To play a musical instrument comfortably, sometimes the player needs a strap to stabilise it. What is the historical evidence for the types of straps used for medieval, renaissance and baroque instruments?
As this article will show, in trying to discover the historical evidence for straps, we immediately encounter the conventions of artistic representation. Medieval artists until the 15th century typically did not show straps, even when an instrument was impossible to play without one; and renaissance and baroque artists showed straps inconsistently and often only partially.
This article takes a roughly chronological look, sifting the artistic conventions from the practical realities to discover if and how straps were used on a range of historical instruments: citole; gittern; harp; psaltery; portative organ; simfony; pipe and tabor; cittern; guitar; nakers; and lutes from the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods.
Artistic conventions and straps
There are common conventions in medieval art which affect the way objects are presented. For example, flattened perspective enables the viewer to see or have an impression of something that would be out of sight in reality.
The gittern had a sickle-shape peg-box with a decorative carving, as we above on a gittern made by Hans Ott or Oth, who worked in Nuremburg from 1432 to 1463, with its acorn carved on the tip of the peg-box. Below are two examples of gitterns in flattened perspective, attempting to represent three dimensions in two. Flattened perspective makes it look as though the peg-box is turned back to face the player, as the player would see it; thus this artistic technique combines the player’s and the onlooker’s viewpoints.
Another medieval artistic convention was the ‘arm under’ playing position. In reality this makes playing impossible, but in art it enables the viewer to see parts of the instrument that would otherwise be hidden, as we see from the two gitterns above and the gittern below.
Sometimes details of an instrument are missing in medieval art, such as the bridge, the frets, the plectrum or some of the strings. The details included or omitted were chosen according to their perceived importance in the eyes of the individual artist. But there was one missing feature of instrument depiction about which there was a general convention: straps. Until the 15th century, instrument straps were rarely seen in art, regardless of the size of the instrument, and often in spite of the absolute necessity of a strap.
What was the thinking behind this convention? How can we tell whether an instrument was really played with a strap? What can we know from art about the practice of using straps and the type of straps used? These are the questions this article sets out to answer.
Medieval fingerboard instruments: citole, gittern, lute
The citole appeared in 4 basic outlines: hexagonal (below left); holly leaf (below right); …
… hourglass (below left); and vase shape (below right).
Probably all and certainly most citoles were in the shape of a wedge viewed from the top. It therefore required a thumb-hole to give access to the fingerboard, as demonstrated below.
No citoles in medieval iconography are shown with a strap. It is clear that the lack of a strap was a practical reality, rather than an artistic convention: a strap could only have been tied to the thumb-hole on one end and the tail projection on the other (above left, underneath the forearm). Such a strap would have been an impossible encumbrance as it would completely unbalance the weight of the instrument, and it would have been unnecessary: a citole can be played comfortably when secured between the fretting hand with the thumb in its designated hole and the plucking forearm leaning gently against the trefoil on the tail.
Like the citole, the gittern was typically relatively small in size and monoxyle (carved from a single piece of wood). The gittern was carved in the shape of a half-pear, as we have seen above from the surviving Hans Ott gittern, and as we see below from its depiction in art.
The shape of the gittern – and its close relative, the lute – poses no problem for the use of a strap, as it does on the citole, but this does not mean a strap was used. The gittern by Hans Ott has a strap button but its design shows that this was a later addition, not original to the 15th century.
Due to their relatively small size, all medieval plucked fingerboard instruments – citoles, gitterns, and lutes – could easily be played sitting or standing without a strap. It is therefore credible that the straplessness of the portrayals below, and all those like them, are true to life.
Instruments for which a strap is a necessity: harp, psaltery, portative organ, simfony, pipe and tabor
For some medieval and early renaissance instruments a strap is practically and strictly necessary when the player is standing: harp, psaltery, portative organ, simfony, pipe and tabor. However, when medieval art shows such a player, the instrument typically floats with no means of support, as we see with the four representative medieval harpers below. This convention was not new to medieval art, as we see from the ancient Egyptian harper, below left.
Medieval art not only shows impossibly floating harps: there are floating psalteries; …
…. floating portative organs; …
… and floating simfonies (an instrument known by various spellings – simfony, symphony, simfony, symfony, simfonie, sinfonie, symphonie – or as simfonia, symphonia, chifonie, or organistrum).
