Medieval plectrums: the written, iconographical and material evidence. Part 2/2: Medieval and early renaissance plectrum technique.

Part 1 brought together the written, iconographical and material evidence for the characteristics of plectrums used to play the gittern, lute, psaltery, citole and cetra, made from quills, gut strings, metal, bone, and ivory.

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 accompaniment of monophonic melodies; the myth that plectrum instruments could not play polyphony is disproven; and evidence is presented for an intermediate stage in the 15th century between playing with a plectrum and playing with fingertips, using both simultaneously. Finally, we answer the question: were plectrums always used to play medieval plucked chordophones?

This article includes 6 videos to illustrate medieval and early renaissance plectrum technique, beginning with citole and gittern playing an untitled polyphonic instrumental – probably a ductia – from British Library Harley 978, folio 8v-9r, c. 1261–65. 

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.  

In the video above, Ian Pittaway on citole and gittern uses medieval-style plectrums to play a polyphonic instrumental from British Library Harley 978, folio 8v-9r, c. 1261-65. In the manuscript, this piece is untitled. It partially fits the description of a ductia given by Parisian music theorist Johannes de Grocheio (or Grocheo, or Jean de Grouchy) in his Ars musicae (The art of music), c. 1300. He describes the ductia as an instrumental – “it lacks letter and text” – to be danced to – “they arouse the spirit of man to move decorously according to the art which they call dancing”. The ductia is light and joyful – “the [liturgical] sequence is sung in the manner of a ductia, so that it may lead and give joy”, composed in two voice polyphony – “The Pater noster is a cantus having two parts in the manner of a punctus [point, i.e. section] of a ductia”. Contrary to the piece in Harley 978, which has 6 puncta, Grocheio states that “the number of puncta in a ductia they placed at 3 … There are also some ductia having 4 puncta such as the ductia Pierron.” However, on this point, Grocheio is probably not a reliable witness, as he puts the number of puncta in an estampie at 6 or 7, whereas the estampies written in the Manuscrit du Roi contemporaneous with Grocheio have variously 4, 5, 6 and 7 puncta. It is therefore still likely that the Harley 978 piece is a ductia.

Plectrum playing technique I: the hold  

The method of holding a plectrum is vital so that the musician knows it is secure in the hand to focus only on playing. In the medieval period and into the renaissance, the most common way of achieving a secure hold as shown in iconography was to place the plectrum between the forefinger and second finger, held in place by the thumb. We see this in typical examples below with a range of plectrum types, all of which are described and explained in the first article, shown in practice in the video above.

The first two images show the hold with quills in the shape of a pen and a sliver, both used to play lute.

Left: lute in a stained glass window, Saint Mary’s Church, Atherington, Devon, 15th century.
Right: lute in Coronation of the Virgin by Master of the Évora Altarpiece, c. 1490-1500
(Museu de Évora, Portugal).
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window, click in new window to further enlarge.)

We see the same hold below with a lengthways sliced and folded quill, used for gittern and psaltery.  

Left: Gittern in Cappella di San Martino (Saint Martin’s Chapel), San Francesco, Assisi, Italy,
painted by Simone Martini in 1312-18, Saint Martin is knighted or The investiture of Saint Martin.
Right: Psaltery in Pere Serra’s altarpiece, Virgin of the Angels, Catalonia, c. 1385
(National Art Museum of Catalonia).

The same plectrum hold is shown again with a folded string for lute and a bone plectrum for citole; …

Left: Gerard David, Virgin and Child with four angels, 1510-15 (The Met Fifth Avenue, New York). 
Right: De Lisle Psalter, c. 1308–c.1340 (British Library Arundel MS 83.II, folio 134v).

… and with stylus plectrums for citole.

Left: Robert Grosseteste’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, 1250–60
(Bibliothèque Municipale, Avranches, France, ms. 0222, folio 9v).
Right: Gloucester Cathedral, c. 1350. Photograph © Ian Pittaway.

In a minority of cases we see a different hold, held between the forefinger and thumb, as we see below with probably a quill pen plectrum for gittern, a short nib quill for lute, and a sliver of quill for psaltery.

Left: stone carving of a gittern player in Beverley Minster, England, 1330–90.
Photograph © Ian Pittaway.
Centre: engraving print by Wenzel von Olmütz, Germany, c. 1481–c. 1500.
© The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Right: King David, Girolamo da Santa Croce, Venice, 1500–50
(David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago).

The plectrum hold of the citole player in the Apocalypse de Saint Jean (below left) and the lutenist in a stained glass window in Norfolk (right) may at first look impractical, but they are both good approximations of one of the risha (long plectrum) holds popularly used for the oud. The plucking end is held between forefinger and thumb with three fingers over the plectrum, secured in place between the third finger and little finger. To achieve this, hold the plucking hand palm up with the plectrum across the fingers; place the little finger on top of the plectrum and automatically the thumb moves to the index finger to keep the plectrum in place; turn the hand over and there is now a secure grip with the playing end of the plectrum held between the thumb and the index finger at the middle joint, the other end secured between the third finger and little finger (as demonstrated in this video). The Norfolk lutenist below right shows exactly this; the Apocalypse citole below left appears to show the first stage with the hand open.

Left: Apocalypse de Saint Jean, 14th century
(Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 13096, folio 41r).
Right: Stained glass window in the church of Saint Andrew, Field Dalling, Norfolk, c. 1500.

