c. 1440.

Two 11 string harps in the arcade of Beverley Minster. Photographs © Ian Pittaway

The number of strings on a medieval harp varied. The Berkeley theory manuscript, written in Paris before 1361, gives 14th century tunings for many instruments, including a harp with 11 strings (pictured right). French poet-composer Guillaume de Machaut, c. 1300–77, likened his love’s 25 virtues to the 25 strings of the harp in his Dit de la harpe. An early 15th century sermon by Jean de Gerson, Puer natus est nobis (A child is born to us), states that the harp has 20 strings.

The number of strings given by Machaut and Gerson may suggest that the 11 strings shown in Berkeley was a reduction for teaching purposes. However, two harps in the arcade of Beverley Minster, Yorkshire, carved 1330–90, both show 11 strings (pictured above), and two carved harps in the Minster’s ground level bays both have 9 strings (pictured below).

Two 9 string harps on Beverley Minster’s north wall and south wall. Photographs © Ian Pittaway

The question of whether the number of harp strings in visual depictions is meant to be taken literally in any given instance is not always possible to resolve. Just as Giraut de Calanso stated that the rota has 17 strings (presumably 2 rows of 17) and Petro de Abano stated 2 rows of 22, so the number of harp strings in writing and in depictions varies greatly. There clearly are depictions of harps with unrealistically low numbers of strings. For example, below we see harps in The Alphonso Psalter (2 images on the left) and The Great Canterbury Psalter (centre) with only 5 and 4 courses, which are certainly not credible.

However, relatively small numbers of strings on a harp are attested. As late as 1523, Giovanni Maria Lanfranco states that the harp has only 15 strings in his Scintille di musica (Sparks of music), fewer strings in the 16th century than the 25 and 20 strings stated by Machaut and Gerson in the 14th and 15th century. Therefore there is no necessary relationship between the date of the harp and the number of strings, i.e. the string number does not necessarily increase over time. The best we can say is that, as with so many aspects of medieval instruments, there was variety, no strict uniformity, and the evidence from other instruments such as bagpipes and tabor pipes suggests that much music can be played on an instrument with a limited pitch range.

The vast majority of images of medieval harps show them single strung, but occasionally we see the clear suggestion that some harps were strung in double courses. Above left, for example, are two details from the same scene in The Alphonso Psalter, England, c. 1284–1316 (British Library Add MS 24686, folio 41r), and in the centre is another double-course harp in The Great Canterbury Psalter, copied in Canterbury from c. 1200, illumination completed in Catalonia in the first half of the 14th century (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 8846, folio 54v). On the right is a depiction of an arpa doble or two row harp from the triptych in the Monasterio de Piedra, Spain, c. 1390. These harps appear to be different in kind: the Alphonso and Great Canterbury harps seem to show courses, i.e. the two strings of the course are plucked as one; whereas the arpa doble has two distinct rows of strings played separately, like the rota, but without the rota’s sound-box between the two rows.

All the lyres and harps so far discussed were strung with gut, as indeed were most instruments. The chief exceptions to gut stringing were the wire-strung psaltery and wire-strung harps in Ireland and Highland Scotland – wire meaning brass, silver or gold; silk strings in China and Japan; plant fibres in the tropics; and horse hair in Scandinavia and Wales. According to 14th century Welsh poet, Iolo Goch (c. 1320–c. 1398), it was a matter of national pride that harps in Wales were strung with horse hair, specifically unlike the harp strings of England and Ireland. In his Cywydd Moliant i’r Delyn Rawn a Dychan i’r Delyn Ledr (Cywydd – a metrical form – of Praise to the Horsehair Harp, and a Curse upon the Leather Harp), he wrote of the “newfangled harps of leather”, by which he meant strings of gut, and he disdained their new popularity in Wales. Iolo Goch wrote (in an English translation/paraphrase by Giles Watson):

Horse hair strings being fitted to a jouhikko,
a Finnish and Karelian bowed lyre.
Image taken from this video.

With poets’ magic in the frame
Right for songs of faith, love, fame,
Its long, black strings glistening:
Wisdom’s weft: worth listening.
Prophetic gift: horse hair harp …

Picture David writing psalms,
Strings of dead sheep at his palms!
His loom of music had strings
Made of horsehair – fit for kings …

Bard-apprentices from Môn
To the Marches: every man
Must seek, for his instrument,
A harp of horsehair, intent
On spilling wisdom, well-spun,
As our ancestors have done.
Apprentice bards must despise
Leather harps. No compromise.