In the English Luttrell Psalter, there are two simfonies. The first image is of a player sitting, as was usual for the instrument; and the second depiction of a standing player is notable for its rarity in showing a strap in 14th century iconography.
A similar strap to that worn by the Luttrell Psalter simfony player is worn by a taborer – a pipe and tabor player – in The Canterbury Psalter, written 1176-1200, decorated from 1200 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 8846, folio 154v). From left to right below, we see King David playing psaltery, seated and therefore not requiring a strap; a taborer with a strap; a portative organist who requires a strap, but shown without one; fiddler (viellist) and lutenist, straps not required; psaltery player, strap needed, not shown; gittern player, strap unnecessary and not shown; probable singer, not singing at this moment; and a third psaltery player, strap needed, not shown.
On folio 114r of the same work we see a very similar scene: the instruments are almost identical – left to right we see psaltery, portative organ, fiddle (vielle), psaltery, lute, cup cymbals, pipe and tabor – with the same lack of or presence of straps on respective instruments, but this time the musicians are all women rather than all men.
Occasionally, in iconography where a strap is necessary, the presence or absence of a strap is ambiguous. In the 10th century Scottish carving below left, for example, it is possible to speculate that the harp may be hooked on to the player’s belt; and in the 15th century painting below right, the harpist’s cloak may hide a strap over the shoulder, affixed to the back of the harp.
A rare medieval example of art that shows how a harp is suspended by a strap is shown in the aforementioned Canterbury Psalter, decorated from 1200 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 8846, folio 75r). We see on the right that the strap goes over the shoulder and secures the harp by being looped around the back of the neck of the harp. The direction of travel of the strap indicates that it is not worn over one shoulder, as the position of the harp would indicate, but over both shoulders, so that the harp would be played in the middle of the player’s body, as we see more clearly in other depictions below.
The above speculation of a strap attached to the back or side of the harp is sometimes shown explicitly in 15th century art, the time when straps began to appear in iconography with some regularity. We see this in the first two examples below of 15th and 17th century depictions of straps for harps.
A French manuscript of Arthurian legends, compiled in 1470 by Micheau Gonnot, includes the tragic love story of Tristan and Iseut. From it, below we see Tristian playing harp, depicted as usual in art without a strap.
The same manuscript illustrates the gruesome death of Tristan while playing harp, and here we see the harp secured by a strap tied around his waist, not requiring any modification to the instrument.
Iconography for other instruments includes shoulder straps for psalteries and portative organs.
Another method of securing an instrument is shown by the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy (Bruges, Flanders) in Mary, Queen of Heaven, painted c. 1485–1500 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). The whole painting is shown below left, in which we see 15 angel singers and 14 angel instrumentalists; top left of the painting is an angel playing shawm and another playing bray harp, that detail shown below right.
A closer look at the bray harper reveals that the strap is attached to the back of the neck of the harp, as it is in The Canterbury Psalter, but in Mary, Queen of Heaven the strap is not around the player’s shoulders but around the neck.
All the iconography in this article so far has either shown an entire strap or completely omitted it. In the renaissance (15th–16th century) and baroque period (17th–first half of 18th century), straps were portrayed more often but inconsistently. When they were depicted at all, straps were usually subject to artistic modification. As the following examples illustrate, straps were generally considered a distraction by artists, spoiling the leading lines and detracting from the intended focus, so typically only part of the strap was shown.
Above is a complete strap in an illustration from Bergbau-Musikhandschrift (Music Manuscript of the Mining Industry), a German manuscript of c. 1760 about the musical instruments and music of miners. The word pandor, written above the instrument, was usually an alternative name for the bandora (otherwise pandore or pandora), a large plucked wire-strung instrument with fanned frets, but that is not what we see here. As the article about the guitar explains, instrument names in early music are often slippery and interchangeable, the same name used for several different instruments, the same instrument known by several names. The pandor/pandoren here is an arch-cittern, a cittern with diatonic bass strings off the neck which are only played open. (A very similar arch-cittern of almost the same date survives, made in 1755 by Johann Gottfried Klemm of Radeberg, Germany, which can be seen here.)
What matters for our purpose is the strap of the pandor/arch-cittern, attached to a button on the tail and tied with a bow on the peg box. Compare this with the three paintings of cittern players by Dutch artists of the 17th century below: all show the decorative bow or tassle on the peg box, but not the rest of the strap.
