Studies of medieval musical instruments draw upon written testimony, iconography (manuscript art, painting, drawing, sculpture and stained glass windows) and surviving instruments to describe their characteristics and the way they developed over time. In my search for evidence about medieval plectrums, I was surprised to find not one dedicated paper, book chapter or webpage. This article is an attempt to bring the written, iconographical and material evidence together and present some new research, focussing on the characteristics of plectrums used to play the gittern, lute, psaltery, citole and cetra, made from quills, gut strings, metal, bone, and ivory. We begin with an illustrative video of La Uitime estampie Real (The Eighth Royal estampie), c. 1300, played on citole and gittern with plectrums of antler, horn and gut string.
In the second article, we survey the evidence for plectrum playing technique, with practical applications for modern players of medieval music; and evaluate whether all medieval plucked instruments were played with plectrums.
The most common modern material for a plectrum is plastic or nylon. For a guitar or mandolin, this is usually trianguloid with rounded corners, available in various thicknesses for different levels of flexibility to suit the taste and playing style of the musician. Modern players of the Arabian oud use rishas (long plectrums) of flexible plastic, nylon, or a thin slice of horn, made in a shape and size like a flat, wide quill. In principle, any material of the right size and material can be used, so there are some exceptions to the widespread modern use of industrially-produced plectrums. For example, Queen’s guitarist, Brian May, prefers a sixpence. Since the coin is rigid, the flexibility is in the grip, as he holds it loosely to allow it to move between his forefinger and thumb when it makes contact with the strings.
In past centuries, plectrums were always fashioned from natural materials. Using historical written references, iconography, and archaeological finds, this article will demonstrate that the required qualities of flexibility and rigidity were the same as in the modern day. Plectrums were made from flexible quills and strings; stylus plectrums of metal must have had a quill insert, while a stylus plectrum of bone either had an inserted quill tip or was sharpened to a point, both rigid like Brian May’s sixpence; and long flat plectrums of ivory and bone may have been flexible or rigid, depending on how thinly they were scraped.
Before we begin, a note about language. Plectrum is a Latin word, plural plectra in Latin grammar, from the Greek plēktron, an object to strike with. There is often a choice about whether to use the grammatical plural of the main language or of the language of the assimilated word. With some examples, the case is closed. For example, in English we always use the Latin plural bacteria, never the English plural bacteriums, and similarly we speak of phenomena, not phenomenons. With other words, both Latin and English plurals are in use, so we have stadia and stadiums; podia and podiums; crania and craniums. Both plurals plectra and plectrums are in use and, since this article is in English, I prefer to follow the rules of English grammar.
Quill – psaltery, lute, gittern, citole, cetra
Liber viginti atrium (Book of twenty arts) was written by Pavel Žídek of Prague (also known as Pavel Pražský, Paulus de Praga, Paulus, Paulerinus, or Paulirinus) in c. 1459-61 (Jagiellonian Library, Kraków, Poland, classified BJ 257). In the chapter, Musica instrumentalis, he wrote that the psaltery is “plucked with a quill held in the hand like a lute”.
As we see below, it is clear from iconography that not only psalteries and lutes, but also citoles and gitterns were plucked with quills.
One cannot play an instrument with a quill in its raw state: the unshaped end of the shaft is too thick and heavy to use as a playing implement, and the feathers, which would be in the way of the hand when playing, are naturally greasy. Furthermore, the feathers of different birds differ in size and strength, and not all feathers on a single bird are alike, so the correct type of quill has to be chosen.
The basis of the quill plectrum is the writing quill. For a writing quill, the feather comes from a large bird such as a goose, swan, eagle, owl, hawk, or turkey, so that the length feels comfortable in the hand, or from a crow for fine work. It has to be a primary flight feather to be able to hold ink, as feathers from this part of the bird are long and hollow. This means that a single bird can only provide 10-12 quills of sufficient quality, and the strongest quills are not a by-product of hunting or farming, but those that fall out naturally during moulting season.
Quill pens were made using the method shown in the linked video below. Click on the picture to play the video and view a transcript.
By the late medieval and early renaissance period, iconography is usually more clear and detailed than previously, as we see, for example, in Sandro Botticelli’s painting above. From increased detail we can confirm that quill plectrums and quill pens were made using the same method, as we see in the following images.
Above left we see Saint Paul with his writing tools: a quill pen in his right hand, showing the calamus (hollow shaft) and carved nib, and a knife for holding down the page and rubbing out mistakes in his left hand. This clear depiction is from Pierre Lombard’s Parisian Collectanea in omnes divi Pauli epistolas (Collection of all Saint Paul’s epistles), 1170-80 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, latin 14266, folio 95r). Above right is a quill fashioned in the same manner, used as a plectrum for a citole in The Gorleston Psalter, Norfolk, England, 1310-24 (British Library Add MS 49622, folio 107v).
English stained glass windows of the 15th century show lutes and gitterns being played with quill plectrums made in the same way. Below we see a lute in a window of Saint Mary’s Church, Atherington, Devon, some time in the 15th century; …
… below, a lute in a window in the Saint Peter Hungate Museum, Norwich, c. 1450; …
… below, a gittern and lute in Saint Agnes Church, Cawston, Norfolk, c. 1450; …
… and lutes in All Saints, Bale, Norfolk, 1500, below left (on an instrument with the body of a lute but the sickle peg box of a gittern); and, below right, a lute in Saint Andrew, Field Dalling, Norfolk, 1500.