While Iolo Goch states that “No one Welsh would stoop, ever, / To play a harp of leather”, and “Only Englishmen by choice / Would release its [the gut-strung harp’s] hideous voice”, this is clearly rhetorical hyperbole, as it is contradicted by his opening lines which lament the encroachment of gut-strung harps on Welsh territory:

God! Once Wales was full of grace,
A happy host, the best place …

Now, like a clanging gong,
A hideous, discordant song
Has broken out like foul weather:
Newfangled harps of leather.

For metal strings on harps, the earliest account is in Topographia Hibernica, written by Gerald of Wales in 1185–88. “It is to be observed that Scotland and Wales … strive in practice to imitate Ireland in their melodies. Ireland uses and takes delight in two instruments, the cithara [harp] and tympanum [hammer dulcimer – see illustration below], Scotland in three, the cithara [harp], tympanum [hammer dulcimer] and chorus [?string drum], and Wales in the cithara [harp], tibia [?bone flute] and chorus [?string drum]. Moreover they [presumably just the Irish] play upon bronze strings rather than [or more than] strings made of gut. In the opinion of many people, Scotland has not only equalled her mistress, Ireland, in music, but today excels and surpasses her by far.” Gerald of Wales appears to suggest that metal harp strings were particular to Ireland. Metal strings may have been used in Ireland before Gerald wrote in the 12th century, but if so that evidence has not survived or is so far unknown.

Tympanum (hammer dulcimer) illustrated in Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, 1185–88.

Above left, the whole of folio 26r of British Library Royal 13 B VIII, c. 1196–c. 1223; above right, a detail. This is the page of Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica (or Hiberniae) which discusses the most favoured instruments of Ireland, the cithara and tympanum; of Scotland, the cithara, tympanum and chorus; and of Wales, the cithara, tibia and chorus. Since the cithara is the harp, the tibia most likely a bone flute, and the chorus probably a string drum, given references in other literature, then the hammer dulcimer shown on the page must be the tympanum in Gerald’s terminology. Presuming the tympanum to be the timpan of Welsh literature and the tiompán of Irish literature, it is described in Chronicle of the Princes (MS Peniarth 20, National Library of Wales), c. 1330, as a stringed instrument, and The Book of Lismore (Book of Mac Carthaigh Riabhach), c. 1480, describes the “red gold the strings of that tiompán”, which suggests strings of red brass, as we would expect on a dulcimer or a psaltery.

The next two references to metal harp strings come from the French and Welsh-Anglo-Norman story-telling tradition. French poet Robert de Boron’s Merlin, dated to the late 12th or early 13th century, is a reworking of various Arthurian legends written by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1095–c. 1155). In de Boron’s Merlin, the wizard disguises himself as a blind minstrel: “he had a harp around his neck which was richly worked all over with silver and the strings were of fine gold, and here and there on the harp were precious stones”. In Galeran de Bretagne (Galeran of Brittany), c. 1230, a French (Breton) romance formerly believed to be by Jean Renaut, Galeran’s love, Fresne, plays a harp strung with silver.

So the exceptions to gut string material on harps in western Europe were that Welsh harps until the 14th century were strung exclusively with horse hair, if Iolo Goch’s rhetoric is taken at face value; and Gerald of Wales tells us in the 12th century that the Irish used exclusively (or mostly) bronze strings. Despite the mention of gold and silver harp strings in French/Welsh-Anglo-Norman stories of the 12th–13th century, there is little evidence of metal-strung harps in French or Anglo-Norman territory until the 15th century. Their appearance in French romances may be accounted for by the fact that many of the tales are set in Ireland (as well as in Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall).

Photos by Simon Chadwick.

In Ireland, surviving images of harps before the late 14th century share the same features as other European harps, as we see from the earliest depictions above. On the left is the earliest surviving image of an Irish harp, a triangular pillar harp on the high cross of Muiredeach in the monastery of Monasterboice, County Louth, dated to the 9th or 10th century. On the right is an 11th century harp, more curved, carved on the side of the wooden reliquary shrine of Saint Máedóc or Mogue, first bishop of Ferns, County Wexford (now in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin).

From the late 14th century onwards, the wire-strung harps of Ireland and the Scottish Highland Gaels had a more robust construction, so that brass, silver, or gold strings could be safety strung with higher tension. The distinctive new features of the Irish cláirseach and Scottish clársach were: a thick sound-box cut from solid willow; a heavy neck reinforced with metal bands; a deep strengthened curve on the forepillar; brass loops or shoes around the string holes in the sound-box to protect and reinforce the wood; and wooden toggles attached to strings to secure them inside the sound-box. To see and hear the cláirseach, click on the picture of Andrew Lawrence-King on the right.