In Caspar Netscher’s painting of a guitarist (below), all we see of the strap is ribbon tied to the peg-box, as with the citterns above. Baroque guitars had 5 courses in either 9 or 10 strings – 4 double courses and either a single or double chanterelle (1st course). In the case of this guitar, there are 10 peg holes with 9 pegs for 9 strings – 4 double courses and a single top course. The 10th peg hole is used for tying the strap, only the decorative end of which is painted by the artist.
In a painting attributed to the Dutch artist, Jan Gerritsz van Bronckhorst, A Lady Playing a Guitar on a Balcony (above), we see a 5 course, 9 string guitar with 9 tuning pegs – 4 each side of the peg-box and 1 central peg near the nut – with a 10th hole at the top of the peg-box, into which the ribbon is inserted and tied. Again the rest of the strap/ribbon is not painted.
French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s portrait of Anne-Marie de Bricqueville de Laluserne (above) shows her with a guitar strung with 5 double courses, 10 pegs for 10 strings, with an 11th hole into which the strap is inserted and tied with an elaborate bow. In this painting we see not only the tied bow of the strap, but the strap itself, probably kept in the composition because its colours match her clothes and it creates a leading line from the guitar to her shoulders and head. It is still not entirely true to life: on the guitar’s tail, Greuze painted neither the strap button nor the strap, probably because the tail end of the strap interfered indecorously with the fall and flow of her right sleeve.
Two guitars painted by French artist Jean Antoine Watteau make an instructive contrast. The guitar in Watteau’s Antoine Gilles and his family, c. 1716 (above left) is shown in an unsupported pose that, without a strap, defies gravity; whereas the guitar in Watteau’s The Foursome, c. 1713 (above right), which looks like the same guitar, is shown realistically with a bright red strap, ornately tied just above the nut on one end and at the strap button on the other, with decorative flourishes of tied ribbon across the lower bout. The guitar in a print of c. 1670-90, Signor Scaramouch & his company of comedians (below), shows a third strap-tying option at the peg-box, not inserted into a hole or tied above the nut, but around the peg-box, with a decorative bow on the strap button of the type seen on other guitars. Though the strap bow is shown on the peg-box and at the tail, the strap is not shown across the player’s shoulder, presumably for compositional reasons.
Renaissance and baroque lute, koboz
In paintings of baroque lutes of the 17th and 18th century, we see that players had a device to stabilise the lute in a way that would be invisible to the viewer when played: a ribbon tied tightly between a strap button on the tail and a button on the neck block, so that the lute-bearing ribbon could be suspended from a button on the player’s clothes. In the anonymous French painting above, Lute Player, c. 1650, the extra loop halfway along the ribbon appears to indicate the exact preferred playing position, making the lute hang at just the right height from the button.
The evidence for two strap buttons, one on the tail and another on the neck block, is seen not only in paintings but in a considerable number of surviving baroque lutes, such as the instrument below by Joachim Tielke of Hamburg, made in 1678.
It is possible that the ribbon between two strap buttons, one on the tail and the other on the neck block, was the practice in the 15th and 16th century, and may account for the ability of the lutenists in paintings such as Piero della Francesca’s The Nativity, c. 1470-75 (below), to play standing with lutes large enough to be awkward to both play and hold without a strap. If not hooked onto a player’s button, the ribbon (or gut string, as we’ll see below) across the back could theoretically be hooked onto a cord hung discreetly around the player’s neck, as we saw above with the bray harp in Mary, Queen of Heaven by the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy. Such is speculation, and whether such an explanation is strictly necessary is debatable: it is my experience that a lute of this size can be played standing and strapless with persistence and practice, but hidden support on the back of the lute would certainly have made playing passages with a lot of left hand movement much easier to manage.
There is another possible clue about the use of a ribbon or string across the back of the instrument in a set of 12 engravings, each only 58 x 45 mm, made in 1538 by Flemish artist, Cornelis Massijs (Massys, Matsijs, Matsys, Messijs, Messys, Metsijs, Metsys). Below we see the last of the 12 images, a woman playing tambourine, dancing with a man who has a koboz on his back. The koboz player has a strap across his left shoulder, affixed to the back of the koboz in a way we can’t see.
