On the (medieval) fiddle: a short introduction to the vielle

WaltersMuseumW37f.20vA mention of the violin today is likely to conjure up images of a classical, orchestral, or jazz musician, whereas the word fiddle is more likely to suggest a traditional or folk musician, even though they’re essentially the same instrument, set up differently to suit different styles of playing. This class-based relegation of the term fiddle was not always so. Centuries before the creation of the violin there was the medieval fiddle, also known by its French name, the vielle. This brief introduction demonstrates that the playing style and sound of the medieval fiddle had more in common with the hurdy gurdy and the crwth (bowed lyre) than the modern violin. Includes illustrations and video examples.

This is one of two editions of this article, being a short introduction to the vielle, intended for the general reader. There is a longer version, The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle, which has a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth.  

The importance of the vielle

The seal of Bertan II, count of Forcalquier, France, dated 1168, depicting him playing a vielle.
The seal of Bertan II, Count of Forcalquier, France, dated 1168, depicting him playing a vielle.

The importance of the vielle in mid to late medieval European culture is clear from surviving historical artefacts, paintings and manuscripts. From the 12th century on, the vielle is associated in literature with both amateur and professional players (along with the citole and harp), as an instrument to play dance music; to accompany secular songs; and as an accompaniment to religious song.

The vielle found favour in royal and noble households. The seal of Bertan II, Count of Forcalquier, France, dated 1168, has him armed with a sword and shield on horseback on one side, and sat playing a vielle on the other; King Ottokar II of Bohemia, writing in the early 13th century, gave the names of 17 fiddlers at King Manfred of Sicily’s court, implying that there were many others; and Duchess Isabella, wife of Duke Philip the Good in 15th century Burgundy, employed two blind Portuguese lutenists who also played vielle and other “soft”, i.e. indoor, instruments.

The medieval fiddle is a regular element in decorated manuscripts and paintings of the period, and features in religious paintings played by angels or humans in attendance of the holy, sometimes on its own, often among other instruments.

Minstrels, servant musicians in the employ of wealthy households, used the fiddle to accompany others’ singing; and jongleurs, French musician-poets who performed both in the service of the wealthy and freelance, used it to accompany dancing and their own singing of chansons de geste, songs of heroic deeds, a popular genre in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The troubadours, French Provençal lyric poets and singers of the 11th to 13th centuries, now have the reputation of having the vielle as their favoured instrument, as do the trouvères, the epic poets and singers of northern France in the 11th to 14th centuries. This idea seems to have arisen from two 13th century manuscript depictions of the troubadour Perdigon playing the fiddle. This does not tell us, however, how other troubadours and trouvères accompanied their songs, or indeed if they did.

Perdigon or Perdigo the troubadour (fl. 1190–1220), depicted playing vielle, left in BnF 854, f. 49, 13th century, right in BnF 12473, f. 36, second half of the 13th century.

Distinctive structural features

Angel in green with vielle from the Immaculate Conception Altarpiece, once in San Francesco Grande, Milan, painted by an associate of Leonardo da Vinci and Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, possibly Francesco Napoletano, 1490–99. This vielle has the characteristic low, flat bridge, and 1 of its 5 strings is off the fingerboard as a bourdon. We see here that the bourdon is being bowed.
Angel in green with vielle from the Immaculate Conception Altarpiece, once in San Francesco Grande, Milan, painted by an associate of Leonardo da Vinci and Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis, possibly Francesco Napoletano, 1490–99. This vielle has the characteristic low, flat bridge, and 1 of its 5 strings is off the fingerboard as a bourdon.

The consensus of the many available vielle images demonstrate a range of distinctive structural features that distinguish it from any modern bowed instrument.

The first is the option, on a 5 string vielle only, of a bourdon. Harps and psalteries had bourdons, too. In their case, it was a low pitched string, sometimes pitched several steps below the next string in the sequence, that acted as a drone string. In the case of the vielle, it was a low-pitched string placed off the fingerboard and attached to the side of the pegbox by passing through a hole, so it could only be played open. As we see from the angle at which the bourdon leaves the bridge to reach the pegbox in the painting on the right, this made it possible to play the bourdon by plucking with the left thumb. Dominican friar and music theorist, Jerome of Moravia, writing in c. 1280, made it clear that the bourdon could also be bowed.

The second and third features are a variety of body shapes, some very wide, and a variety of bridges. The bridge height was either less than its width or equal to its width (unlike on a violin), making for a low action (the relative height of the strings to the instrument). The iconography suggests most strongly that the bridge was often flat, unlike the marked arc of a violin bridge, severely limiting the angle at which strings can be bowed and positively necessitating drone playing on all strings at once. Of course, even on a completely flat bridge, string slots in the bridge could be made of various depths to create the string arc that violinists are used to, enabling single string playing; but the iconography and the logic of the tuning system (see below) do not show this.