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

Meanwhile, in the rest of western Europe from the early 15th century (with the exception of Spain, which developed the double harp seen above), changes were made in the shape and the sound of the gut-strung harp. The forepillar became straighter, with a horn-like curve on the neck, sweeping it upward. This made the harp taller, enabling longer bass strings and thus a deeper pitch. This form is described today as the Gothic harp (shown below). The Gothic harp also had the pins which anchor the strings in place in the soundboard made in an upside down L shape, turned so that the strings vibrate against them. This creates a frisson or buzzing distortion of sound which made the harps not only louder, but gave the impression of a donkey’s bray, hence the terms bray pins and bray harp. However, as we see on the right, the earliest evidence of bray pins is on a harp painted in 1367–85 in Cathédrale Saint Julien du Mans, France (right), in the pre-Gothic shape and two to four decades before bray pins on harps became ubiquitous. To see and hear the bray harp, click here.

Both of these harp types – bray and cláirseach/clársach – are shown below, their timescales moving from the medieval into the renaissance. A dedicated feature on the bray harp can be read here.

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

Left: A bray harp that reputedly belonged to Oswald von Wolkenstein (1376/7–1445), an Italian poet, composer and diplomat. The harp is dated to the early 15th century and is now kept in Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany. Next to the whole harp is a detail of the bray pins that keep the strings in place, against which the strings vibrate to give the bray harp its distinctive sound.

Right: A cláirseach, probably 15th century, on display in the Long Room of Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, with a detail of the brass shoes. It is known as the Trinity College harp or the Brian Boru harp, and is the national symbol of Ireland, displayed on Ireland’s coins and the logo of Guinness stout. The legend is that 10th century Irish King Brian Boru owned this harp, and his son gave it and his father’s crown to the pope on a visit to Rome in 1064. Whether or not that story is true, it cannot have been this harp, as cláirseachs like did not exist until the late 14th century.


We have seen that the lyre and the harp are close relatives. They are connected linguistically due to the vague nature of ancient Greek, Latin and medieval nomenclature, but how they are related in terms of organological development cannot be demonstrated with clear evidence.

Harps have been made in a variety of forms – arched, angular, open, pillar, Gothic – without decoration or highly ornate. Historically and internationally, harps have been strung largely in gut, with regional pockets of horse hair, metal and other string materials, and mostly single strung (one string per note), with rare evidence of double courses and double bands of strings (and later triple bands of strings, but that is beyond the timescale of this article on the medieval harp).

Having outlined the various forms of the harp, the following two articles are on the subject of:

Medieval harp symbolism. This article describes the harp as the holy instrument of King David, composer of the Psalms; harp tuning as the symbol of harmony between the heavenly and earthly realms; and the harp as symbol of Christ on the cross.

Medieval harp performance practice, presenting the evidence for historically informed medieval harp arrangements and playing styles.


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



British Museum (undated) lyre. Available online by clicking here.

British Museum (undated) Tomb of Ani. Available online by clicking here.

Chadwick, Simon (2008) The Early Irish Harp. Early Music, Vol. 36, No. 4 (November 2008), pp. 521–531. Available online by clicking here.

Dunn, Jimmy (2011) An Introduction to Ancient Egyptian Music. Available online by clicking here.

Kappel, Krystyna (2016) Ancient Egyptian Harp. Its origins and status within the Ancient Egyptian society. Available online by clicking here.

Larson, Daniel (2016) Making Gut Strings. Available online by clicking here.

Lawrence-King, Andrew (2021) Andrew Lawrence-King introduces the renaissance Irish harp. Video available online by clicking here.

Myers, Herbert W. (2000) Harp. In: Ross W. Duffin (ed.) A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Page, Christopher (1980) Fourteenth-Century Instruments and Tunings: A Treatise by Jean Vaillant? (Berkeley, MS 744). The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 33, March 1980, pp. 17-35. Available online by clicking here.

Page, Christopher (1987) Voices & Instruments of the Middle Ages. Instrumental practice and songs in France 1100-1330. London: J. M. Dent & Sons.

Pittaway, Ian (2015) The bray harp: getting a buzz from early music. Available online by clicking here.

Rimmer, Joan (1964) The Morphology of the Irish Harp. The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 17 (February 1964), pp. 39-49. Available online by clicking here.

Smith, Douglas Alton (2002) A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Massachusetts: Lute Society of America.

Solez, Kevin (2002) Lyrecraft: The Origins and Adoption of the Greek Word Kitharis. Available online by clicking here.

Southworth, John (1989) The English Medieval Minstrel. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. 

Sykora, Toon (2016) The tomb of the harps: Saqqara’s music-archaeological treasury. Saqqara Newsletter 14. Available online by clicking here.

Watson, Giles (2016) (translator) Cywydd of Praise to the Horsehair Harp, and a Curse upon the Leather Harp by Iolo Goch, 14th century, in Rivals of Dafydd ap Gwilym: A Treasury of Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Welsh Verse, pp. 44-46. London: Lulu.

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