Another variation on securing the plectrum is shown in Sano di Pietro’s Coronation of the Madonna with angels (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena. Italy), c. 1450, with what is probably a short, longway-sliced black quill, not folded (explained in the first article). It is held between the first two fingers, secured by the thumb, as in the most popular hold, then the loose end is pushed between the second and third fingers for extra security. This works well with an unfolded string as a plectrum, too.  

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

When a quill or string folded in half was used as a plectrum, we cannot usually see in iconography if it was simply folded and held in the hand or if the two halves were secured in some way. In my playing, I find a quill or string that is simply folded will move around between fingers and thumb, making continuous playing difficult. I am aware of only piece of iconography that shows the solution, and it does so clearly: a quill plectrum used with a gittern in a detail from a detached 14th century fresco of the Virgin, now in Pinacoteca comunale (Municipal art gallery), Piazza Armerina, Enna, Sicily (below), shows the quill folded in half and tied near the fold.

Photograph by lucimagrii, used with her kind permission.

I know of no such clear iconography that shows this solution for a string plectrum, but practicality dictates the same or similar method. This is easily done for a string by tying a knot around 2.5 cm from the fold to secure the shape, as we see below.

4 string plectrums, left to right:
1. folded gut 1.45 mm
2. folded gut 1.05 mm
3. unfolded gut 1.05 mm
4. nylgut 1.04 mm

Each of the string plectrums above has its merits, and I encourage anyone new to the idea to experiment to see what gauge of string works well for you. I have the following observations.

1. Folded gut 145 gives a big, warm sound. The thicker string gives less dexterity in fast passages than the other thinner strings pictured.
2. Folded gut 105 gives a thinner, more trebly tone, and more dexterity (because there is less plectrum drag than the thicker string) in especially tricky passages.
3. Unfolded gut 105 – the same as 2 but unfolded and therefore shorter, so one thin end of the string makes contact with the courses. This creates the same tone as 2. It gives the player maximum dexterity, but it is more tricky than a folded plectrum to hold, so will take more practice.
4. Nylgut 104, though as near as doesn’t matter the same gauge as gut strings 2 and 3, feels a little more rigid and gives a louder, warmer sound than the equivalent gut, nearer to the sound of plectrum 1 than 2 and 3.

I also use folded nylgut 88 for maximum dexterity in tricky pieces. What will suit you will depend on a range of practical factors and personal preferences, so do experiment to find out what suits you best.  

The position of the arm is vital for efficient playing. We see the commonly portrayed arm position, coming from underneath the instrument, shown with an oud player in the Cantigas de Santa María (below left) and a citole player in Beinecke MS 229 (right). This is impractical in reality, as it locks the arm and hand in a position where fluid playing is impossible and even secure contact with the strings is impractical. In the depiction of the Beinecke citole player, the hand is so twisted from any practical position that there is nothing about the arm and hand that is credible in reality. It is a typical (but not universal) aspect of medieval artistic perspective distortion, allowing the viewer to see parts of the instrument that would be out of sight in reality.

Left: Cantigas de Santa María, Códice de los músicos, 1257–83
(Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid, RBME Cat b-I-2, folio 162r).
Right: Yale University Library, Beinecke MS 229, folio 99v, c. 1275–1300.

It isn’t only in medieval depictions that we see this impossible ‘arm under’ position: it was an ancient artistic convention for showing plucked chordophone players, as we see in the examples below from previous millennia.

Left: from Haft Tapeh in the Iranian province of Khuzestan, 1500 BCE.
Right: a Hittite chordophone from Alacahöyük, Turkey, 1400–1300 BCE.
Left: a figure from Susa, Iran, 14th–12th century BCE.
Right: a musician on a frieze on the entrance to a Buddhist temple
excavated from Airtam, Uzbekistan, 1st century CE.

Medieval and pre-medieval art on a flat surface (manuscripts, paintings, drawings) typically distorts perspective to flatten three dimensions into two and, in all mediums, pre-modern art typically exaggerates some features while minimising or omitting others. When we compare the images above with a practical playing position below (my own hands), we see that ancient artists changed the perspective to make it flatter and lowered the arm to make more of the instrument visible to the viewer.  

The ‘arm under’ position on two citoles, from Walter de Milemete’s
De Nobilitatibus, Sapientiis, et Prudentiis RegumOn the Nobility,
Wisdom, and Prudence of Kings, 1326–27 (Christ Church MS 92,
Christ Church, University of Oxford, folios 31v and 43r).

Plectrum playing technique II: monophony to polyphony   

There is no surviving evidence for how a solo player of a medieval plectrum instrument performed music that is written monophonically. There are, however, circumstantial clues.   

In medieval music, organum refers to an additional voice or musical line added to monophonic music to make it polyphonic. The term referred to instrumental as well as vocal music, so writings of the 8th or 9th century about organum may refer to either. In written records, organum originally referred to methods of accompanying monophonic plainchant, but its origin may have been earlier and secular.

In church music of the late 9th century, organum was not written down, but added to monophony in the act of singing, so this type of organum, known as free organum, was a style of extempore performance rather than a written piece of music. The first surviving document for the principles of free organum is the anonymous 9th century Musica enchiriadis and its companion volume Schola enchiriadis. They describe note against note parallel octaves and double octaves, parallel fifths below and parallel fourths below and above, with some variation at places where organum moves to a unison or octave at a cadence. Parallelism is also described by Guido d’Arezzo in his Micrologus de Musica of 1026, with the comment that it sounded too harsh. Nevertheless, in the 1270s Elias Salomon still testified to parallel fifths, octaves and twelfths in his Scienta artis musicae.