The method of attachment could theoretically be:
1. a single strap button, around halfway along the length of the back, where the neck block on a lute would be, driven into the monoxyle bowl of the instrument, attached to a slit in the strap over the player’s shoulder;
2. a strap button in the same place as 1, with another button on the tail, a cord or string tied tightly between the buttons, as in the anonymous French Lute Player above, with the shoulder strap fed behind the cord on the back of the instrument, and a loop in the cord or string tied to a hole in the strap to secure it in place;
3. as option 2, but with a single strap button on the tail, the other end of the cord or string tied to the peg box.
Since the size of instruments such as the koboz, gittern, citole and smaller lutes does not necessitate the use of a strap, it is impossible to know to what extent the image by Cornelis Massijs shows us common practice. It is, as far as I know, the only strap depiction of its kind. It raises the question of whether standing players of large-ish lutes like those in The Nativity secured their instruments in a similar manner to that implied by The Dancing Cripples, with a strap over the shoulder attached to a cord across the back of the instrument. If this was done in practice, we would not expect to see it in art, since the norm in the 15th and 16th century was still not to show straps at all, or to show them only partially, The Dancing Cripples being a rare exception.
A sketch in 1756 by Flemish artist Jan Anton Garemyn (above) is illuminating for two reasons. Firstly, on the right it shows a strap attached between strap buttons on the tail and the neck block, but here the strap is longer than in previous examples, and is intended to go over the player’s shoulder. Secondly, on the left we see that when the instrument is shown being played, only the bow of the strap on the neck block is depicted: the strap over the shoulder is deliberately omitted by the artist, just as we observed with citterns and guitars.
A 17th century engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar (above) shows a thin line from the neck block, at a 45° angle toward the player. This material acting as a strap is probably a gut string, or possibly leather lace. If this was the sole device used to balance the lute and we were to take the picture literally, it would have to be attached to a high button on the player’s clothing. It is difficult to imagine how this alone would aid the player. The trajectory of the line suggests that, in reality, it goes over the player’s shoulder to be attached to a button on the tail of the lute, making an effective strap, but again it is not shown over the player’s shoulder for artistic or aesthetic reasons.
In Laurent de La Hyre’s Allegory of Music, 1649 (above), we see the same idea as in the anonymous French painting of c. 1650 and other similar examples: the lute face down on the table has a gut string, an alternative to ribbon, tied across the back between buttons on the neck block and the tail (detail below left), which can be hooked horizontally onto the player’s coat button so as to be invisible to the viewer when the lute is played.
The gut string across the back can account for apparently strapless lutes in art up to a certain size; but larger instruments, the archlute and theorbo, with a long neck for extended bass strings, require extra support. Laurent de La Hyre’s painting features a theorbo with a gut string hooked onto the strap button on the tail (detail above right). The other end of the string is not visible to the viewer. Due to the position of the instrument and the nature of the player’s attire, the string cannot be attached to a button on the woman’s clothing. Are we to understand that the string is long rather than short, that it goes over the player’s left shoulder, hidden under the folds of cloth, then attached to a button on the neck block? This is not realistic support for the uneven weight distribution of such a large instrument with an extended neck, and it would be most uncomfortable for the weight of the instrument to be carried on a thin strand of gut.
A realistic depiction of an archlute or theorbo strap arrangement is seen in the four examples below, which show a strap attached to a button on the tail and tied the other end to the peg box.
Due to the uneven weight distribution of a theorbo or archlute, it is common pratice for a player to have a loose strap attached to the strap button on the tail, the purpose of which is to sit on as a counterweight to the extended neck, as we see at the beginning of the video below of Sebastian Strauchler playing archlute.
We have seen above that many artists omitted the parts of the strap they consisted unaesthetic. Other artists used a different method to get around inconvenient strap lines: they asked their subject to move the strap to an impractical but more visually pleasing position. The painters Jean-Antoine Watteau and Antoine Pesne, for example, asked their sitters to lower their straps to the point where they did not support the instruments and would actively hamper playing.
Straps were not a necessity for smaller medieval instruments. While today, musicians playing small plucked fingerboard instruments such as a mandolin or ukulele are used to a stabilising strap, medieval players of citole, gittern and lute were used to playing without.
