The Codex Callixtinus is a famous twelfth century guide book, song book, and manual to the pilgrimage at Santiago de Compostela. Situated on the west coast of the Iberian peninsula, Compostela was one of the most sacred destinations of the Christian Middle Ages. A passage from this precious book (cited in Bec, 1992) describes how the pilgrims to that place made music:
Alii citharus psallunt, alii liris, alii tympanis, alii tibiis, alii fistulis, alii tubis, alii sambucis, alii violis, alii rotis britannicis vel gallicis, alii psateriis, alii diversis generibus musicorum cantando vigilant.
Which we may translate (with allowances made for the ambiguities of instrumental terminology in medieval Latin):
Some play the gittern other the lyre, others percussion, others the flute, others the fistula, others the trumpet, others the hurdy gurdy, others the fiddle, others the crwth, English or French, others the psaltery; others pass the night singing to diverse sorts of [instrumental] music.
Typically, as we examine relevant old sources, we are dealing with ambiguity and imprecision — what was the fistula? What were the precise forms of the other instruments designated? None survive from this early period. Nonetheless, the word-picture is evocative, and, unlike the many, quasi-symbolic instrumental “series” of medieval literature and visual art, just possibly a description of historical reality. Here, as in other tangible records from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries — sculpture, painting, illumination, poetic narrative, scholarly treatise — we get the sense of intense musical activity, and of delectation in a wide variety of instrumental sounds and colors.
The mystery remains largely unsolved, however, as to exactly what music or musics these many medieval instrumentalists performed upon their instruments. While we have many manuscripts of notated music from this period, the repertoires notated are destined for singing. There are a handful of exceptions: some dances, several polyphonic* pieces, and a few songs clearly derived from dance tunes. These works are often delightful to the ear, and enormously helpful to the historian. But the record is still much to sparse and incomplete. We can safely assume that the instrumental music of the Middle Ages was almost entirely improvised, and has sadly been lost forever. From the surviving compositions, from pictorial evidence, and from literary descriptions, we know that instrumentalists performed dances and accompanied various minstrel and trained- animal “turns”; they improvised preludes and interludes; they almost certainly adapted vocal music for instrumental performance; and, in some kinds of vernacular repertoire, such as the Occitan* troubador* canso* and the Iberian cantiga*, as well as in other non-notated genres, they were able to provide accompaniments to the voice.
Dealing with every musical instrument of the Middle Ages is clearly impossible within a shortly article. We shall focus here on the “courtly” instruments associated with vernacular medieval song and narrative. These are in the main string instruments, plucked and bowed – harps*, lutes*, psalteries*, and (for the early Middle Ages) hurdy gurdies*. The wind instruments such as flutes*, shawms*, and trumpets* generally have a more rustic, folk-oriented, or outdoor context; an exception to this rule of thumb concerning winds is perhaps the portative organ*. The favorable prejudice towards softer instruments as a vehicle for refined musical expression, still very much in evidence today, is typically medieval as well.
Bowed string instruments are ubiquitous in medieval civilization. The use of the bow to set taut strings vibrating is not documented in pre-medieval antiquity, and is probably a contribution of Byzantine or Arabic civilization to the world’s musical culture; Arab theorists from the tenth century forward discuss its role. In Europe, the combination of a bow with a flat bridge is not unusual in depictions of medieval string instruments, and we note the occasional presence of a separate bourdon* (drone) string. All these factors indicate that, besides single note playing, the sustained sound thus produced could easily be used across several strings at once, to produce drones or some sort of polyphony. Besides a certain constitutive unity in European musical thought, there were doubtless many techniques and styles of fiddle playing. The modern day reconstitutions by early music ensembles of medieval instrumental practice, including strings and other instruments as well, are very largely hypothetical.
The medieval fiddle (Occitan* and Galician* viola*; old French vièle* or vielle*) had many morphologocal variants and many possible tunings. These bowed instruments, liked the plucked harp and lute, had an association with courtly civilization and refined music making. In the art music of the Mediterranean middle ages, the viola is prominently associated with the poetry and singing of the troubadours, and is in fact the only instrument to be securely documented as a regular part of the troubadour’s art. There are some mentions of Occitan fiddle/viola players working or accompanying in pairs, but the prevailing ethos of troubadour song is not ensemble oriented. Rather it is soloistic, comparable perhaps to that of the solo chanson singers and balladeer entertainers of the twentieth century who accompanied their vocal renditions on the guitar.