Organum began to be written down at the end of the 10th and beginning of the 11th century with the advent of tropers, books of tropes (from the Greek, τρόπος, tropos, a turn or a change), additions of new music to existing chants in which organum was written but the plainsong it accompanied was not included. In the late 11th or early 12th century there were stylistic shifts, with an increasing emphasis on contrary motion of voices, resulting in voice crossings.

What this potentially means for medieval players of gittern, lute, psaltery, citole and cetra is that musicians may well have read or, more likely, learned by ear some monophonic music and had the skill to add free organum as they played. This need not be taxing. A simple and effective way to do this – for which there is no direct medieval evidence, but it’s effortless and it works – is to play the melody, adding the open higher or lower course adjacent to the course on which the melody is played. When the course on which the tune is played changes, the adjacent course and therefore the accompaniment also changes. This is the technique used on the first citole and the gittern in the video of La Uitime estampie Real which begins the first article on plectrums, a performance also available by clicking the picture below. 

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.
La Uitime estampie RealThe Eighth Royal estampie – from Manuscrit du Roi
(Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 844), France, c. 1300,
played by Ian Pittaway on gittern and citole. 

I suggest three variations to playing the adjacent open course.

First, when a rising phrase begins on an open course, fret the course below to play an initial unison from which the melody rises, the initial note on the fretted unison continuing as the melody moves away from it – see 00.04 and 00.23 in the video of La Uitime estampie Real above.

Second, when a falling phrase ends on an open course, fret the course below to play the final note of the phrase as the phrase begins, so that the melody descends to a unison – see 00.06 and 00.13 in the video above.

Third, at a point when an opening phrase begins or a resolving phrase ends, fret the course above at an interval of a fifth to make a consonance – see 03.20 in the Uitime estampie video. 

The effect of these techniques is directly in line with medieval music theory: polyphony begins on a perfect consonance, being a unison, an octave or a fifth, moving through the other intervals, imperfect consonances and dissonances, to finally arrive back at a perfect consonance.   

These same techniques can also be observed played on solo citole in the video below of La septime estampie RealThe seventh Royal estampie. For examples, listen and watch for the arrangement at 0.08, 0.16, 0.20, 0.27, 0.31, 0.39, 0.42 and 0.52.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.
La septime estampie Real played on citole by Ian Pittaway.
The piece is from Manuscrit du Roi, a manuscript of troubadour songs
written c. 1250, with instrumental pieces such as this estampie added c. 1300.

For other historically-attested ways of turning written monophony into performed polyphony, see Performing medieval music. Part 2/3: Turning monophony into polyphony.

Plectrum playing technique III: written polyphony  

There is a widespread assumption that medieval plectrum instruments were capable only of single line monophony. Statements by Matthew Spring (2001) typify the view: “the older, medieval type of lute, perhaps more suitable for single-line plectrum playing … Renaissance lutes suitable for polyphony became popular during the [16th] century … lute technique developed from the monophonic plectrum style to the polyphonic finger-plucking style” (p. 42). The claim is that there is a straightforward equivalence: the plectrum plays monophony and fingers play polyphony. The assumption is further explained that “by discarding the plectrum and plucking directly with the fingers, harmonic and contrapuntal play became possible” (p. 149). This view cannot be sustained with evidence – indeed, no evidence is offered – and it is, as I will show, demonstrably erroneous.

Also writing of the development of the lute, Douglas Alton Smith (2002) states rightly that “the plectrum in itself does not restrict the player to single lines” (p. 43). I imagine that Matthew Spring’s assumption about use of the plectrum compared with fingers comes from not considering the difference between medieval and renaissance music. It is certainly true that the polyphonic music of the renaissance can only be played on a lute with fingers as the voices are wide apart, so sometimes voices may need to be played on non-adjacent courses – say, courses 1, 3 and 5. This wide spreading of voices is a renaissance innovation, not created until the 15th century in the music of the hugely influential John Dunstaple. Medieval music is written in equal or similarly pitched voices, so that voices often meet on unisons and cross over each other. For this reason, they can be played almost entirely on adjacent courses with a plectrum as long as the complexity of the music does not preclude it. The piece in the opening video of this article, for example, an untitled polyphonic instrumental from British Library Harley 978, folio 8v-9r, c. 1261–65 (which you can also see and hear by clicking here), could not be played polyphonically by a single musician due to the complex relationship between the two voices, and this is the case regardless of whether the player uses a plectrum or fingers.

Five examples will suffice to make the general point about the ability of a medieval plectrum instrument to play polyphonic parts simultaneously.

The first three examples are from Lambeth Palace Library MS 457, c. 1200, folio 192r: Miro genere (By a wondrous birth), Astripotens famulos (Kind ruler of the stars), and Mater dei (Mother of God). They are my own intabulations for citole and gittern respectively of two (and briefly three) voice polyphony. The pieces are written non-mensurally, so the rhythm is my own interpretation based on word and syllable placement and phrasing. (My method is explained in the article here.)

In Miro genere (By a wondrous birth), the lines of the two voices are mostly playable on adjacent courses. At four points in Miro genere the distance between the two voices is an octave, f’ and f’’, including on the opening syllable. These two notes cannot be played together on adjacent courses in citole tuning, but only on courses 1 and 3. The solution for a plectrum player is to lightly dampen the second course with the left hand while playing the first and third courses, as a modern jazz guitarist does when playing parallel octaves. We see this solution practiced in the video below. In another piece from Lambeth Palace Library MS 457, Mater dei, f’ and f’’ are played together nine times. As we see in the video below, the same dampening solution is used.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.
Three pieces unique to Lambeth Palace MS 357, c, 1200, each sung then played on citole or gittern.