Italian author Dante Alighieri mentions the cetra in passing four times: once in Paradiso, the third and final part of his Divine Comedy, c. 1315-20, and three times in Convivio (The Banquet), 1304-07. Several commentaries were written on Dante’s Divine Comedy, including the obviously-titled Commento di Francesco da Buti sopra la Divina comedia di Dante Allighieri by Francesco da Buti (1324–1406), who stated that the cetra was plucked with a quill. Iconography confirms this, such as the engraving by Giovanni Pietro da Birago (also called Master of the Sforza Hours) of Virgin of the Rocks with Child, c. 1490 (British Museum), as we see below.
The quill plectrum, shaped like a writing pen, is clearly depicted in two engravings by German artist, Israhel van Meckenem, both dated 1495: left, Lute player and singer; right, Lute player and harpist (both in the National Hall of Art, Washington DC), …
… with details of the plectrums below.
Most quills in iconography are shown white, as we see again below in a detail from the fresco, Madonna del belvedere (Madonna of the beautiful view) by Ottaviano Nelli in the Church of Santa Maria Nuova, Gubbio, Italy, c. 1417.
A significant minority of plectrums are shown black. In a less detailed depiction, a thin black or white plectrum may possibly indicate a slice of horn rather than a quill, such as we see below in Coronation of the Virgin with four musical angels and Saints Francis, John the Baptist, Ivo and Dominic by Giovanni di Marco (Giovanni dal Ponte), c. 1420s–38 (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence).
Where the portrayal is distinctly a black feather shaft, this gives some indication of the bird it came from. Birds with black quills include some species of vulture, eagle, ostrich, turkey and magpie.
Below are four examples of black quill plectrums: left, a gittern and right, a lute, both in the Monasterio de Piedra Triptych, Spain, c. 1390; …
… left, Virgin and Child with angels, painted in 1425 by Florentine artist Giovanni dal Ponte, also known as Giovanni di Marco (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge); and right, Mary, Queen of the Heavens, painted by Aragonese artist Blasco de Grañén in 1439 for the Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor (now in Museo Zaragozano de Bellas Artes, Zaragoza, Spain).
Since a quill plectrum does not need to retain ink as a quill pen does, it seems logical that the one difference between the two implements was that there was no need to split the nib of a quill plectrum, but due to the limitations of medieval iconography it is difficult to evidence: since depictions of quills in the hands of writers do not show a split nib, we can draw no conclusions from the lack of split nibs on quills in the hands of musicians.
There is one clear exception I know of, shown above left. The lute-playing corpse in a manuscript of Pierre Michault’s Doctrinal du temps présent et Danse aux aveugles (Doctrine of the present time and Dance of the blind), 1475–80 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1654, folio 171r) is using a plectrum with a split nib. Above right is a citole player with a stylus plectrum in the French Lorraine Bible, 14th century, (Bibliothèque municipale, ms Nancy BM 3, folio 215v). The image is ambiguous, but can be interpreted as a stylus plectrum with an insert of a split quill nib. (Stylus plectrums are described in their own section below.)
Without corroboration from other sources we should be wary of over-claiming, but this should lead us to wonder if at least some players preferred a split nib, perhaps all, and what the playing advantage might be. The obvious answer would be to increase flexibility. In his mandolin instruction book three centuries later, Methode facile pour apprendre a quatre cordes, instrument pour les dames (Easy method to learn a four course instrument for ladies), published in Paris in 1767, Italian musician and composer Giovanni Battista Gervasio does not mention split nibs, but he does recommend ostrich feathers, stating that the “quill must not be stiff, but on the contrary carved very thin”, i.e. flexible, and splitting the nib increases flexibility.
In iconography of the 15th century, we begin to see quill plectrums that do not protrude at length from the hand as in all the examples above, so small they would be invisible in the less detailed art of earlier centuries. Depictions of this kind include the plectrum used by the lutenist in Masaccio’s Virgin and Child, the central section of a polyptych altarpiece made for a church in Pisa in 1426 (The National Gallery, London); …
… the small plectrum between the forefinger and thumb of the lutenist in Madonna and Child with angels by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, Netherlands, c. 1460-70 (The Louvre); …
… and the small quill between the forefinger and thumb of the lutenist in an engraving/print by Wenzel von Olmütz of Germany, c. 1481–c. 1500.
The examples above are essentially the same as the longer quill plectrums, but cut short. Other examples of short plectrums are different: short slices or slivers of quill taken from one side of the calamus (tubular shaft). This may be what we see between the first two fingers of the lutenist in Hans Memling’s triptych for the Santa María La Real monastery in Nájera, Spain, painted in the 1480s (Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten – Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium); …
… and it is certainly what we see in the hand of the lutenist in Coronation of the Virgin by the Master of the Évora Altarpiece, c. 1490-1500 (Museu de Évora, Portugal); …
… and in the right hand of King David, playing the psaltery in a painting of 1500–50 by Venetian artist, Girolamo da Santa Croce (David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago).
In other depictions we see the same principle of using only one side sliced from the tubular quill, but with the quill cut lengthways to make a long plectrum. In the following depictions, the splitting of the quill along its length is unambiguous because the plectrum is flexible and bends in a way that would be impossible if tubular; and it is clear we are viewing quills rather than strings (which are examined in the next section) due to the tapered end and the occasional appearance of the remains of feathers.
