Medieval and Tudor String Instruments

Most of the instruments we know today have medieval ancestors. Over the years these instruments have changed to a greater or lesser extent with the result that some - like the medieval fiddle - are easily recognisable, while others like the ancestor of the modern piano are not.

There were basically two types of strings used on medieval and Tudor instruments, and the type chosen depended on how they were to be used. Most instruments had catgut strings - that is, strings made from the wound intestines of sheep. Making catgut is a pretty unpleasant job, but it makes for a fine string, especially for bowed instruments. Metal wire was alternatively used on some plucked or hammered instruments to produce a louder tone. As well as these basic types, strings made of silk or horsehair were also known. The strings for instruments were very expensive and there are records of minstrels being paid in strings for performance.

All string instruments feature a sound-box that has a great effect on the actual sound that is produced. This sound-box is usually wooden, using hard woods for the rear and side pieces and soft woods for the front (or soundboard). There are various ways in which sound-boxes can be made, the most common one being to glue or pin together several thin and carefully shaped pieces of wood. Another way is carve out a bowl from a solid block of wood and then attach a soundboard. The strings must then be connected in some way to the soundboard, sometimes by means of a bridge or otherwise, as in the case of the harp, by being directly attached at one end of the length of the string. There are nearly always sound-holes in the soundboard.

Sounds are produced simply by causing the string to vibrate, which might be done by bowing, plucking, hammering or even blowing! The vibrations from the string travel down into the soundboard, causing the soundboard also to vibrate. This sets up vibrations inside the sound box, with the result that the sound of the string is amplified, or made louder. The shape and quality of the sound-box also add tone to the overall sound.

Many of the instruments described here have attached sound-files. Click to hear these intruments in action.


Gittern Tudor playing a Gittern

The gittern is one of the ancestors of the modern guitar and is closely related to the lute. Like the lute, it has a round back but unlike the lute this is made from one block of wood which has been very finely hollowed out, rather than being fitted together from separate ribs. Like the lute (which is described below) the strings of the gittern are arranged in pairs, with the highest string being a single. The strings are of catgut and are plucked with fingers or with a plectrum.

Though the gittern can play chords by plucking multiple strings or by strumming, it is chiefly a melody instrument. It was widely used for accompanying singing and was popular well into the Tudor period. Like the other guitar-type instruments of the middle ages, the gittern was often elaborately decorated, especially the rose in the soundhole. Our gittern was made by George Stevens and is very similar to the fifteenth century gittern in the Wartburg Collection in Eisenach, Germany.





The citole is another ancestor of our modern guitar and, again, is of North African origin. Instruments of this kind first came into Europe when the Moorish people of North Africa settled in Spain, from the ninth century AD.

The citole usually has four or five catgut strings and is normally pictured being played with a plectrum. The instrument was carved out of a solid block of wood (in the case of our instrument the wood is maple) and then a soundboard was attached.

Like the modern guitar, this instrument has frets. Frets are pieces of wood or catgut attached to the finger board. They set out the finger positions to help the player make notes that are in tune and have a good tone. If an instrument has frets, it also becomes possible to play different strings at the same time, so that the musicians can produce chords or perform polyphony (which means “making more than one melody at a time”) on these splendid instruments. Our citole has fixed frets, but medieval and Tudor citoles may well have had tied-on frets, like the lute - described below.

Citoles appear in English records by the end of the thirteenth century and appear to have enjoyed high status as they were often used to entertain nobility.


Jacobean Lute

Like so many instruments, the lute is originally from the middle east. In fact, its name is derived from the Arabic words ‘el oud’ meaning ‘the wood’, and this instrument is still very popular in the middle east and north Africa.

The instrument was known throughout Europe from at least the thirteenth century but only became truly popular in the sixteenth century, when it was a great favourite with English kings and queens - King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I were both said to be skilled players.

The lute is a delicate and carefully constructed instrument. The back is ribbed - that is, made from lots of pieces of wood put together, and it has a deep rounded shape. The soundboard on the front is made from a soft wood and usually has an elaborate rose (or soundhole carving), while the fingerboard is made of a hardwood. In medieval and Tudor times the strings were made out of catgut and they varied in number. Some earlier lutes show only nine strings while the one pictured on the left - which is late sixteenth century in style - has 15 strings. The strings are arranged in double courses with the highest string always being a single. Unlike the modern guitar, the instrument has no fixed frets, and it can be played without frets or with frets tied on - little off-cuts of catgut are very useful for this.