Click on the blue text to go to the part of the video signified.
• In the video above, Miro genere (By a wondrous birth) in 2 voices begins at 0.28.
• Miro genere on citole begins at 2.05. Octaves on non-adjacent courses, dampening the course between, are played at 2.05, 2.14, 2.15, and 2.24.
• Astripotens famulos (Kind ruler of the stars) in 2 voices begins at 2.44.
• Astripotens famulos on citole begins at 4.18.
• Mater dei (Mother of God) in 2 and 3 voices begins at 4.48.
• Mater dei on gittern begins at 5.49. Octaves on non-adjacent courses, dampening the course between, are played at 5.51, 5.57, 6.03, 6.09, 6.13, and 6.14.

The fourth example to demonstrate plectrum polyphony is Foweles in þe frith (Birds in the wood), an English polyphonic song from c. 1270. It appears on leaves inserted into the Douce 139 manuscript (Bodleian Library, Oxford). Transcribed into modern notation, it is rendered as follows.

The melody of Foweles in þe frith, transcribed in modern notation by Ian Pittaway.

In the tablature below for citole we see that the entire two voice polyphony can be played on adjacent courses with a plectrum. This is shown in the renaissance fingerboard system known as French tablature. The spaces top to bottom represent the open courses of the citole, c’’, g’, d’ and c’. (If you have a renaissance lute with the 7th course a tone below the 6th, this tablature can be played on courses 4–7.) Letters represent finger placement: a = open string, b = 1st fret, c = 2nd fret, d = 3rd fret, and so on. The rhythm flag with one tail is a crotchet, with two a quaver, with three a semiquaver. As in standard music notation, a dot after the rhythm flag indicates that its value is increased by half. Where there is no rhythm flag, repeat the last value written.

Foweles in þe frith intabulation by Ian Pittaway.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

To hear the intabulation of Foweles in þe frith played on citole by Ian Pittaway, click on the soundfile.

The fifth and final example is from Catalonia: Stella Splendens from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (Red Book of Montserrat), c. 1396–99, kept in the Benedictine Monastery of Montserrat. In the transcription below we see that the largest interval between voices, as with Miro genere, Mater dei, and Foweles in þe frith, is an octave.  

The melody of Stella splendens, transcribed in modern notation by Ian Pittaway.
Stella splendens is in the musical form ABA. 

Again, no aspect of the two voice polyphony is lost on the citole played with a plectrum. There is only one point at which a slight variation is made from the original music. Where the two voices are an octave apart at c’ and c’’, they are played on the first and fourth course, with the second and third courses between. Since it is not possible to successfully dampen both the middle two courses, a g’ is added between, doubled on the second and third course, to enable the c’ and c’’ to be played on the open pitches of the highest and lowest strings.

Intabulation by Ian Pittaway.

To hear the intabulation of Stella splendens played on citole by Ian Pittaway, click on the soundfile.

Further examples of two and three voice polyphony would underline the point that much similarly-pitched polyphony of the medieval period can be played without compromise on a fingerboard plectrum instrument, as long as the complexity of the moving voices does not preclude it.

Plectrum playing technique IV: plectrum and fingers  

As we have seen, the medieval practice of closely-pitched voices poses no problem in itself for playing polyphony with a plectrum. In the first half of the 15th century, the English composer John Dunstaple (or Dunstable, c. 1390–1453) was the first to throw voices wide apart, as we hear in his beautiful Veni Sancte Spiritus by clicking on the picture below.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.

Dunstaple’s new way of composing for voices changed music composition internationally, and was the beginning of the musical renaissance. The “English countenance”, as it was called in admiration by French poet, Martin le Franc, in his Le Champion des Dames, 1440–42, posed two polyphonic challenges for players of fingerboard plectrum chordophones. The first challenge was how to play polyphonic music that now had a wider pitch range than the instrument. Thus in the 15th century the 4 course lute expanded its range with a fifth course and then a sixth. Instruments that did not or could not expand their range sufficiently – the citole and then the gittern – were left behind. The second challenge was how to play widely-pitched voices on non-adjacent courses with a plectrum.  

Marc Lewon (2017) has demonstrated the way in which 15th century lutenists adapted to the new musical style: they modified technique so that the plectrum was still held between the first and second fingers or between the forefinger and thumb, while other digits reached out to play non-adjacent courses with the flesh of the fingers. It is possible, as we have seen, for a plectrum player to dampen unneeded courses, but for complex polyphony it is more practical when playing more than two non-adjacent courses together, say courses 1, 3 and 5, to use a combination of plectrum and digits or, as later, to use independently moving fingers. We see this change of style, combining plectrum and digits, in Virgin and Child with angels by Giovanni di Marco (Giovanni dal Ponte), 1425 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), below left; Hans Memling’s triptych for the Santa María La Real monastery in Nájera, Spain, 1480s (Koninklijk Museum Voor Schone Kunsten – Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium), below right; …

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

… in The baptism of Christ, c. 1490, by the Netherlandish Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altar, active in Germany (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); …

… in Coronation of the Virgin by the Master of the Évora Altarpiece, c. 1490–1500 (Museu de Évora, Portugal), below left; in Gerard David’s triptych of the Sadano family, The Netherlands, c. 1495 (The Louvre, France), below right; …

… and on folio 177v of the Sforza Hours, 1490–1521, decorated by Milanese court painter Giovan Pietro Birago (British Library Add MS 34294).

