In the middle ages, musical instruments were not just important for the music they produced, but for what they symbolised. Using medieval art and the testimonies of medieval writers, this article describes the harp as the foremost symbolic instrument: an emblem of King David, Old Testament monarch and reputed writer of the Psalms; the harp as a representation of cosmic consonance, bringing harmony between heaven and earth; and the harp’s gut strings and wooden frame as a symbol of Christ on the cross.
This is the second of three articles about the medieval harp. The first describes harp development from ancient Egypt to the end of the medieval period; and the third seeks out evidence for medieval performance practice.
Each article begins with a performance on medieval harp of a different French estampie from c. 1300, arranged to historically attested performance principles. This article begins with La Seste estampie Real – The Sixth Royal estampie.
King David the royal Psalmist
A common representation in medieval art is the image of David, biblical King of Israel, playing harp. Since his role is pivotal in The Bible, to understand the symbolism we first need to know a little of David’s story.
The Old Testament book, 1 Samuel, chapter 16, reports that when God withdrew favour from the first King of Israel, Saul, he was beset with a “harmful/evil spirit” – i.e. he was melancholy – and it was the lyre music of the young shepherd David that lifted his mood. (The important symbolism of this event as understood in the medieval period is explored below.)
In 1 Samuel, chapter 17, the Philistines’ giant warrior, Goliath, issued a challenge to Israel of one-to-one combat, the side represented by the loser to become the defeated subjects of the side represented by the winner. All the ranks of the Israelite army were too afraid to face Goliath, and it was the young David who stepped forward, without armour. David struck Goliath on the forehead with a single stone from a slingshot, which killed him. Below we see the next scene of the story from the Psalter-Hours of Guiluys de Boisleux, France, after 1246 (The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, MS M.730, folio 19v): the small, un-armoured David decapitates the giant armour-clad Goliath and presents his severed head to King Saul.
The impressed King Saul appointed David as head of his army, then feared his popularity and power and planned to murder him. David was warned of this by Jonathan, Saul’s son, and David escaped. David and Saul made peace.
When Saul died, the story as told in The Bible is that David conquered Jerusalem for the Israelites, united the 12 tribes of Israel, became Israel’s second king, and founded a dynasty. David’s lineage included his son, Solomon, third King of Israel and, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, David and Solomon’s ultimate descendent was Jesus the Messiah.
There was another reason David was a popular figure in medieval iconography: he was reputed to be the author of the Psalms of the Jewish Tanakh or Tenakh, known to Christians as the Old Testament. The Psalms is a book of hymns which express a wide range of emotions to God – praise, gratitude, fear, despair, anger, repentance. Some Psalms include musical instructions and references to instruments, which are not possible now to interpret precisely. Today scholars of The Bible doubt that David wrote all of the Psalms, some that he wrote any, but what matters for our purpose is that in the medieval period his authorship was taken for granted.
Originally written in Hebrew, the title of the book of Psalms – also called the Psalter – is derived from the 4th century Latin translation of The Bible, which became the standard western version. In this Latin Vulgate, the collection of hymns is called Liber Psalmorum or Psalmi, which itself is derived from the Greek translation, psalmos, meaning a song text accompanied specifically by a stringed instrument. In both Jewish and Christian traditions, the singing of Psalms was and is a central part of the liturgy – but almost always without the originally indicated stringed instruments.
So it is that the standard medieval representation of King David was as the composer/performer of the Psalms. In manuscripts up to the 12th century, David plays a lyre, called a kinnor in the Hebrew Psalms, or he plays a harp. By the last quarter of the 12th century onward, David is shown almost exclusively playing a harp, occasionally a psaltery. The following images are shown in chronological order.
Above left we see King David playing a lyre with percussionists, horn players and dancers in the Anglo-Saxon Vespasian Psalter, 725–750 CE (British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A I, folio 30v). Above right is David playing a lyre in The Egbert Psalter, Abbey of Reichenau, Germany, c. 980 (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cividale del Friuli, Italy, Ms. CXXXVI, page 38).