Examples of such quills appear in an Italian manuscript of the French romance, Meliadus or Guiron le Courtois, 1352-62 (British Library Add MS 12228, folio 223r), in the hand of a gittern player; …
… in Italian artist Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece, 1434–35, in which we see a lute player and gittern player, both with white quills sliced thinly with curling decorative flourishes; …
… and in Florentine artist Agnolo Gaddi’s Coronation of the Virgin, 1390, in which we see …
… a lute played with a long black quill which is cut lengthways and therefore flexible …
… and a gittern played with the same type of longways-split quill.
The method used to make these plectrums is described by Phoebos Anogeianakis in Hellenic Folk Musical Instruments, published by the National Bank of Greece in 1976 (translated by Victor Kioulaphides, 2004). Though this is a modern source, the practical reality is that there are only so many ways one can modify a quill for use as a plectrum, and the following description clearly confirms what we see in the above 13th and 14th century iconography.
“The plectrum of the laouto is made from a feather taken from a predatory bird, usually vulture, eagle, or hawk – when necessary, turkey. But the ones considered best come from vultures because they last longer, they are more flexible, and yield the sweetest sound. The ones from eagles are harder and break more easily. The quill of the vulture’s feather has two sides: the one above is dark in colour, almost black; the one below is white. After they clear off the feathers, they split the black from the white side with a small knife; from each of those two sides, a plectrum is made.”
To summarise so far, there are three methods of making quill plectrums: cut like a pen with a long hollow shaft and a nib; cut like a pen with a nib then cut to a short shaft; and split lengthways. The shape of plectrum overall is different in each case, but the point of contact with the strings is the same, being one side of the calamus.
There is a fourth way. Some images show that the quill is cut lengthways then folded halfway along, the fold being the point of contact with the strings. In Hellenic Folk Musical Instruments, Phoebos Anogeianakis describes the method. “Each plectrum is folded in two thus, so that, as the lutenist plays, he strikes the strings, either on the upstroke or on the downstroke, always with the smooth, bone-like side of the quill. The plectrum built from the white side of the [vulture] quill is considered superior because it is softer, more flexible, and therefore gives the sweetest sound. In olden times, lutenists would use the white pick when they performed for a small audience of few, sensitive revellers, while using the black one for hard, loud playing for hours at village feasts.”
Following this method, the viewer sees two tapered ends of the quill between the fingers, as we see in a fresco in Cappella di San Martino (Chapel of Saint Martin), San Francesco, Assisi, Italy, painted by Simone Martini in 1312–18. Called Saint Martin is knighted or The investiture of Saint Martin by modern commentators, it shows a black and white quill, sliced longways and folded to make a plectrum for a gittern.
It may have been this type of plectrum portrayed by the artist in a copy of De Universo Libri by German theologian Raban Maur (Rabano Mauro, Hrabanus Maurus), 780–856. This copy, dated 1028 (De rerum naturis, Chapter XVIII, Biblioteca dell’Abbazia di Monte Cassino, Italy, ms 132, p. 444), shows a plectrum with a line down the middle like a quill folded in two.
There is no doubt about the folded quill in Italian artist Fra Angelico’s polyptych, The Virgin of Humility, 1433–35 (Thyssen–Bornemisza Collection, on deposit at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya), in which we see an angel with a white quill, folded in half, with a small amount of white feather still attached to one side.
One of the clearest depictions of the folded quill plectrum is in the hand of a cetra player in Girolamo di Benvenuto’s Assumption of the Virgin, painted in 1498 (Museo Diocesano – Diocesan Museum, Montalcino, Italy).
As described by Phoebos Anogeianakis, iconography shows folded quills that are white, black and white, and black. Examples of black folded quills include the gittern player in the Basilica of San Nicola, Tolentino, Italy, 1300–25; …
… the cetra player in a fresco in the Basilica di Santa Caterina di Alessandria, Galatina, made by the workshop of Francesco d’Arezzo, c. 1390–1430; …
… and the lute, psaltery and gittern players in Pere Serra’s altarpiece, Virgin of the Angels, Catalonia, c. 1385 (National Art Museum of Catalonia). The musicians below are taken from two areas of the painting …
… and here we see the details of the sliced and folded black quills.
The lute player in the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady of Valencia, painted by Paolo di Sant Leocadio and Francesco Pagano in 1472, uses a black sliced quill that has been folded at one third of its length rather than folded in half, and we see the remains of some black feathers on the longer end.
Some birds with dark quills have a dappled pattern on the shaft, as we see below left on the wing feathers of a pheasant hen, and on the right of an eagle.
The anonymous artist who produced Virgen de la humildad, 1480, now in the Diocesan Cathedral Museum, Valencia, Spain, painted this pattern on the folded quill of the gittern player, below left, but not on the quill of the lute player, below right.
A closer look shows the pattern on the gittern quill (left) to have been a definite artistic intention, and the change of colour on the lute quill (right) to be the result of worn paint.
To add to these four methods, there are two more possibilities for quills as plectrums, both with the quill being the removable part of a device, either a stylus or a thimble, more of which below.
Gut string – lute, cetra, gittern
Working on the same principle as the sliced and folded quill, a folded string gives a focused point of contact at the fold.
Two paintings by Gerard David of The Netherlands show this type of plectrum (which I use for gittern in the video which begins this article). In his triptych of the Sadano family, c. 1495 (The Louvre, Paris, France), a lutenist plays with a folded string, standing opposite a bray harpist, the Virgin Mary between them.