Marc Lewon’s observation of this transitional plucking style is backed by his research into the Wolfenbüttel lute tablature, fragments of music which survived as pasted outer leaves for binding the statutes of the collegiate church of Saint Cyriacus in Brunswick, Germany, dated 1483. The tablature, discovered in 2011, is dated c. 1460 on the basis that the five intabulations of polyphonic secular songs on the two paper folios have concordances in manuscripts dated 1450–65, so were presumably considered outdated by the time they were used for binding in 1485. The music, written in a known of but hitherto unseen tablature system for 5 course lute, is the earliest surviving tablature for any fingerboard instrument, predating the Italian Pesaro lute book (Biblioteca Oliveriana, Pesaro, No. 114) of 1490–95, previously considered the earliest, by at least 30 years.  

Of its five pieces, four – Cum lacrimis; Myn trud gheselle; Ich fare do hyn wen eß muß syn; Ellende du hest vmb vanghen mich – use only adjacent courses for polyphony, so can be played on plectrum lute; while one – Gruß senen Ich im hertzen traghe – has seven points at which non-adjacent courses are played together, so this piece must have employed the mixed plectrum/finger technique seen in iconography. There is no evidence of lutenists abandoning plectrums altogether until the last quarter of the 15th century, a process that took until well into the 16th century to become universal.  

The pioneer of reconstructing the mixed plectrum/finger technique in the modern day is Crawford Young, a musician and musicologist from the USA, residing in Basel, Switzerland. Below we see him playing in the mixed style: La bonne et belle sans per, c. 1420.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.

In the video below we have a front-on view to see what the mixed style entails: Italian early musician Peppe Frana plays Mit Ganczem Willen wünsch ich dir from the Lochamer Liederbuch, mid 15th century, using an unfolded string as a plectrum.

Click the picture to play the video, which opens in a new window.

There is one curious side note to this transition from plectrum to fingers. In 1524, Roman orator Antonio Costabili wrote to Duke Alfonso of Ferrara, relating that he had witnessed the playing of Francesco Canova da Milano, 1497–1543, lutenist to the pope. By 1524, the majority of lutenists had discarded plectrums altogether, playing instead with the flesh of the fingers and thumb. Costabili wrote that Francesco da Milano “played using two silver thimbles, inside which were two small quills, and he plays with such speed that in the judgement of those who hear him he is unique.” They must have been open thimbles, and Costabili’s testimony of two thimbles with quills indicates either the forefinger and thumb, in which case the second finger played with the flesh, or the thimble/plectrums were on the first two fingers, in which case the thumb played with the softer flesh. This is testimony to a very late version of the transitional stage between plectrum only and fingers only. It is impossible to know how widespread a practice the use of thimbles for holding plectrums was, but since there is no iconography of such thimbles and no written testimony of anyone else using them, it is likely that this was peculiar to Francesco.

Coda: Were plectrums always used to play medieval plucked chordophones?

The vast majority of medieval depictions show plucked chordophones played with plectrums, but a few do not. Are the latter depictions faithful reproductions of verifiable reality? Were some medieval plucked chordophones played with fingers rather than plectrums?

To answer these questions, we have to consider the following:

i. the testimony of written accounts;
ii. the size of the plectrum;
iii. the veracity of the particular depiction;
iv. artistic conventions;
v. the role of symbolism.

i. The testimony of written accounts

There are no medieval written descriptions of plucked fingerboard chordophones played with fingers without plectrums and very few references to plectrums: it wasn’t a subject with which medieval writers concerned themselves. I show in the first article that plectrums were implements borrowed from other applications – a writing quill, a writing stylus, a gut string – so perhaps plectrums were so commonplace that writers didn’t feel the necessity to describe them.

ii. The size of the plectrum

Paintings of the 13th and 14th century onward are generally more detailed and lifelike than previously. This means that small plectrums such as those shown below, visible in more life-like later art, would often have been rendered invisible in the more stylised and often less detailed earlier art. This means that, in medieval art, the lack of a depicted plectrum is not necessarily an indication of playing with fingers.

Small plectrums only visible in depictions with fine detail.
Left: Lutenist in Masaccio’s Virgin and Child, the central section of a polyptych altarpiece
made for a church in Pisa in 1426 (National Gallery, London).
Centre: Lutenist in Coronation of the Virgin by the Master of the Évora Altarpiece,
1490–1500 (Museu de Évora, Portugal).
Right: King David playing a psaltery in a painting of 1500–50 by Venetian artist,
Girolamo da Santa Croce (David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago).

iii. The veracity of the particular depiction

The lack of detail in earlier and some later medieval art is one of several aspects that raises questions about veracity where we do not see a plectrum. Below is an image of a harper and citoler from the French Saint Omer Psalter or Rede Psalter, 13th century (Christ Church MS 98, University of Oxford, folio 7r, not to be confused with British Library Yates Thompson 14,  c. 1330–40, England, also called the Saint Omer Psalter). We see that the citole player is not shown with a plectrum and has an open hand we might associate with finger-style playing. Without context or an understanding of medieval iconography, we might take this as evidence of a medieval finger-plucked citole.

Christ Church MS 98 © The Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford. CC-BY-NC 4.0

However, note the following details. Not only does the citole player lack a plectrum, the citole lacks a decorative rose (sound hole) and a bridge, without which the instrument cannot function. The harp unfeasibly has only 6 strings, unrealistically spaced and, if taken literally, depicted so loose that they would barely sound a note. This is an artist who gives the broad impression rather than the finer details.

iv. Artistic conventions

Additionally, there is the question of artistic convention. The playing hand of the harper and citoler above are virtually the same: this is one of the standard ways of showing a plucking hand in medieval and more simple renaissance iconography. We could choose from a huge number of comparative examples to demonstrate this ‘standard hand’. Two are below, a gittern and lute player in a stained glass window a century after the Saint Omer Psalter, both with plectrums, as we’d expect.