Above left, King David the harper appears in Saint Wulfstan’s Portiforium – a portiforium is a portable breviary, and a breviary is a Roman Catholic service book – dated c. 1060–69 (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 391, page 24). Above right, David plays harp accompanied by a fiddler in an English Psalter of 1200–25 (British Library Lansdowne 420, folio 12r).
Above left is a Jewish version of David the harper/psalmist, from a French manuscript in Hebrew including the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Tanakh), the Haggadah (order of service for Passover), and other religious texts, known as The Northern French Miscellany, formerly The British Museum Miscellany, dated 1277–86 (British Library Add 11639, folio 117v). On the right, King David plays harp in the Christian Alphonso Psalter, England, c. 1284–1316 (British Library Add MS 24686, folio 11r).
The above two images show David the harper accompanied by other instrumentalists: left, with a citole player in The Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310–20 (British Library Royal 2 B VII, folio 56v); right, with a fiddler and citoler in The Peterborough Psalter, England, 1317–18 (Royal Library of Belgium, MS 9961-62, folio 14r).
Left, David appears as the psalmist/harper on a fresco in the great chamber of Longthorpe Tower, Peterborough, England, c. 1330 (uncovered in 1946); right, David sits with his harp next to a gittern and psaltery in a French Bible historiale (historical Bible), 1360–70 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Ms. 1, volume 1, folio 273r).
Not only was the harp associated with the royal King David of The Bible in the medieval period, the harp was associated with present-day royalty in an era when, as in The Bible, monarchs were considered to have been chosen by God. In England, Henry I and Matilda (reigned 1100–35) employed William le Harpur; King John (reigned 1199–1216) engaged Alexander le Harpur and a man recorded as Roger, a “citharista” (see the first article for a discussion of the meaning of “citharista”); Henry III (reigned 1216–72) had Richard le Harpur; and so on right through the middle ages and into the renaissance. Most monarchs employed one or two harpers, but Edward I (reigned 1272–1307) employed eight, and Edward II (1307–27) six.
Tuning symbolism and divine harmony
In medieval and renaissance accounts, music has an intrinsic power to move hearts. For example, in the 9th century, the cantor (soloist) of the Abbey of Saint Arnulf, Metz, France, whose name was Grimlaic, wrote A Rule for Solitaries, an early guide to the monastic life. Grimlaic wrote: “Childish games and laughter do not delight us, but holy readings and the spiritual music of melody instead. However hard-hearted we are, and unable to produce tears, our hearts are turned to compunction when we hear the sweetness of chant. There are many who are moved by the sweetness of chant to bewail their sins and readily brought to tears by the sweet sounds of a singer.”
The power of music to move emotions was considered divine, and was expressed in medieval art by showing King David tuning his harp. This is much more than a depiction of a practical necessity, as we see above in The Tickhill Psalter from the Augustinian Priory of Worksop, Nottinghamshire, 1310 (New York Public Library, Spencer collection Ms. 26, folio 9v). This is a pictorial account of the biblical story mentioned above in 1 Samuel 16:23: “So it came about whenever the evil/harmful spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the kinnor [Hebrew for lyre – shown above as a harp] and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” The first scene above shows King Saul with a devil or evil spirit at his back as David arrives with his harp in its bag. The next scene shows David tuning the harp and thus Saul becomes free of the devil. In the carefully coded visual representations of the period, the physical act of David tuning his harp was a visual metaphor for spiritual attunement, making all well: each string in concord with the others symbolised heavenly harmony, the restoration of divine peace, the integrity of body and soul.
King David brings harmony by tuning above left in The Rutland Psalter, England, c. 1260 (British Library Add MS 62925, folio 8v); above right in the Anglo-Norman Howard Psalter, c. 1308–40 (British Library Arundel MS 83, folio 14r); below left on a clerical vestment dated c. 1315, Musee des Tissus (Textile Museum), Lyon, France; and below right in The Luttrell Psalter, England, 1325–40 (British Library Add MS 42130, folio 13r).