Above we see illustrations of the three types of bridge on a vielle. In all these cases, there is a separate string-holder which has a particular effect on string pressure, creating downward tension on the soundboard, whereas a fixed and glued bridge without a string-holder creates an upward pressure on the soundboard.

On the left, from Hans Memling, Angel Musicians, Antwerp, 1480s, we see a flat bridge and therefore strings of equal height. Often this would be a simple wooden block. In this case and in some other iconography, the block is castellated, possibly to allow tuning of individual strings. Luthier Chris Doddridge tells me that castellation also has a beneficial effect on string vibration and overall timbre. Castellated bridge or not, strings would generally have to bowed as a humming block.

In the centre is a detail of a vielle from Sano di Pietro’s Madonna enthroned with baby, Siena, c. 1428. Here we see a bridge with a definite arc, allowing for playing of single strings.

On the right, in a detail from Sano di Pietro, Assumption of the Virgin, 1448-52, the strings are on a flat plane, tied onto the string holder which is supported by a post.

Overall, historical images show us a range of sizes; a variety of shapes, most typically having a body shaped as an oblong box with rounded edges or with a gently curving waist; the neck was sometimes fretted with gut, more often unfretted; string numbers were usually 4 or 5, but sometimes 3 and possibly 6; it was played on the shoulder, or against the upper chest, or occasionally on the knee facing forward like the rebab or viola da gamba; and played with bows of various sizes, lengths and curvatures.

Left: Two details from The Way of Salvation fresco in the Spanish Chapel, Florence, by Andrea di Bonaiuto, 1365. Here we see the low, flat bridge and the use of a bourdon on a 5 string vielle. The position of the thumb implies the bourdon may be plucked while the other strings are bowed. The illustration bottom right (source unknown) strongly suggests this, too. Compare the shape and the low height of the vielle bridge from the green angel in the Immaculate Conception Altarpiece above and from The Way of Salvation fresco with that on the detail of the baroque violin, top right, from Orazio Gentileschi, Young Woman Playing a Violin, c. 1612. The low, flat vielle bridge would facilitate playing all the strings as one sonic block, not possible on the curved violin bridge, and would make it much fuller-sounding but quieter than the violin.
Left: Two details from The Way of Salvation fresco in the Spanish Chapel, Florence, by Andrea di Bonaiuto, 1365. Here we see the low, flat bridge and the use of a bourdon on a 5 string vielle. The position of the thumb and bow suggests the bourdon here is plucked while the other strings are bowed. The illustration bottom right, from the Boethius manuscript, De Musica, 14th century, suggests this, too. Compare the shape and the low height of the vielle bridge from the green angel in the Immaculate Conception Altarpiece above and from The Way of Salvation fresco with that on the detail of the baroque violin, top right, from Orazio Gentileschi, Young Woman Playing a Violin, c. 1612. The low, flat vielle bridge would facilitate playing all the strings as one sonic block, not possible on the curved violin bridge, and would make it much fuller-sounding but quieter than the violin.

A variety of sizes, shapes, strings, and bourdon / fret choices. From left to right: Lincoln Cathedral, 13th century: 5 strings, no bourdon, fretless. Gloucester Cathedral, c. 1280: 3 strings, fingerboard not visible. From the Chapel of San Nicola in Tolentino, Italy, after 1305: 5 strings, bourdon, fretless. Manuscript in Austria, c. 1300–1350 (Universitätsbibliothek Graz 32, fol. 106v): 4 apparent strings but 6 pegs, no bourdon, fretted. There are occasion depictions of 6 string vielles. Does this image suggest 6 strings in 3 or 4 courses, or is this artistic license we shouldn’t take literally? Hans Memling, Antwerp, 1480s: 5 strings, no bourdon, fretted.

A variety of sizes, shapes, strings, and bourdon / fret choices (click picture to open in new window).
From left to right:
Lincoln Cathedral, 13th century: 5 strings, no bourdon, fretless (though, in carvings, frets are often left undepicted on fretted instruments).
Gloucester Cathedral, c. 1280: 3 strings, fingerboard not visible.
From the Chapel of San Nicola in Tolentino, Italy, after 1305: 5 strings, bourdon, fretless.
Manuscript in Austria, c. 1300–1350 (Universitätsbibliothek Graz 32, fol. 106v): 4 apparent strings but 6 pegs, no bourdon, fretted. There are occasional depictions of 6 string vielles. Does this image suggest 6 strings in 3 or 4 courses, or is this artistic license we shouldn’t take literally?
Hans Memling, Antwerp, 1480s: 5 strings, no bourdon, fretted.