Gittern and lute player demonstrating one of the standard ways artists depicted
hands playing plectrum chordophones. Saint Agnes Church, Cawston, Norfolk, c. 1450.

We see the same type of plucking hand again in the Silesian Breslau Psalter, c. 1255–67 (MS 36–1950, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, folio 88r), below. As in the Saint Omer Psalter, the plectrum hand is more open than is usual in medieval depictions. Whereas the open hand of the Saint Omer Psalter citole player lacks a plectrum, the open hand of the Breslau Psalter cetra player has a plectrum, apparently made of a gut string (see the first article), lodged impossibly between the outstretched forefinger and thumb.

So while medieval and renaissance iconography gives us vital information about everyday musical practice, such as the plectrums in the Norfolk stained glass above, they are in this case and many others highly stylised. We know that the quill held by the gittern player is a quill, while also recognising that a real quill does not look exactly like this. In the same way, we can recognise that the cetra player in the Breslau Psalter, below left, is holding a plectrum, while also recognising that a plectrum cannot in reality be held like this. That we are seeing stylised artistic representations by an artist not proficient with the finer details also accounts for the trumpeter in the middle playing with a trumpet that is bent and apparently has no mouthpiece and, on the same page, …

… a harp has a grey block behind the strings to make the strings show up, and a transverse flute has finger-holes in musically and practically impossible places.

A much earlier and telling example of stylised and simplified artistic representation is observed in ten depictions of an unknown chordophone in the Stuttgart Psalter, which probably originated in Paris, circa 820–30 (Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart, Cod. bibl. fol. 23).

Representations of an unknown plucked chordophone in the Stuttgart Psalter, c. 820–30,
on folios 59r, 69r … 
… 83r, 97v …
… 108r, 112r …
… 125r, 155v …
… 161r and 163v.

All the illustrations are variations of the same image, in the same or similar pose, with the same hand position holding a plectrum, except two. Folio 83r (second line, left) differs in essence only in that there is no plectrum, and folio 108r (third line, left) has the instrument in a near-vertical rather than a horizontal pose and apparently suspended in front of the seated player’s legs, a most unusual playing position (which we will see again and explain below). The lack of a plectrum on folio 83r cannot be counted as significant or as representing reality: only one of these instruments is shown with a bridge and none have sound-holes, but on practical grounds we cannot conclude from this that these instruments had neither bridges nor sound-holes.

v. The role of symbolism

When judging whether a medieval fingerboard instrument is depicted realistically when no plectrum is shown, we need to consider the potential role of symbolism. Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Spain, 1168–1211, Chartres Cathedral, France, 1145–1245, and the Collegiate Church of Toro, Zamora, Spain, 1170–1250, all have impressive carved scenes of the Elders of the Apocalypse, pictorial representations of Revelation 5: 6-8: “Then I saw a Lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered, but it was now standing between the throne and the four living beings and among the twenty four elders … the twenty four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a cithara and they held gold bowls/vials filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.” The cithara (Latin) or kithara (Greek) was, in the ancient world, both a lyre and a general term for any stringed instrument. Medieval translators of The Bible therefore interpreted cithara in terms of the lyre or harp or translated the word freely to mean citole, psaltery, or any instrument with strings. Thus, the citharas of the Elders of the Apocalypse in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral are shown as an organistrum, fiddles, a rota, a harp, and so on, as we see below.

Musical Elders of the Apocalypse in non-playing and playing poses
in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, 1168–1211.

In every source that has a carved or drawn illustration of the Elders of the Apocalypse, both plucked and bowed representations of citharas are shown in a mixture of poses. A few are played, many are held upright in non-playing positions, and sometimes plectrum or bowed instruments are held in an upright pose as if they might be being played with fingers. Below left, for example, is an Elder in the Collegiate Church of Toro, Zamora, 1170–1250, with a citole held upright, plucked with fingers. Since this symbolises the cithara, the upright lyre, it cannot be taken as representative of musical practice any more than the similarly-held gittern in Pamplona Cathedral, Spain, 13th-14th century, below right.

Photograph on the left by Alice Margerum, from her citole thesis (see bibliography),
used with her kind permission.

We see the same representation of Elders’ instruments in manuscripts. Beatus of Liébana was a Spanish monk who wrote a commentary on the last book of The Bible, The Apocalypse, also known as Revelation. For comparison, below we see three versions of the same Elders scene in three Spanish manuscripts of his commentary, all related textually and artistically: Morgan MS 644, c. 945; The Silos Apocalypse, British Library Add MS 11695, c. 975–1000; and Rylands Beatus, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, Latin MS 8, c. 1190–c. 1210.   

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

Above left is the whole of Morgan MS 644, folio 87r, c. 945, with details of the four musicians representing the cithara on the right. Two of the instruments, top right and bottom left, are held upright, apparently played with fingers like the citole in the Church of Toro, Zamora, and the gittern in Pamplona Cathedral. The instrument top left is held vertically, played with an ambiguous implement that looks like a plectrum but is apparently being used like a bow. The instrument bottom right is similarly ambiguous: the playing position looks more like a plectrum instrument, but the implement is held more like a bow, and bowed instruments were sometimes played in this position.   