In the 12th or early 13th century, Gottfried von Strassburg (died c. 1210) wrote a version of the Tristan and Iseult legend in Middle High German. In his Tristan, the titular hero, Tristan of Parmenie, studied with Welsh harp masters from the age of 7. When he was 14, he visited the castle of King Mark of Cornwall, and was handed a harp to play. First Tristan tuned the harp, then he “played such sweet tones and struck the harp so perfectly in the Breton manner that many who stood or sat nearby forgot their own names. Hearts and ears began to lose touch with reality, like mesmerised fools, and thoughts were awakened in many ways … With determination and agility his white fingers went into the strings, so that tones were created which filled the whole palace. And the eyes were not spared, either: many who were there intensely watched his hands.”
The same charateristics are present in the description of the harping hero, Horn, in the French Roman de Horn by Thomas, c. 1170. Horn’s first act is the same as Tristan’s: “Then he took his harp to tune it.” This has a practical and symbolic value in the story. Many medieval accounts testify to tuning and the testing of tuning being part of the performance itself. Roman de Horn continues: “God! Whoever saw how well he handled it, touching the strings and making them vibrate, sometimes causing them to sing and at other times to join in harmonies, he would have been reminded of the heavenly harmony. This man, of all that are there, causes the most wonder … All those present marvel that he could play thus.” In other medieval accounts of harpers we read that a skilled musician can, like Horn, cause listeners to become “like mesmerised fools”, “to lose touch with reality” to the extent that they “forgot their own names”, such was the “wonder” and “marvel” they created.
In medieval and renaissance accounts, it wasn’t only the harper who inspired awe and moved the listeners to strong emotion and the experience of “heavenly harmony”. We have seen the account of the 9th century monastic cantor, Grimlaic, who wrote that “many … are moved by the sweetness of chant to bewail their sins and readily brought to tears by the sweet sounds of a singer.” By the 16th century, the lute was the pre-eminent instrument. Francesco Canova da Milano (1497–1543) was a lutenist known as “Il divino”, employed by the papal court. A description of his playing is given by Pontus de Tyard in his Solitaire second, 1555. In Pontus’ account we read a parallel to Horn “touching the strings” to test the tuning of the harp, now applied to the lute, and the effect Francesco’s playing had on his listeners. (This “touching” or “testing the strings”, an improvised prelude, is described in more detail in the third article.)
Pontus de Tyard wrote: “While staying in Milan … Jacques Descartes was invited to a sumptuous and magnificent banquet where, among other pleasures of rare things assembled for the happiness of those select people, appeared Francesco da Milano, a man who is considered to have attained the end (if such is possible) of perfection in playing the lute well. The tables being cleared, he chose one and, as if tuning his strings, sat on the end of a table seeking out a fantasia. He had barely disturbed the air with three strummed chords when he interrupted conversation which had started among the guests. Having constrained them to face him, he continued with such a ravishing skill that little by little, making the strings languish under his fingers in his sublime way, he transported all those who were listening into so pleasurable a melancholy that – one leaning his head on his hand supported by his elbow, and another sprawling with his limbs in careless deportment, with gaping mouth and more than half-closed eyes, glued (one would judge) to those strings, and his chin fallen on his breast, concealing his countenance with the saddest taciturnity ever seen – they remained deprived of all senses save that of hearing, as if the spirit, having abandoned all the seats of the senses had retired to the ears in order to enjoy the more at its ease so ravishing a harmony. And I believe that we would be there still, had he not himself – I know not how – changing his style of playing with a gentle force, returned the spirit to the senses and to the place from which he had stolen them, not without leaving as much astonishment in each of us as if we had been elevated by an ecstatic transport of some divine frenzy.”
It is striking how similar these accounts are, nearly 400 years apart: whatever the reality of medieval and renaissance performance may have been, there is clearly a literary formula at play. Like Tristan, Horn “took his harp to tune it”, while Francesco “chose [a lute] and, as if tuning his strings, sat on the end of a table seeking out a fantasia.” The “hearts and ears” of Tristan’s audience “began to lose touch with reality”, while Horn’s playing is described with the words, “God! Whoever saw how well he handled it, touching the strings and making them vibrate … he would have been reminded of the heavenly harmony.” Similarly, Francesco played “with such a ravishing skill that … he transported all those who were listening … they remained deprived of all senses save that of hearing … so ravishing a harmony … as if we had been elevated by an ecstatic transport of some divine frenzy.” The words to describe the skill of Horn’s playing, “This man, of all that are there, causes the most wonder … All those present marvel that he could play thus”, could just as well have been written of Tristan or of Francesco. In all cases, music has the power to transport listeners, to fill their senses with an experience of divinity, filling the carnal body with a celestial spirit.