Though the troubadours, trouvères, and jongleurs all sang to their own vielle playing, and minstrels accompanied others’ signing with it, it’s rare to find a modern early music performer who fiddles and sings together. And, though historical fiddles most often had flat bridges, it’s extremely rare to find a modern early music performer playing with one. Dr. Linda Marie Zaerr is dedicated to historically accurate performance of medieval music and literature, and she does both. Click video to play (51 seconds long) – opens in new window.
Though the evidence tells us that least one troubadour and many jongleurs sang to their own vielle playing, and minstrels accompanied others singing with it, it’s rare to find a modern early music performer who fiddles and sings together. And, though historical fiddles most often had flat bridges, it’s extremely rare to find a modern early music performer playing with one. Dr. Linda Marie Zaerr is dedicated to historically accurate performance of medieval music and literature, and she does both. Click video to play (51 seconds long) – opens in new window.

Three vielle tunings

The three ways of tuning the vielle, according to Jerome of Moravia in his Tractatus de Musica, Paris, c. 1280. In each example, the note with the fermata (hold or pause sign) represents the bourdon, the drone string placed off the fingerboard, with the rest of the strings remaining on the fingerboard. In the second tuning, where no fermata is shown, there is no bourdon. If the actual pitches were indicated they would awkwardly straddle bass and treble clefs, so the 8 underneath the treble clef indicates that the actual pitch is an octave below that shown.
The three ways of tuning the vielle, according to Jerome of Moravia in his Tractatus de Musica, Paris, c. 1280. In each example, the note with the fermata (hold or pause sign) represents the bourdon, the drone string placed off the fingerboard, with the rest of the strings remaining on the fingerboard. In the second tuning, where no fermata is shown, there is no bourdon. If the actual pitches were indicated they would awkwardly straddle bass and treble clefs, so the 8 underneath the treble clef indicates that the actual pitch is an octave below that shown.

The key source for medieval fiddle tuning is Tractatus de Musica, written in Paris in c. 1280 by Dominican friar and music theorist, Jerome of Moravia. It was written for inexperienced church musicians, for “the friars of our orders or of another”, to help them understand and perform ecclesiastical chant. In the final short chapter he moves his attention to bowed strings, including the “viella” and its tunings. It therefore follows that, in the church of Jerome’s day, the vielle was considered a suitable instrument for accompanying church music, such that Jerome was moved to give instruction on its religious use as well as its secular use.

Jerome’s writing is very special for early music researchers, being the earliest surviving record of the construction and tuning of medieval instruments. He wrote that the vielle “has, or should have, 5 strings.” Enough of the iconography shows both 4 string and 5 string vielles, and some with 3 strings, so therefore I take Jerome’s “should have” to be his personal preference.

The first string on the 5 string fiddle is used as a bourdon in the first and third of Jerome’s three tunings: it is placed off the fingerboard and attached to the side of the peghead so that it can only be plucked or bowed open. Since there is no evidence of bourdon practice on the 3 or 4 string fiddle, perhaps Jerome considered this option to be integral to the instrument.

The first two tunings consist entirely of notes d and g in different octaves. All these tunings make more sense once we understand that adjacent strings in unison or an octave apart are almost certainly paired courses in unison or in octaves. In other words, these tunings appear to have been intended as drones, i.e. all the strings are sounded at once, with the melody played on top of or in the middle of the droning open strings, hence the fiddle’s flat bridge. In the second tuning, almost all notes in medieval music theory are available in first position, so this tuning alone could be the ideal candidate for the curved bridge, to allow strings to be played individually.

Fleurs de Lys playing Prendes i Garde, 13th century French carol (a danced song). The 4 string fiddle player, Helen Wilding, utilises the drone style suggested by the historical data; with Charlotte Bulley, lead voice and tambourine; and Anne-Marie Summers, tambourine, voice and bagpipes. Click on the picture to start the video, which opens in a new window.
Fleurs de Lys playing Prendes i Garde, 13th century French carol (a danced song). The 4 string fiddle player, Helen Wilding, utilises the drone style suggested by the historical data; with Charlotte Bulley, lead voice and tambourine; and Anne-Marie Summers, tambourine, voice and bagpipes. Click on the picture to start the video, which opens in a new window.

The implications of crwth technique and tuning

Left: Crwth on the late 14th century chapter house mural, Westminster Abbey. Right: 18th century crwth housed at St. Fagan’s National History Museum, Cardiff.

The third tuning is more mysterious: a G bourdon, then G, d, and 2 x c’, presumably as a unison pair. A modern bowed string player would find such a tuning baffling. I’m going to suggest that there is a historically-attested solution for this tuning, found in comparison with crwth technique.

The European bowed crwth (or crowd) was a development that emerged in AD 900–1000 from the plucked lyre, which dates back to 2000 BC. The crwth flourished in western Britain from the 11th century, and in the rest of Europe was known as the chrotta, crotta, or rotta. Pockets of crwth players continued to play in Wales right through to the 19th century.