Tudor Harp Gothic Harp

People nowadays often think that the harp is a traditional instrument of the British Isles, but this is largely because it is important in the modern folk tradition. Although it is commonly believed today that the harp originated in Ireland and was a ‘Celtic’ instrument, this is almost certainly not the case. In medieval times, the harp was popular in many countries, and harps appear in medieval illustration from all over Europe.

The harp is closely related to the lyre (which is described below) and its early history is difficult to separate from the lyre as scholars cannot be certain which words refer to which instrument! The word ‘harp’ is Germanic in origin (originally ‘hearpe’), and the Christian writers of the Dark Ages associated the instrument that went by this name with the people they called ‘barbarians’ - that is, the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples that settled throughout western Europe after the end of the Roman empire. However, the earliest records most likely refer to an instrument resembling the lyre.

Certainly harps as we know them were known in the British Isles well before the Conquest. The earliest illustrations depicting the triangular harp with a pillar at the front - the basic shape we think of as denoting a harp - date from tenth century Britain. For the next few centuries, there are lots of images and references to minstrels performing on the harp, which shows that the instrument was very popular in England. It began to lose popularity as the fiddle, citole and lute became popular, and it appears less and less in illustrations of the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries.

The medieval and Tudor harp had anything between eight and twenty-nine catgut or wire strings, depending on the century and the region in which it was being played. Early eleventh and twelfth century harps had very few strings while the later fourteenth century harps had far more.

Early medieval music was often diatonic, that is using only one mode or scale. The medieval harp was ideally suited to this type of music as each string was tuned to a note of the scale. By the fourteenth century, music featured more chromatic notes or musica ficta (notes outside the usual scale) and were as a result unplayable on the harp, at least until tuning levers were introduced later on. This is probably why the harp became less popular towards the end of the Middle Ages.


Psaltery Hammered Psaltery

A psaltery is basically a hollow wooden box with strings stretched over the top. As with the harp, the number of strings varied, with the earlier instruments having fewer. The instrument shown below on the right has a very simple shape, like the psalteries which are shown in many early illustrations. It is played with little wooden hammers which are used to gently tap the strings, creating a clear ring or a sweet shimmering sound, and it is called a hammered psaltery (or dulcimer). The instrument at the top on the right is a “pig-snout” variety that is plucked with the fingers or with quills. This instrument has many more strings. Usually, psalteries were strung with wire.

The psaltery appears in many illustrations and carvings being played by saints and angels. This could be because our medieval ancestors thought that this instrument had ancient origins, and therefore believed it might have been played in biblical times. Actually, they were right about this, because the psalterion was known in ancient Greece as a box-like instrument for the sounding of strings with the fingers - however, most medieval people didn‘t know much about ancient Greeks so this was really a lucky guess!

Psalteries were still in use in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, though illustrations show a number of differences. In the middle of the fifteenth century, instrument makers started to design ways in which keyboards could be attached to the box of the psaltery, with simple machinery leading from the keys to the strings. Once this idea was established, keyboard instruments with both plucked and hammered actions developed very swiftly. Thus the psaltery is the ancestor of the harpsichord and also of our modern piano.




Like the fiddle, the rebec is an ancestor of the modern violin family. Like the citole, rebecs were imported into Europe from North Africa, and this instrument rapidly became popular throughout Europe.

The instrument is constructed in a very similar manner to the citole, being carved out of one solid piece of wood with an added soundboard and fingerboard. The instrument in the picture is a reconstructed bass-type instrument that produces a very rich deep tone.

Rebecs had between two and four catgut strings and are not fretted.



Fiddle or Vielle

Psaltery Psaltery

Our instrument is based on a fiddle in a painting by Hans Memling from the 15th century. It has a gently curved bridge and five strings, and this suggests that medieval musicians often used to bow two strings together. If the instrument is tuned in the right way, this two string effect can be very pleasing and is demonstrated on the sound file. As with the citole, the vielle had catgut strings, and it too has North African origins.

Records indicate that the fiddle was very popular in England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, regularly appearing at banquets, festivals and ceremonies.

There are no hard and fast records indicating how these instruments should be tuned, and in fact the various sources differ. Most musicians nowadays prefer to tune them in fifths, rather like the modern violin.






During the sixteenth century instrument makers tried out different ideas to improve on the earlier medieval fiddles described above. As a result, two main families developed - the viol family and the violin family. So although the viol family resembles our modern violin family, it is not a direct ancestor of the violin (although it has influenced the double bass). The viol family and the violin family both existed at the same time for over a century, and they served different purposes, but the viols gradually lost favour as the violin came to dominate the string instrument family. Only in recent years has the viol become more popular again with many new musicians taking up the viol and with new works being composed for this unique instrument.