The harp as the cross
The idea of the harp as a sacred instrument was standard in the middle ages. The Christian Roman statesman and scholar, Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus (Casiodoro, Cassiodore), c. 485–c. 585 CE, whose Expositio in Psalterium (Exposition on the Psalter) was still being copied and read at the end of the 15th century, wrote that the 10 strings of the “cithara” – a lyre, but the same word and the same symbolism was later used for the harp – stood for the 10 Commandments which lead to salvation. Cassiodorus explained that the cithara symbolises “the whole of our redemption”; that its shape imitates the cross; that playing it imitates the “beautiful and strong” fingers of Christ; that the joy of a good song on the cithara is the perfect channel for the joy of the Christian life; and that learning to play the cithara represents the Christian life, since only with the labour of practice can one “perfect the good” and bear the fruits of joy.
Cassiodorus’ religious symbolism for the lyre in the 6th century was transferred to the harp. In a Passionale (Lives of the Saints) produced in Canterbury between 1100 and 1150 (British Library Arundel 91, folio 218v, shown below right), a historiated initial T shows a saint crucified, holding a harp in each outstretched hand, with a flageolet in his mouth, accompanied by a fiddler. This appears to carry the same or similar meaning as in Nicholas de Gorran’s In Psalmos, 1300: “On the cithara: in mortification of the flesh. For on the cithara there are strings made of dead guts”. Mortification of the flesh refers to the ascetic Christian practice of sharing in Christ’s torture on the cross, causing deliberate physical suffering in this life to achieve greater salvation in the next, represented by the shape and gut strings of the harp.
The harp’s sacred power as an instrument of holiness, representing Christ’s salvation on the cross, is expressed again in an extraordinary passage by English chronicler and monk Robert Mannyng in his Handlyng Synne, 1303. In the section headed A Tale of Bishop Saint Robert Grostest of Lincoln, and why he loved Music, Mannyng wrote this of the harp (first Middle English, then modern English):
þe vertu of þe harpe, þurghe skylle and ryȝt,
Wyl destroye þe fendes myȝt,
And to þe croys by gode skylle
Ys þe harpe lykenede weyle.
Anoþer poynt cumforteþ me,
Þat God haþ sent vnto a tre
So moche ioye to here wyþ eere
Moche þan more ioye ys þere
Wyþ God hym selfe þere he wonys
Þe harpe þerof me ofte mones
Of þe ioye and of þe blys
Where Gode hym self wonys and ys.
The virtue of the harp through skill and governance
Will destroy the Devil’s might,
And to the cross by good reason
Is the harp likened well.
Another point comforts me,
that God has sent unto a tree
So much joy to hear with ear;
Much more than joy is there:
With God himself there, he wails/moans
So with the harp that I often lament
Of the joy and of the bliss
Where God himself resides and is.
We read more elaborate religious harp metaphors in In Psalmos, a commentary on the Psalms by Michel de Meaux, born 1199 (from a manuscript copied in the late 14th century: New College, Oxford, MS 36, folio 54r–54v). In his commentary on Psalm 97:5 of the Latin Vulgate (Psalm 98 in modern numbering), Michel describes the meaning of “Psallite Domino in cithara” – “Praise God on the cithara”– first by describing its physical features: “In the cithara there are two wooden parts, the upper and the lower; the lower part is hollow and the upper part is solid. Between these two stretch the strings, some having been tuned to lower voices and some to higher. The tuning key tightens the upper pegs and the strings at the lower. The strings sound when struck with the fingers.”