Folio 86v of the Silos Apocalypse, British Library Add MS 11695, c. 975–1000, above, shows the same scene as Morgan MS 644, folio 87r, with what looks like the same instruments, but in the Silos version all four instruments are held upright to represent citharas, as in Zamora and Pamplona, and as with the upright chordophone on folio 108r of the Stuttgart Psalter.

On folio 86r of Silos, above left, we see apparently the same instrument as on folio 86v, but in a non-Elders scene, being bowed while the player dances; and again on folio 164r, above right, we see some of the ten figures around the Lamb of God, holding them near vertically like citharas. As we have seen, a very similar instrument is ambiguously either plucked or bowed in Morgan MS 644. It is not clear, then, whether here we see one type of bowed instrument or two instruments, bowed and plucked, with the same body outline, in the same way that in the late 15th and through the 16th century, the body outline of the plucked vihuela/viola da mano and the bowed vihuela/viola d’arco were the same in Spain and Italy (illustrated and explained in this article).

Viola da mano in Madonna and Child with saints by Girolamo dai Libri, c. 1520
(The Met Fifth Avenue, New York).
The corresponding viola d’arco in Blasco de Grañén, Mary, Queen of Heaven, 1439
(Zaragoza Museum, Spain); and in Diego Valentín Díaz, Virgin of the Angels, 1600–50,
Church of San Miguel and San Julián, Valladolid, Spain. 

We see, then, that the religious and symbolic context of Elders’ instruments precludes us from drawing any conclusions about actual musical practice, with or without plectrums. Indeed, it is not even clear whether the Elders’ instruments in Morgan MS 644 and the Silos Apocalypse were in reality plucked or bowed. In such images, it was not the artist’s motive to replicate reality in fine detail, but to convey the idea of the symbolic citharas of the Elders of the Apocalypse. 

The third manuscript of Beatus of Liébana’s commentary on The Apocalypse is Rylands Beatus, John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, Latin MS 8, c. 1190–c. 1210. The corresponding scene on folio 89r, below, shows a different type of instrument to Morgan MS 644 and Silos, and has intriguing details.   

Again we see instruments being plucked with fingers in near vertical poses. This manuscript is two centuries later than Silos and two and a half centuries later than Morgan MS 644. The images are more lifelike, the depiction more detailed, and the hands more realistically plucking. But still they are Apocalypse images, meant as cithara symbolism, so no matter how realistic the hands are, they are still not intended as an account of everyday musical practice.

The instruments themselves, unidentified, may in reality have been bowed, as they bear a close resemblance to the fiddle on the left of folio 158v, below. They may equally have been plucked. The bowed instruments on folio 158v all have the string-holder from the tail to the bridge that we would expect to see only on a bowed instrument (with the notable exception of some citoles). None of the instruments on folio 89r have string-holders, and the pattern in this manuscript as a whole is that bowed instruments have string-holders, plucked instruments do not. We may, then, be seeing a version of the da mano / d’arco variety of an instrument with the same body but a different set-up, one for plucking, one for bowing, as with the later vihuela / viola da mano and vihuela / viola d’arco.

In summary, when judging the veracity of an image we have to take into account what the artist was and was not trying to achieve; the conventions within which the artist worked; and the role of symbolism. In the rare cases where we see a medieval fingerboard instrument played without a plectrum, we need to see the image in context: look for the stylised hand in the shape which otherwise signifies a plectrum; check to see if that artist has included all practically necessary details, and whether the plectrum is one of several missing items; and discern whether there is a symbolic context which precludes showing plectrums: a medieval instrument shown plucked with fingers must always be in doubt when used to symbolise the cithara.

Finally, we should consider the transition of the lute in the 15th century from being played with a plectrum, to plectrum and fingers, to fingers only. Prior to the 15th century there would have been no practical need for finger-style playing because polyphonic voices were either similarly pitched, so could be played by a single person with a plectrum, or else the two voices had such a complex relationship to each other that they could only be played as single lines on two instruments. If some chordophones were already played with fingers before the 15th century, it is hard to imagine why there would have been such a long transitional period in playing method if musicians could switch to an already current fingers-only technique. There was no such easy switch because there were no such finger-style players before the 15th century. So radical was the change that the move on the lute from the plectrum to fingers took around 60 years to become a universal practice, and the gittern, which did not make the change, fell completely out of use.     


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



Grocheio, Johannes de (1270s–1300, modern publication 2011) Ars musice. Edited and translated by Constant J. Mews, John N. Crossley, Catherine Jeffreys, Leigh McKinnon, and Carol J. Williams. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications.

Kelly, Thomas Forrest (2015) Capturing Music: the story of notation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Kevin, Philip; Robinson, James; La Niece, Susan; Cartwright, Caroline; Egerton, Chris (2015) Musical Instrument Fit For a Queen: The Metamorphosis of a Medieval Citole. In: James Robinson, Naomi Speakman, Kathryn Buehler-McWilliams (eds.) The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives. London: The British Museum.

Lewon, Marc (2014) The Wolfenbüttel Lute Tablature. Available online by clicking here.

Lewon, Marc (2014) WolfT 1: “Cum lacrimis”. Available online by clicking here.

Lewon, Marc (2014) WolfT 2: “Myn trud gheselle”. Available online by clicking here.

Lewon, Marc (2014) WolfT 3: “Gruß senen Ich im hertzen traghe”. Available online by clicking here.

Lewon, Marc (2014) WolfT 4 – “Ich fare do hyn wen eß muß syn”. Available online by clicking here.