In Virgin and Child with four angels, 1510–15 (The Met Fifth Avenue, New York), Gerard David again shows a lutenist and bray harpist either side of the Virgin. As we see below, the width and shape of the material clearly indicates a string plectrum.
My own method for making a plectrum of this kind is to use a 1.04 mm gut or nylgut string, cut to around 30 cm in length. Fold it in half and gently bite the fold to a point. For a secure hold, to prevent the string slipping in the fingers while playing, tie a knot at around 2.5 cm from the fold, as we see below. As with most quill plectrums, the string is held between the index and second finger, secured by the thumb, as we see in the painting above.
This is probably what we see in the Mestre de Santa Coloma de Queralt’s Altarpiece of the Saints John, 1356 (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona), the whole below left, the scene with the lutenist below right.
We see in the detail below that there is some ambiguity: is this a folded string or a folded white quill?
There is also some ambiguity in some of the images below of the Elders of the Apocalypse playing cetras in the Basilica inferiore di San Francesco, Assisi, painted by the workshop of Giotto in c. 1310–15.
In the details below we see that some plectrums look like straight white quills, while the shape and pliability of the other plectrums probably indicates gut strings. The contrasting black strings appear to signify that cetras had switched from gut to wire strings by c. 1310–15. (For more on the cetra, click here for the subheading, A history of confusion: citole, gittern and cetra.)
In some medieval images of plucked chordophone players, the nature of the plectrum is not clearly shown. Since the evidence for string plectrums goes all the way back to the first century CE, it is highly likely that many more medieval musicians used strings as plectrums, though it is not always obvious in iconography. One first century representation of a whole string plectrum (below) is from Gandhara in modern-day Pakistan, c. 320 CE (Cleveland Museum of Art), a carving in which a female cymbal player accompanies a male chordophone (oud?) player, whose long plectrum is the same shape and size as his other strings.
There is a similar depiction in the vaulted roof of Gloucester Cathedral, c. 1350 (below). The carving of an unusually large gittern shows a player not holding the instrument or the plectrum in a realistic pose. Comparison of the width of the plectrum with the width of the strings and comparison with the player from Gandhara, c. 320 CE, indicates that the plectrum is likewise an unfolded string.
In Madonna with the Child and the Saints Peter and Paul in the Church of San Nicolò, Treviso, Italy, painted by Antonio Vivarini (fl. c. 1440; d. 1476/84) around a century after the Gloucester gittern, we again see a whole unfolded string plectrum used by a young lutenist.
Stylus plectrums (metal or bone) – citole, cetra
There is one type of plectrum that appears in iconography played almost exclusively with the citole, the only other instrument being the cetra. Just as two of the four types of quill plectrum were based on the quill pen, this next type of plectrum was also modelled on a writing implement, the stylus used with a writing tablet.
A writing tablet was a frame of wood, bone or ivory, with slightly recessed panels filled with wax, a temporary and malleable writing surface on which mistakes could be easily corrected, and the same wax material continually reworked to start again. While permanent texts were written on parchment made of sheepskin or vellum made of calfskin using ink and quills, a wax tablet and stylus was used for practice and for temporary records.
Writing tablets were in common use in Mesopotamia in the 8th century BCE, in Hellenistic Egypt from the 7th century BCE, and in the Roman Empire, stretching from Egypt to Britain, from the 8th century BCE to the 6th century CE. The example above, made of wood and wax, is from Byzantine Egypt, dated 500–700 CE (The Met Fifth Avenue, New York).
Wax tablets continued to be used for temporary writing through the middle ages and the renaissance, as we see below. Ambrose Theodosius Macrobius, c. 385–c. 430, a Roman writer, grammarian and official, is shown using a wax tablet and stylus in a mid–12th century manuscript of his Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis – Commentary on The dream of Scipio (Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen, ms. NKS 218 4°, folio 46v). The use of wax tablets is documented until as late as the mid–19th century in, for example, the fish market in Rouen, France.
The Roman stylus was typically made of iron; while those made in medieval London were usually carved from animal bone. On the non-writing end, the stylus was either spatulate or globular as an eraser to smooth the wax. The writing end was either sharpened to a point or had a sharp metal tip inserted. The accumulated evidence of archaeological finds indicates that when the tip of a bone stylus broke or the metal tip was lost, rather than throw away the stylus, the end of the bone was re-carved.
It is not always easy for modern historians to distinguish between a stylus, a parchment pricker (used to prick holes in a manuscript as a marker for ruling dry lines) and a pin used as a weaving tool or for holding/adorning a hairstyle, since they are made of the same material with similar dimensions and design. Some researchers suggest a stylus has a point and a flat eraser while a parchment pricker has a point and a globular terminal, while others argue both are a stylus. In the descriptions that follow, I will refer to objects in either shape as a stylus.
Whatever the truth of definition, there is a striking resemblance between these objects and the plectrums in iconography used for playing citoles. Below left we see a citole in a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics translated by Robert Grosseteste in 1250–60 (ms. 0222, folio 9v, Bibliothèque Municipale, Avranches, France). On the right is an object identical to the citole plectrum. This is a cast copper alloy Roman stylus with a missing point, found in 2010 in the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire. It is 11.32 cm long, about the right size to double as a plectrum, dated 50–350 CE, around a millennium before there were any citoles.