The description makes clear that Michel refers to an open harp, one with a sound-box and a neck but without a forepillar (as described in the first article). Below left and centre we see two open harps and, on the right for comparison, a pillar harp, i.e. a harp with a forepillar. The images are from The Eadwine Psalter, made 1145–60 in Christ Church, Canterbury (now Canterbury Cathedral), an adapted copy of the French Utrecht Psalter, created in 820–30 in Reims or Hauvilliers.
After describing an open harp, Michel de Meaux continues, “Now follows the spiritual interpretation. The two wooden parts are two crosses; the lower wooden part is the cross of the flesh, and the upper part is the cross of the mind.” Michel likens the two main parts of the wooden harp to wooden crosses, metaphors for physical and mental sacrifices that bring salvation. “The cross of the flesh is bodily affliction, and the cross of the mind is compunction in the heart. The lower wooden part is not solid because all that is made of flesh grieves; if the joy of good conscience is taken away it has the outer form of grief but it has no truth within and therefore it is hollow. The upper wooden part is solid because grief of the mind penetrating to the inmost part may be shown but not contrived.” In other words, Michel takes the harp’s hollow sound-box as a metaphor for the hollowness of a contrived physical show of grief for sins without a good conscience; whereas the solid neck of the harp represents a solid good conscience in the mind.
“The string is the body which is stretched and made lean between suffering of the body and grief of the mind. The lower peg is fear, the upper love, because flesh is pierced by fear and the mind is wounded with love: the former, so that flesh may not be moved to evil, the latter, so that the mind may be sensitive to good. The tuning key is grace which, grasping the desire of the heart, draws it to itself and brings it to a higher passion.” Michel uses every detail of the harp’s structure, building on the imagery of the hollow sound-box as lower, carnal, earthly fear and the solid wooden neck as the higher spiritual mind, with the string as the human body stretched between the two, pulled upward toward divine love by the tuning key of grace.
“The string is dried and stretched so that it may give sound, and the flesh of man is first washed pure from sin, and then stirred towards good. There it is dried, here stretched; dried through abstinence, and stretched through endurance.” Now Michel uses the process of gut string-making – washing extraneous matter from the animal intestine, stirring the cleaning solution, drying and stretching it to become a playable string – as an analogy for cleaning the soul of sin.
Harp symbolism appears in a 15th century wall painting in the parish church of Breage, Cornwall. It shows Christ bearing the wounds of scourging, the nails of crucifixion and the spear wound in his side, wearing a crown to signify that he is King of Heaven. Among the objects around him are scythe blades, axes, scissors, shears and a sickle (running alongside Christ’s left leg, on our right in the photograph below left), which seems to indicate that one of the meanings of the painting is a warning against labouring on the Sabbath. Between Christ’s left hand and his side is a harp, with a blood-red line drawn from the nail in his hand to a harp string in the centre of the string band (below right). The obvious meaning is the harp and gut string symbolism described by Michel de Meaux in the 13th century, with its origin in Cassiodorus’ writing about the lyre in the 6th century. Since the musical instrument appears next to Jesus without any need for explanation, it indicates that the harp as a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion remained common currency in the 15th century, nearly a millennium after Cassiodorus.
So we see that the symbolism associated with the harp gave it a special place in religious life. Robert Mannyng’s verse about the harp in Handlyng Synne, 1303, appears in a tale in which the human subject is the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grostest (Groosteste, Grosseteste, Grosthead), c. 1168–1253. Bishop Grostest was not unusual in employing his own personal harper: other medieval clergy had their own personal minstrels, always harpers. Among them, the Bishop of Durham, Antony Bek, c. 1245–1311, employed two harpers (who played at the wedding of Edward I’s daughter, Elizabeth, in 1297); the Abbot of Abingdon brought his personal harper to the celebration of Pentecost at Westminster in 1306; and Thomas Percy, Bishop of Norwich from 1356 to 1369, had a personal harper.
Harper minstrels also played inside churches as informal acts of worship. In May 1297, the minstrel Walter Lund played his harp in worship before the tomb of Saint Richard in Chichester Cathedral, seen and heard by King Edward I (reigned 1272–1307). Edward rewarded 14 harpers a few days later for “making their minstrelsy before the statue of the Blessed Virgin” in the crypt of Christ Church, Canterbury (Canterbury Cathedral). The Wardrobe Books of Edward III (reigned 1327–1377) state that he made 4 gifts to minstrels who played before the Virgin’s image at Christ Church, the last time instructing them to play as he made his own offering. Edward III also rewarded a harpist for minstrelsy in Saint Augustine’s Church, and twice made gifts to minstrels playing before the cross in the north chapel of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.