Viols differ from violins in three main ways. Firstly, viols have six strings as opposed to four. Secondly, viols were fretted in the same way as the lute described above, with the frets being just scraps of catgut tied around the fingerboard. Thirdly the construction of the box is quite different, providing each instrument with its own distinct tone.



Hurdy Gurdy

This instrument is one of the few medieval instruments that have not really survived to become modern instruments, or developed into a modern form. The instrument can still be seen in some regions as a traditional folk instrument - particularly in France. Where most other instruments have found their way into today’s classical or popular music, the hurdy-gurdy has changed very little.

The hurdy-gurdy is a curious “mixture” of an instrument, which seems to have bits of both the violin and the piano. There is a box in the middle of the instrument that contains a number of catgut strings. At one end of the instrument, there is a wheel that the musician turns with a handle. As the wheel turns, it rubs against the strings (like the bow on a violin), and this makes the strings vibrate. Then, at the side of the instrument, there is a set of keys (a bit like on a piano), and by pressing these the player can change the length of the strings in the box, and therefore produce different notes (like a violin or guitar player pressing on the strings to change the notes). If this sounds quite complicated, well, it is! Setting up a hurdy-gurdy to play is a hard-won skill in itself, but if you can manage it you can produce a surprisingly powerful and rich sound. The hurdy-gurdy is often fitted with a sympathetic resonating bridge (the ‘chien’) that with skilful playing can add a strong rhythmic edge to the sound as the little resonating bridge vibrates against the soundboard.

The hurdy-gurdy is often thought of as a low-status instrument but this is entirely because of the way it is used today and not necessarily true for medieval and Tudor times. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the hurdy-gurdy would have been an expensive instrument, and not an easy one for poorer musicians to get hold of.


Symphony closed Symphony Open

The word ‘symphony’ is a Greek word meaning ‘sounding together’, and this instrument is so-named because this it is designed to make two or more strings sound together. The symphony is the medieval ancestor of the hurdy-gurdy described above but, as can be seen, it has a plainer box and also a narrower range of notes. The hurdy-gurdy would have been capable of playing sharps and flats whereas the symphony is limited to diatonic melodies (using only one mode or scale, like the medieval harp described above). The symphony produces a similar tone to the hurdy-gurdy but is much quieter, and it can be seen in illustrations from as early as the thirteenth century.

Lyre, Rotta

Lyre, Rotta

This kind of instrument is typical of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and the ‘Celtic’ and Germanic inhabitants of north-west Europe during the first thousand years AD. However, these instruments do still appear in many early medieval illustrations, usually those which depict King David playing music to honour God.

Lyres, like harps, have a number of strings that are tuned to the notes of a mode or scale. Medieval lyres tend to have only six strings, which means they are not so useful for playing melodies, but more useful for accompanying melodies.



Crwth, Bowed Rotta

Crwth, Bowed Rotta

This instrument is very similar to the lyre in its general appearance, but the main differences are that the crwth has fewer strings and also a fingerboard, and that the strings are sounded with a bow. The instrument seems to be an awkward mixture of the early lyre and the newer rebec-style instruments being introduced into Europe in the Middle Ages.

The crwth was still being played in the early fourteenth century as is shown in royal and baronial records. Interestingly, all the crwth players featured in these records are Welsh, and the crwth might well be thought of as the typical and traditional instrument of Wales up to modern times.





This eastern European instrument is clearly related to the psaltery and lyre type instruments of the west. Our version is a nine string instrument and is based on surviving Guslis from Eastern Europe The instrument from this photo was made according to the late tradition of the Latgalia region if Latvia in the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. The geography of the gusli in this style spreads from Novgorod in Russia as far as Minsk in Belarus to the south and Riga in Latvia to the west.

The strings are wire and produce a delicate shimmering sound. Nobody knows for sure exactly how old the gusli is, but it is thought that similar lyre-type guslis date back at least one thousand years. The Glinka Museum in Moscow has two guslis from Novgorod, dating back to around 1300..

Our instrument was made by Valerij Zinkevic in Belarus.



Making catgut strings

Having removed the intestines from the animal they must first be cleaned outside and in. Excess fats must be removed and for this the guts are soaked - sometimes for days - in a caustic solution:

The strings are then stretched, scraped and twisted. They will be split to the right sizes before being twisted together, and possibly whitened.

Catgut String

Once the strings are dried, they need to be sanded and polished.