Below left is a citole in the English Peterborough Psalter, 1300–25 (KBR – Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels, Ms. 9961–62, folio 14r). Adjacent to it are two objects resembling the plectrum. The first is a stylus with its iron tip intact, found in 2015 in Vintry, London. It is made of bone or ivory that has turned dark brown since it was made in 1270–1600. This is the right period for it to double as a citole plectrum, and it may have functioned at such at 6.9 cm long (exactly the length of the antler citole plectrum in the video that begins this article). Archaeological finds of a similar design often have similar measurements, or may be up to 9.3 cm long. On the right is a stylus of bone, also with a globular head and decorative ridges. It is 8.4 cm long, missing its metal tip, was found in London and made in the 13th–15th century, again the right period for the citole. These measurements are considerably smaller than the plectrum depicted in The Peterborough Psalter, if we take the proportions literally, but size and perspective distortion were typical aspects of medieval iconography, as we also see with the bent neck, and a plectrum of the actual size depicted would be unwieldy.
Among the angel musicians in the ceiling vault of Gloucester Cathedral is a citole player, c. 1350, holding a plectrum very similar in design to a 14th–15th century decorated bone pin, 6.5 cm long, identified by the Museum of London as either a weaving tool or a stylus. It could just as easily be a citole plectrum.
What are we to make of this concordance? As we have seen, the stylus and wax tablet were in use for millennia, and even the designs spanned centuries, as we see with the same decorative shape used for a 1st–4th century Roman stylus and a 13th century French citole plectrum. The Roman stylus was made of copper, and it is not impossible that the citole plectrum was made from the same material if we suppose that, like the stylus, it had a removable tip. This could not, of course, have been a metal tip as with the stylus, as this would quickly shred the gut strings; but we do have a ready working model for a removable tip: the quill plectrum of the harpsichord. As we see in the video below, this type of removable plectrum is made from a harder, more solid part of the quill and, as with the stylus, it is inserted into a permanent device.
Some images of citole players appear to confirm the idea of a stylus plectrum-holder with a removable quill. In Beinecke MS 229, folio 99v, France, c. 1275–1300 (Yale University Library), below left, we see an apparently three–pronged device. This cannot practically be three quills, as the central protrusion is proud of the other two, which means only the central quill would make contact with the strings. It may be an artist’s way of trying to show what we see on folio 14v of Walter de Milemete’s De Nobilitatibus, Sapientiis, et Prudentiis Regum – On the Nobility, Wisdom, and Prudence of Kings, 1326–27 (Christ Church MS 92, Christ Church, University of Oxford, folio 14v), below right: a centrally embedded quill, protruding from a stylus.
The French Lorraine Bible, 14th century (Bibliothèque municipale, ms Nancy BM 3, folio 215v), below left, shows a stylus–type plectrum-holder which terminates in a ring with a cord attached to the neck of the citole. This replicates the object below right: a bronze stylus of the 8th–10th century, 6.4 cm in length, which was attached to its wax tablet. In this example, the point of contact with the strings can be interpreted two ways: the line down the centre of the tip may be the split in the nib of a broad quill, or the line may indicate a narrow quill inserted in the centre of the stylus.
In the French Bible de Jean Jennart, 1290–99 (Bibliothèque de Reims, ms 42, folio 126v), below left, we see another citole with the plectrum holder terminating in a ring, attached to the instrument by a cord. Here we see a plectrum holder that, if we take it literally, looks unlike any stylus I am aware of. The presumably metal device has a stem or handle which expands to an open square, at the top of which is a bar or clamp which in some way secures the plectrum for playing. We see similar in a marginal note of a Flemish copy of Alanus de Insulis’ de Planctu Naturae, c. 1390 (MS Brussels, Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, 21069, folio 39r), below right. If we view the plectrum holder as drawn with the tip at the top, we see an arrow head making contact with the strings and perhaps some decorative design below. If we judge it to be the other way up, we may see the spatulate terminus of a stylus nearest the citole and, the other end, a similar way of securing the plectrum to the device as we see in the Bible de Jean Jennart.
We may never know quite what is being portrayed in these images, but the following two mutually exclusive options are distinct possibilities.
The writing stylus and plectrum stylus were not separate objects, but the stylus was adapted to be used as a plectrum. In the case of a bone stylus sharpened to a point, it could probably have served as a citole plectrum without any modification, except perhaps to make sure the tip was not so sharp as to shred the strings. In the case of a writing stylus with an inserted metal tip, it may have just been a case of inserting a quill instead, perhaps with some modification of the cavity. If this account is correct, then excavations which give us the exact size of a writing stylus suggest that when depicted in art as a plectrum for a citole, it is typically shown exaggeratedly large. If we look again, for example, at the citole stylus plectrum depicted in The Peterborough Psalter, 1300–25, shown on the right (KBR – Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels, Ms. 9961–62, folio 14r), we see the difficultly of believing the relative size of the stylus as a citole plectrum (just as we shouldn’t take literally the exaggerated size of the trefoil or the bent citole neck).
Alternatively, we could conclude that the writing stylus was the model for one type of citole plectrum, but they were not the same object. If this was the case, then citole plectrums in art may have been shown realistically, larger than we would expect a stylus to be; and citole stylus-like plectrums may have been made from material other than animal bone, such as ivory, horn, antler, or wood. The stylus-type plectrum in the hand of the citole player in Gloucester Cathedral, c. 1350 (shown again below) at first appears to confirm that a carved plectrum was larger than a similarly designed stylus. However, when we see that this carver got other proportions wrong, carving the tail end of the citole thicker than the shoulders, and that the plectrum is held in an unrealistic pose that would give the player no control, these erroneous details raise questions about the reality of the proportions generally.