In the 12th century we have the first evidence of a crwth with drone bourdon strings, 2 strings positioned across the bridge and then off the fingerboard, either plucked by the player’s left thumb or bowed, as on the vielle. Since this practice began in the 12th century and became commonplace in the mid to late 14th century, we can speculate that either the 5 string vielle with a bourdon took on a feature of the crwth, or conversely that the crwth took on a feature of the vielle. The bourdon was still used until the crwth’s demise in the 19th century.

British Library Add. MS 15020:91, dated 1768-9, with a copy in Wales now known as Aberystwyth MS 168:6, gives very clear crwth tuning instructions, which turn out to be practically identical to Jerome’s third fiddle tuning. Both tunings are designed around open strings g, c and d in different octaves; and both bring out different drones when a particular course is used to play the melody. On the crwth and on Jerome’s third vielle tuning, with the melody played on the d course, we have a g/c drone, nominally a modern C chord without a third; and with the melody on the c course we have a g/d drone, nominally a modern G chord without a third. You can see how this works in practice in the video below.

Cass Meurig playing the crwth and demonstrating it to Paul Martin. The solo tune we hear her play is the traditional Welsh Black-Haired Crwth Players Tune. Click on the picture to start the video, which opens in a new window.
Cass Meurig playing the crwth and demonstrating it to Paul Martin. The solo tune we hear her play is the traditional Welsh Black-Haired Crwth Players Tune. (Click on the picture to start the video, which opens in a new window.)

The string spacing on the crwth is such that gaps between strings of a course are smaller than between courses, as one would expect, enough to identify each pair of strings. At the same time, the gaps between the two strings of a course are enough that a player can easily chose to stop one or the other octave of a course, or stop both together. From a short distance a non-player could easily mistake this for equal string spacing, as we see in much of the vielle iconography. I suggest that both vielle and crwth were double-strung with string spacing that looked equal to a non-player, probably so as to be able to split a course when the player required it.

So both the 5 string vielle and the crwth employ a bourdon off the fingerboard; a flat bridge to effect a block of strings played as a drone; both use strings in courses tuned in octaves but with a wide string spacing within the course; and Jerome’s third vielle tuning is, for all practical purposes, identical to traditional crwth tuning.

It is tempting to suggest that these two instruments are so closely related that it cannot be a coincidence, that the vielle was a development of the crwth, just as the crwth was a development of the lyre.

Lessons from the wheel fiddle

The structure and tuning of the medieval fiddle suggests that it should not be thought of in the same musical category or soundworld as later bowed instruments such as the viola da gamba and violin, whose function is purely or primarily melodic. Rather, the fiddle should be more associated with the family of instruments which function as a melody played over or within a continuous drone, as with the crwth.

Characterised in this way, there is a group of instruments which, like the vielle, was used in church music: the family which evolved from organistrum to simfony to vielle à roue (hurdy gurdy). From the 10th century we have evidence of the organistrum, named after the church vocal style of organum, then meaning voices in parallel octaves, fourths or fifths. The organistrum was a large drone instrument played by two people, one to turn the crank for the rosined wheel which acted like a continuous bow, and one to play the tangents (keys). By the 13th century, a smaller, one person version had been developed, the simfony; and by c. 1500 this had evolved further into the vielle à roue, literally the wheel fiddle, known in later times as the hurdy gurdy, with its rhythmically buzzing bridge.

The hurdy gurdy family, left to right: organistrum, from a stone portal at Santiago de Compostela, Spain, dated 1188 (from a plaster cast of it in the Victoria and Albert Museum); a pair of simfonies, from the Spanish/Portuguese song book, Cantigas de Santa Maria, 1260–80; and the first known depiction of a vielle à roue with a buzzing bridge, from Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Netherlands, c. 1500.

I suggest that this naming of the vielle à roue or wheel fiddle is significant. Indeed, it seems sensible to assume that the vielle à roue gained its name, not just from the wheel acting like a continuous fiddle bow, but also that, and even primarily that, the drone playing created the same soundworld as the vielle. Certainly Jerome’s 13th century drone tunings are in a style of music that was fundamental in the 11th century, and the emergence of the vielle à roue in c. 1500 suggests that this style was still played on the vielle/fiddle then.

So today’s violin or fiddle and the medieval vielle or fiddle are very different instruments, designed for very different conceptions of music and worlds of sound. You can see and hear this in the video below (click on picture, opens in new window). Gabriel Alejandro Hernández plays a 5 string fiddle, demonstrating drones and the plucked bourdon: Aurea personet lira, attributed to Fulbert de Chartres, France, 952/970–1028.

There is a longer version of this article, The mysteries of the medieval fiddle: lifting the veil on the vielle, with a detailed discussion of the different ways in which we can make sense of historical fiddle tunings and, in the light of that, a closely argued case for the relationship between the vielle and the crwth.  

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