Some medieval and renaissance instruments – harp, psaltery, portative organ, simfony, pipe and tabor – necessitated the use of straps when standing to play, but in art they were typically depicted without straps, so as not to distract from the main focus or spoil the leading lines. This began to change from the 15th century on, when straps were either wholly shown, partially shown, or still completely omitted.
In the 17th century, the focus of the artist was on orderliness of presentation. A portion of a strap for a cittern, guitar or lute was likely to be shown if it was a pretty bow tied to the peg box, but the length of the strap over the shoulder was typically omitted, considered a compositional distraction.
For players of historical music today there are ready-made modern straps commercially available, or one can easily be fashioned at home from appropriately strong and durable material. If a player wishes to replicate the strap material used historically, we can observe from iconography that the material varied, with an element of class or status.
Revisiting the images in this article with additional examples, we see that one simfony in The Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325-40 (above right), is held up with a cord made from multiple strands, like rope. It is not possible to identify the fibre, but Jackie Phillips, proprietor of Cloak’d and Dagger’d, maker of replica clothes from the Roman to Victorian periods, suggests that linen cord is historically probable. The player of nakers (above left) uses the same or similar to secure his drums around his waist, as does another simfony player in Kloster Himmelkron (below), a former monastery in the Bavarian municipality of Himmelkron, Germany, in a sandstone image commissioned in 1473, …
… as does a taborer in a French breviary, c. 1511, …
… and as do the taborers on folios 154v and 114r of The Canterbury Psalter, decorated from 1200, where we apparently see a cord of two dyed colours twisted together.
Above we see one way of suspending the tabor, with a strap over the head and the drum either in front or to the side of the body.
In images where the tabor is placed on the shoulder or balanced on the left arm, a cord or strap is necessary to keep the drum in place. As we see below left, while straps are shown more often for pipe and tabor than for other instruments, they are still inconsistently shown by medieval artists. The other three examples illustrate that when the strap is shown it is generally quite substantial, but the material used is not visually obvious.
Above left we see the tabor held by a strap that goes over both shoulders, as it does in The Canterbury Psalter, but in this case the strap is broader, which probably indicates leather.
A third way of holding the tabor was to suspend the drum by a strap on the left wrist or forearm, above right (and as seen above in the French breviary, held by twisted cord). The flat, relatively broad strap makes hard-wearing leather likely. This appears to be confirmed by the brown strap in an image of a horse playing pipe and tabor, below.
A fourth way of suspending the drum is shown in a Flemish manuscript: one of the smaller and therefore lighter tabors is suspended by a thin cord from the little finger of the piping hand. This could be a gut string – a gut string was also tied across the skin of the drum as a snare – or possibly leather lace.
On a painted trencher (wooden plate or platter for the kitchen table) of the 1520s, a more substantial strap, again probably leather, appears to be wrapped around and suspended from the player’s thumb.
As well as for pipe and tabor, leather straps were used for harp …
… psaltery …
… and simfony or organistrum, its later development called the vielle à roue (wheel fiddle) or hurdy gurdy.
Linen cord and leather would have been available and affordable for any player; but overall we see a preponderance of silk straps for portative organs, harps, …
… citterns, guitars, …
… and lutes.
The images with silk straps have high status in common: the portative organ is played by an angel for the Virgin Mary; the harper is King David; and the cittern, guitar and lute players are women and men of high social rank. In practical terms, silk is strong and durable; in terms of portraiture, it is a sign of wealth and extravagance.
It is probable and logical that silk straps appeared in art much more than they did in life, as most musicians were not wealthy enough to have their portrait painted or afford such luxury as silk. Where the material is visually ambiguous in iconography, a more affordable possible material is fine linen. As we see below, some musicians went for the simplest option and supported their instrument with a gut string.
Emmet, Luke (undated) Extant lutes database. Available online by clicking here.
Ketterer Kunst (undated) Bergbau/Musikhandschrift, 1760. 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 with an EThOS (E-Theses Online Service) account by clicking here.
Pittaway, Ian (2020) The guitar: a brief history from the renaissance to the modern day. Available online by clicking here.
Pittaway, Ian (2022) The citole: from confusion to clarity. Part 1/2: What is a citole? Available online by clicking here.
Pittaway, Ian (2023) The Elbląg ‘gittern’: a case of mistaken identity. Part 2/2: Identifying the koboz. Available online by clicking here.
Van Edwards, David (undated) Lute straps. Available online by clicking here.