I am convinced by the first explanation as, unlike the second, it takes into account both the known characteristics of iconography and the thematic connection between writing implements and plectrums.
On the basis of the striking similarity between a bone stylus and a citole plectrum, I asked luthier Paul Baker – who made the citole and gittern in the video which begins this article – to make me some citole plectrums from antler, a material close to bone, of similar dimensions to the styli recovered in excavations. Two made from roe deer antler are shown below.
These antler plectrums are excellent – by far the best for use with the citole. The longer plectrum is used to play La septime estampie Real (The seventh Royal estampie) in the video below …
… and the shorter plectrum is used in the video which begins this article, and again below to play Miro genere (begins at 2.04) and Astripotens famulos (begins at 4.18).
There is further discussion of bone and antler as plectrum material below.
Tethered plectrums (bone, ivory, metal) – kithara, cetra, citole
The kithara, the lyre of classical Greece, is usually shown with its plectrum attached, as we see in the example below left, a detail from a kylix (wine cup) from Attica, Greece, dated 470–460 BCE (British Museum Vase E132). Excavations have uncovered large kithara plectrums made of animal bone and contemporaneous accounts state that the kithara plectrum was made of ivory. Similarly, below right is a Hittite chordophone from Alacahöyük, Turkey, 1400–1300 BCE, with its plectrum of unknown material attached to the instrument by a tether.
Below are two Italian cetras with tethered plectrums. On the left, from the Bibbia di Santa Cecilia Trastevere, c. 1073–80 (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome, Barb. lat. 587, folio 194r), we see an indistinct plectrum that may be bone, or similarly hard-wearing horn, ivory or antler – at least, it has to be material hard enough to be able to have a hole drilled in it for the attachment cord. On the right, from a 13th century Bible, probably from Bologna (Bibliothèque municipale, Le Puy-en-Velay, MS 0001, folio 173v), we see a cetra with a tethered plectrum-holder which terminates in a ring, which must therefore be made of metal, as described above.
Returning to citoles, below we see two more with plectrums of unknown material, presumably shaped bone, or metal with a quill insert, as described above, attached by a cord to the instrument: left, from folio 136v of ms 0190, Notre–Dame Cathedral, 1266 (Bibliothèque Municipale, Cambrai, France); right, from the wings of the altar at Monatasterio de Suso, San Millán de Cogolla, Rioja, Spain, 1350–1400 (Museo de La Rioja).
As we see from this short survey, the presence of a ring on the tethered stylus–as–plectrum–holder indicates an iron stylus. With a tether and without a ring, the plectrum could theoretically be one of four similar and naturally hard-wearing materials – ivory, bone, horn, or antler.
Ivory – lute, gittern, cetra, kithara, ?citole
A verse by Italian poet, rhetorician and singer-musician, Aurelio Brandolini, informs us that ivory plectrums were used in the 15th century. The lines were written in 1473 when the d’Este family of Ferrara visited Naples, bringing with them their musician, Pietrobono Bursellis (1417–97), who served them from c. 1440 for the rest of his life. Pietrobono sang and played lute, gittern and cetra. In the middle ages and renaissance, any plucked instrument – lute, gittern, cetra, harp, orpharion, vihuela, etc. – was associated with the classical Greek lyre the kithara, or cithara in Latin, so in literature the distinguishing name of an instrument was regularly replaced by cithara or lyra. This is so in the following passage, which means we cannot be sure whether Pietrobono played lute, gittern or cetra with an ivory plectrum – it may well have been all three.
“Come then, observe, any of you who are afire with the love of the Muses, set before your eyes each of these things. Play close attention, as his [Pietrobono’s] left hand runs along the entire cithara … You could swear there could hardly be just one hand and one lyre, but a thousand hands flying, a thousand lyres sounding. Attend closely now as he strikes with his ivory plectrum”.
Ivory is the tusk of any animal – elephant, mammoth, walrus, hippopotamus, sperm whale, orca, narwhal or warthog. It has long been used as plectrum material, as we read in Book III of The Elegies by Roman poet, Sextus Propertius, c. 50–c. 15 BCE (translated by A. S. Kline): “Phoebus, spotting me from his Castalian grove, leant on his golden lyre by a cave door saying, ‘What’s your business with that stream, you madman? Who asked you to meddle with epic song? There’s not a hope of fame for you from it, Propertius’ … He said it then showed me a place, with his ivory plectrum, where a new path had been made in mossy ground.”
The size, shape and colour of plectrums in iconography from the first half of the first millennium may indicate that it wasn’t only the lyre that used ivory as plectrum material. Below left, a Byzantine mosaic in Qasr Libya (Castle Libya), founded 539 CE, now preserved in Qasr Libya Museum, shows a man playing with a white trianguloid plectrum. We see similar, a little more clearly, below right, from a 6th century mosaic in the Great Palace of the Byzantine Emperors, Constantinople.
The instrument is tentatively identified as a Roman or Byzantine pandura (pandoura, pandore). Four instruments survive: the one below is from the Roman/Byzantine period of Egypt, 200–500 CE (The Met Fifth Avenue, New York).
The ivory plectrum below, 20.5 cm long, is similar to that seen in some images of Roman or Byzantine pandura players. This is a plectrum for a shamisen, a Japanese instrument derived in the 16th century from the earlier Chinese sanxian. The shamisen is still played today, using a traditional plectrum of ivory or wood, or of modern plastic.