Lewon, Marc (2014) WolfT 5: “Ellende du hest vmb vanghen mich”. Available online by clicking here.

Lewon, Marc (2017) Transformational Practices in Fifteenth-Century German Music. Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford. Available online by clicking here.

Margerum, Alice C. (2010) Situating the Citole, c. 1200-1400. A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of London Metropolitan University for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. August 2010. Available online by clicking here.

Nolan, Robin (2021) How To Play Octaves Clean & Crispy – Gypsy Jazz Guitar. Video available online by clicking here.

Pittaway, Ian (2015) The lute: a brief history from the 13th to the 18th century. Available online by clicking here.

Pittaway, Ian (2018) Performing medieval music. Part 2/3: Turning monophony into polyphony. Available online by clicking here.

Pittaway, Ian (2022) The citole: from confusion to clarity. Part 2/2: playing style and repertoire. Available online by clicking here.

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

Spring, Matthew (2001) The Lute in Britain. A history of the instrument and its music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4 thoughts on “Medieval plectrums: the written, iconographical and material evidence. Part 2/2: Medieval and early renaissance plectrum technique.

  • 29th January 2023 at 7:20 pm


    I just wanted to acknowledge how much I’ve enjoyed the fruits of all your efforts! I’m neither a music professional nor a scholar of any kind but I’ve found much interesting material in your articles on many diverse aspects of Early Music. Very well written, clearly presented…

    So why am I interested? In my spare time I play, or at least try to play, old music on the modern cittern—Medieval, Renaissance, English Country Dance tunes, Irish fiddle and harp airs, etc…I can’t describe exactly why this grouping of music other than the fact that they each attract me somehow and the ‘soul/spirit’ of the music seems to find a match with the ‘soul/spirit’ of the modern cittern as I perceive it.

    That aforementioned ‘soul/spirit’ also tells me that the cittern is NOT a guitar but rather is something more akin to a gittern and as such shouldn’t be strummed like a guitar with a guitar pick but rather suggests a more melodic approach with a ‘heterophonic’ component involving adjacent open strings. Doubled courses of the cittern sonically reinforce this approach. My occasional teacher, Doc Rossi, a leading player and teacher of the modern cittern would agree, having arrived at a similar conclusion a generation earlier. English luthier, Stefan Sobell, who built the first modern citterns in the early 70’s wanted a home instrument for playing modal fiddle and folk tunes of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. So, it all makes very non-scholarly sense to me. At the very least no one is harmed by my speculations 🙂

    Following the same train of thought, I’ve felt that a standard guitar pick is not optimal (though I must state that Doc Rossi plays cittern with a guitar pick turned around with great tone and feel) and that the options you’ve laid out in this article are much more suitable for the effect I desire: a quill-like but flat oud risha or a stylus. I’ve opted for the oud risha and its been revelatory; melodic phrasing is effected by it much more fluently….the accents (literal and figurative) just sound ‘right’.

    Speaking of the right hand: I feel like I’ve physically embodied the historical connection you drew between writing implements and plectrums. I write with my left hand but play stringed instruments right handed. Thus, it’s no wonder that I’ve always found the picking hand quite mysterious/laborious in a way that typical right-handed people don’t seem to. After all, I lack the hours and years of fine motor training in holding a writing implement with my right hand!

    Best Wishes,

    • 29th January 2023 at 9:11 pm

      Hello, Dan.

      Your comments are much appreciated – thank you.

      Yes, the modern cittern is not a guitar, and neither should the modern guitar be strummed if it’s going to sound halfway interesting, in my view. There are some great songwriters who know and use 6 strummed chords, but the guitar *as an instrument* is capable of so much more.

      As you probably know, there is a Facebook page for cittern with which Doc Rossi is involved, and it allows postings on both the Stefan Sobell model and the renaissance instrument, but all that really connects them is the name, which I remember Stefan said he saw in a book and ‘borrowed’. They’re really unrelated in every sense – time period, construction, string material, tuning, sound, playing method – so they really deserve separate pages.

      I’m so pleased you’ve found these pages both interesting and practically useful. The form of plectrum used is fundamental to the level of dexterity and sound production. I used to use a risha myself on the gittern before I discovered the folded string plectrum, which is both more historically proper and plays better, enabling finer note production on fast passages.

      Do you know the musician John Peel (no relation to the DJ), who used to play with the York Waits? He is left-handed for writing and for the cittern, but plays the lute right-handed. When I asked him about it he had no explanation except that it just felt right that way. Have you tried reversing the hands on the cittern?

      All the best.


  • 30th January 2023 at 1:34 pm


    Thank you for your swift and detailed reply!

    Interesting story about Mr. Peel switching hands and a thoughtful question posed back to me. I’ve had many opportunities to go lefty and have backed out of every one.

    Years ago a friend loaned me a left-handed guitar…I repair stringed instruments for a living and get the occasional left-handed piece; so I have tried. It would be easier, I think, if I didn’t have almost 40 yrs of ‘sunk cost’ invested in playing right-handed. If I were younger and/or were starting now? Probably the ‘right’ thing to do 🙂

    Do you think a folded string plectrum would be suitable for the production of sound on the phosphor bronze and plain steel strings at the long scale of the modern cittern?


    • 30th January 2023 at 5:50 pm

      I’m not sure how a string plectrum would work for a modern cittern, Dan. I suspect a gut or nylgut string would soon be shredded on modern high-tension steel strings. Using a thick unwound steel string or one of the thinner wound strings might work. There’s only way to find out … It’s worth experimenting with different gauges. Do let me know how it turns out if you try it.



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