The symbolic religious interpretation of the harp may seem curious to a modern reader, but it shows a typically medieval way of thinking. We see the same method of reasoning in bestiaries, medieval compendiums of beasts. Bestiaries took their information from Greek and Roman authorities such as 1st century Roman author Pliny the Elder, mixed with Christian writings and teachings from The Bible. Bestiaries were populated with real animals familiar to their readers, such as the frog, ant, mouse and rabbit, real animals described in ancient sources which later European compliers and readers would be unlikely ever to have seen, such as the lion, crocodile, elephant and giraffe, and legendary creatures believed to be real, such as the griffin, dragon, phoenix and siren. Animals were not primarily described with observations about habits based on research, as a naturalist would describe them today. Exactly as we have seen with medieval harp analogies, the function of the bestiary was to repeat the words and sentiments of ancient authorities and thereby understand God’s purpose for humanity. Thus, just as the harp is a metaphor for God’s purpose, in the bestiaries every animal is an allegory, a divine message indicating how we should and should not live our lives. For example, the mid–13th century English bestiary, MS Bodley 674, says that frogs “are so called from their chattering”, signifying “the heretics and their demons who linger at the banquet of the decadent senses, and do not cease to utter their vain chatter”; ants “follow the tracks of those who have gone out earlier until they find corn, and then they take it to their nest”, so ants “should be a good reminder of clever men, who collect like the ants in order to receive their reward in the future”; and mice “represent greedy men who seek earthly goods, and make the goods of others their prey.”
This religious and metaphorical way of thinking persisted well past the medieval period. For example, the first volume of Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy, published in 1699 by Henry Playford, son of John Playford, included a song about the new tobacco craze expressed entirely in moralistic religious analogies. The first three verses are:
Tobacco’s but an Indian weed,
Grows green at morn, cut down at eve,
It shews our decay, we are but clay:
Think of this when you smoke tobacco.
The pipe, that is so lily white,
Wherein so many take delight,
Is broke with a touch — man’s life is such:
Think of this when you smoke tobacco.
The pipe, that is so foul within,
Shews how man’s soul is stain’d with sin,
And then the fire it doth require :
Think of this when you smoke tobacco.
While different authors wrote in their own ways about the symbolism of the harp, it was a universal staple throughout the medieval period that its wooden frame and gut strings represent the redeeming cross and body of Christ. This is why, in the hell panel of Jheronimus Bosch’s triptych of 1495–1505, The Garden of Earthly Delights, the image of the harp (right) is so shocking. The symbolism of the lyre or harp positively representing Christ’s sacrifice, with its lineage before Bosch back a thousand years to Cassiodorus, is turned in The Garden into the jolting sight of a sinful harper crucified on his own instrument, the strings threaded through his body at the neck, spine and anus. Not only are all the musicians in The Garden in hell, their instruments of music are turned into instruments of torture. Every musician in every one of Bosch’s paintings is associated with sin, demonic forces, and excruciating punishment. Bosch was clearly a fundamentalist, on the wing of the church who believed all music except the liturgy, and all instruments except the church organ and the human voice, are anathema and deserving of divine wrath. (There is an article exploring the musicians in The Garden of Earthly Delight in detail here; and an article about music in the entirety of Bosch’s work here.)
So we have seen that medieval art and literature operated on the level of symbolic representation, and this affected the way medieval artists and writers illustrated the harp, as the instrument of the biblical King David, composer of the Psalms; or as the instrument being tuned that represents the bringing of harmony between the human and the divine; or as the instrument that physically represents Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and thereby brings the harp player and listener closer to divine love.
This has been the second of three articles about the medieval harp. The first describes harp development from ancient Egypt to the beginning of the renaissance; and the third seeks out the evidence for medieval harpers’ performance practice.
© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.
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