Given the historical longevity of ivory plectrums, they were likely to have been used by players of lute, gittern and cetra other than Pietrobono, and possibly by players of other chordophones.
In the church of Saint Mary Magdalene, Warham, Norfolk, there is a stained glass window (below) dated c. 1450, contemporaneous with Pietrobono, which shows two lutenists with long, thin, white plectrums. The one on the right has a horizontal line near the striking tip of the vertically held plectrum, which almost certainly represents the nib of a quill. The one on the left does not. We must be extremely wary of making too much of a small detail which may simply be an omission or an artistic variation, but we should also bear in mind that if a medieval ivory plectrum was long and thin, like a risha (oud plectrum) or quill, as seems likely, then quill and ivory plectrums may not always be visibly distinguishable in iconography.
Bone, antler and horn – theoretically a range of chordophones
Just as ivory has a long and ancient history of practical and decorative uses, so do the similarly hard and durable bone, antler and horn.
In 2016–18, Lincolnshire County Council carried out archaeological work to preserve historical artefacts in preparation for building the Lincoln Eastern Bypass. The findings were remarkable: 20,000 items from a period spanning 12,000 years, including Mesolithic hunter-gatherer flint tools, Bronze Age burial mounds, Iron Age and Roman settlements, a high status Roman building, an Anglo-Saxon settlement, and a medieval monastic grange (farm building), founded in the 12th century by Kirkstead Abbey. Among the discoveries were the two bone pins on the right, illustrating the use of that material in a shape similar to citole plectrums. They are described in the January 2017 report as Roman bone pins. In the April 2017 report, what appears to be one of the same pins is pictured again in a gloved hand, described as a medieval bone pin. The exact date matters little in the sense that the design and use of bone pins did not change during the Roman and medieval periods.
From January to April every year there is a plentiful supply of antler as, after mating, the testosterone level of male deer falls, which causes the pedicle – the tissue and bone at the base of the antler – to weaken, and thus the antlers are shed. The earliest evidence for the use of antler is from the Late Paleolithic period, 50,000 to 12,000 years ago, when Cro-Magnons, the first early modern humans, made tools, weapons, ornaments and toys from antler. In Britain, antler and bone were used during the Roman and medieval (Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Plantagenet) periods for decorative and practical purposes to make, for example, pins, combs, fasteners, needles, buckles, bracelets, needles, dice and gaming pieces, spoons, knife handles, candle holders, writing tablets, and musical pipes, evidenced by common finds in excavations.
This being the case, it would be unsurprising if not only ivory but antler and bone were used for plectrum material. In the following examples we see long, thin, white plectrums that would be identified as quills if that is our preconception. However, in these examples of five citoles and a gittern, the plectrums are not depicted as either tubular or sliced and folded, so they could just as easily be bone or antler.
Antler is structurally very similar to bone and can be worked in the same way. The roe deer antlers below (marked 1) are solid white under the brown outer covering, giving substantial material to work with. However, the uneven shape means that the whole antler cannot be used. Before being turned on a lathe, the sides of the antler must be made roughly parallel by being cut with a bandsaw, which means the top antler, a little over 13 cm long, had to be reduced to 7 cm to be workable, and the second, roughly 21 cm long, had to be cut down to 11 cm. Luthier Paul Baker turned the roe deer antlers into the shape and size of bone stylus plectrums, as we see below with plectrums 1a and 1b.
Below we see two cross-sections of red deer antlers, showing the brown surface around a compact white outer layer and an inner brown slightly spongy centre. The hard white bony material can be worked, the brown softer matter cannot which, added to the curvature, means there is insufficient material to make stylus-type plectrums with this type of antler. Instead, as we see above with plectrums 2a–2d, Paul fashioned plectrums into the shape of a risha or long quill (2a–c), or the shape of a short quill (2d). In each case, the thickness was tapered for flexibility at the playing end, as we see above. It may have been a plectrum in this shape that was played by Pietrobono, but made of ivory, which is more hard, dense, and heavy than antler or bone.
Of the plectrums above, 2c and 2d were shaped and left with their natural finish; 1a–b and 2a–b were polished, which highlights the colour and natural markings.
Horn is made of keratin, the same material as fingernails, hooves, and hair. It is softer than bone or antler, and more malleable: when heated in boiling water or over a fire, it becomes soft and can be moulded into a desired shape; and if thinned down and oiled, it becomes transparent. Horn was therefore used in lanterns as protection from the flame without blocking out the light, and for other practical purposes such as knife handles, drinking vessels, and musical instruments. It can also be worked to make a durable plectrum. Below is a long, flat, risha-type horn plectrum made for me by Paul, which works very well. As with red deer antler plectrums, it was sliced thinly then scraped on the playing end to make a flexible tip. (This is the plectrum used to play the second citole in the video which begins this article.)
Another approach to horn is based on an interpretation of 10 plucked chordophones depicted in the Stuttgart Psalter, which probably originated in Paris, c. 820–30 (Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart, Cod. bibl. fol. 23), 2 of which are shown below.
The Stuttgart Psalter plectrums are off-white or brown, which appears to confirm their identification as horn. The name of the instrument is unknown, and is called by modern commentators a Carolingian lute or Carolingian cithara: Carolingian for the time period, the rule of Charlemagne’s family in the 7th–9th century, and lute or cithara for the instrument. It clearly isn’t a lute that musicians of the medieval or renaissance periods would recognise, and cithara was both the name of a lyre in ancient Greece and Rome and concurrently a general term for any stringed instrument (explained here), so the latter, because general, is a more appropriate term.
Dutch luthier Jan van Cappelle has noted the distinct curve on the Stuttgart Psalter plectrums, and reports that this can be achieved naturally by cutting a horn across the bend, as shown above, or bent by the application of heat.
Above we noted the visual similarity between the plectrum for the tentatively identified Roman or Byzantine pandura and the trianguloid ivory plectrum used for the Japanese shamisen. Jan van Cappelle offers a different credible interpretation, that this plectrum was also fashioned from horn, maintaining its natural curve. Below we see his production of the plectrum and of the instrument itself. Jan reports that he didn’t think the plectrum would be comfortable, but it works well and gives the player a high degree of control for melody playing.
Bone pen – citole
In iconography we see some plectrums made of a whole modified bone. Whole bone plectrums are illustrated only with citoles.
In the first two English examples below, the nature of the plectrum isn’t clear, as in both cases the artist was evidently struggling with the depiction generally. In The Luttrell Psalter, 1325–40 (British Library Add MS 42130, folio 274r), below left, the citole thumb–hole is shown impossibly carved through the fingerboard so that the strings pass over it, and while the general shape for a bone plectrum is right, the proportions are exaggerated. In The Tickhill Psalter, c. 1310 (Spenser Collection, New York Public Library, MS 26, folio 17r), below right, the thumb-hole is so exaggeratedly large that the whole hand – not just the thumb – is inside it and, while the plectrum is more bone-like, it is held in way that would make playing impossible.
In British Library Arundel MS 83, c. 1308–40, we see more accurately what was intended. Arundel MS 83 is two Anglo–Norman manuscripts combined. Folios 1r–116v are the Howard Psalter, folios 117r–135v the De Lisle Psalter. Folios 33v and 63v of the Howard Psalter, below left and right respectively, show two hybrids, both using bones for plectrums which are clearly shown sharpened to a point on the end that makes contact with the strings, with the joint on the other end.
In the De Lisle Psalter, folio 134v, we see the same type of plectrum played by a citole-playing angel.
We see the bone plectrum again in MS D.40, c. 1300 (Jesus College, Oxford, folio 8r), below left.
Above right is an object the same shape and approximate size. This has been identified by The Museum of London as a dip pen from the 13th–15th century, 12.1 cm long, made of the radius bone (long wing bone) of a goose. Dip pens were made by hollowing out the centre of a reed, a piece of wood, or a small bone from a goat or bird. For a bone pen, the maker – most likely a monk or scribe – scraped the marrow from inside the bone and sharpened one end to a point, as we see above. Another example, below, was found during excavations at Drapers’ Hall, Coventry, in 2019, dated 16th–17th century.
The quill, the stylus and the modified small bone collectively demonstrate the close relationship between writing implements and plectrums, so close that it is not clear whether pens and plectrums were distinct from one another or had an interchangeable application. It is entirely possible that objects such as these, discovered in excavations and identified as pens, were used as citole plectrums in the 13th and 14th century.
Plectrums of unknown material
Some plectrums in iconography are difficult to identify and categorise.
For example, the plectrum in the hand of the citole player in the angel choir of Lincoln Cathedral, 1280, doesn’t appear to fit easily into any of the categories described above. Due to the medium, carved in stone, the plectrum may appear more substantial than it would do in life, and it is difficult to judge whether the thinner plucking end of the plectrum was carved that way or is this shape as a result of stone erosion.
The gittern at eye level on the internal north wall of Beverley Minster was carved in 1330–90. The instrument is missing the original tail end, which was replaced by John Percy Baker in the late 19th or early 20th century (erroneously imitating a citole), part of major repair work on the 14th century minstrels. As we see below right, the apparently original hand holds a tubular plectrum that is probably a quill, but a bird bone of the kind used by citole players cannot entirely be ruled out and, if it were so, it would be a unique example of an instrument other than a citole being played with such a plectrum.
We have seen the tiny quill plectrum used by the lutenist in Masaccio’s Virgin and Child, the central section of a polyptych altarpiece made for a church in Pisa in 1426 (The National Gallery, London), and we see this again below right. Below centre we see the plectrum of the lutenist on the left, which may be a thick bass string or a strip of bark from a hardwood tree. Birch or eucalyptus bark are occasionally used in the modern day to make guitar plectrums. Other practical possibilities are walnut, ebony, or rosewood bark.
Plectrum playing technique
In part 2, we examine the practical evidence for medieval plectrum technique. Iconography is presented to demonstrate medieval ways of holding a plectrum; suggestions are made for easy arrangements of monophony using a plectrum; the myth that plectrum instruments could not play polyphony is dispelled; and evidence is presented for an intermediate stage in the 15th century between playing with a plectrum and with fingertips, using both simultaneously. Finally, we answer the question: were plectrums always used to play medieval plucked chordophones?
© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.
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3 thoughts on “Medieval plectrums: the written, iconographical and material evidence. Part 1/2: Medieval plectrum materials and manufacture.”
I also suggest leather plectrums, I tried it on citoles and it works like a charm.
A lot of different shapes are possible 🙂
Thank you, Claudio.
I’ve not come across leather plectrums before. Is that a personal discovery that works for you, or do you know of any historical evidence for them?
All the best.
Unfortunately no evidence. My father recommended this and made me some to try out.
Best wishes !