Bowed string instruments are important in medieval Spain. A viola-playing minstrel is the subject of a cantiga (number 8) in the monumental collection of King Alfonso X.
One of the four extant Cantigas manuscripts contains a justly famous and extensive series of miniatures showing all sorts of musical instruments and their performers. The fiddle/viola is prominent among these, as is the pear or almond shaped string instrument called rebab* in Arabic, rabé in Spanish, rebec* in French and English. Among the other European names for this type of instrument are lira and gigue. The rebec is no longer in use in modern European art music, but it continues in North Africa; it was traditionally the central or lead instrument in Arabo-Andalusian* ensembles of Morocco, although it is now losing ground to the violin (this instrument played, however, vertically, rebab style). In medieval European musical culture the rebec was often associated with popular or rustic music-making.
We also see in one of the Cantigas miniatures a “wheel fiddle”, the French vielle à roue or chifonie, Italian/Galician sambuca, Latin symphonia, English hurdy-gurdy. This instrument, too, has a Byzantine and/or Islamic origin. In later centuries the hurdy-gurdy became associated with country life and the lowest forms of minstrelsy; but in early medieval Europe it was an important teaching and performing tool of the Church. On the famous sculpted portico of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, we see two elders jointly playing an oversized hurdy-gurdy or organistrum. Like the flat-bridged bowed fiddle, which is its closest relative in the instrumentarium, the hurdy-gurdy can play more than one note at the same time, including sustained drones.
Literary descriptions sometimes use the word vielle indiscriminately, so that we do not always know whether the instrument referred to in a given text is the bowed fiddle or the hurdy gurdy.
Like the fiddle/viola, the medieval harp is associated with courtly/aristocratic society. The roots of harp making and playing of course go much farther back, to ancient Mesapotamia, Egypt, and Babylon. Its presence is attested in Europe from the eighth century forward. Although it is associated in popular imagination with northern European and Celtic cultures, the harp has a signifigant place in the medieval Spanish instrumentarium. The Hispanic penchant for harp sound has in fact continued across the centuries, in Spain proper and in the Hispanic New World. Two harp-related miniatures come from the thirteenth century manuscripts of King Alfonso: one, from the Cantigas, shows two Jews playing similar frame harps. The other, from the Libro de Jeugos, or book of games, depicts a chess game between Moorish nobles, one of whom is flanked by a veiled concubine or wife playing a vertical angled harp. Harps also figure in medieval Italian iconography, and there is a harp-playing minstrel illumination in a troubadour manuscript.
An important instrumental family in medieval Spain, to judge from the five different sizes and shapes shown in the Cantigas miniatures, was the zither group. Zither playing angels are also frequent and familiar in Italian painting of the fourteenth century. Medieval terms include for these instruments include psaltery* or canun*. The former, Latin-derived term (psalterium, psalterion) led to many medieval commentaries on the supposed relation between Kind David, the musical instrument, and the composition of the psalms. The second term derives from the Arabic, but the word is Greek, meaning “rule”, as a single string zither or monochord* was used from antiquity onwards to demonstrate the overtone series of a vibrating string. Although it has disappeared from European art music, the psaltery/canun continues to be important in Arabic music of the mashreq*, the eastern-lying Arab countries, and has more recently entered (or, most likely re-entered) the instrumentarium of Arabo-andalusian* instrumental ensemble.
Seven of the Cantigas miniatures show plucked string instruments of various types, including the gittern*, the “classic” Arabic lute and the long-necked lute; such plucked instruments are also evident in medieval Italian art. All the European terms for lute (Spanish laúd, French luth, Italian liuto, German Laute derive from the Arabic word oud*. The instrument family can be traced back as far as Mesapotamian and ancient Egyptian times, but the European medieval instruments are evidently closely related to their predecessors in Arabic civilization. The oud was and is central to Arabic musical thought and practice. The frequency of its depiction in the most important medieval Spanish source indicates at least some degree of prominence in that society as well.
One of the best known of the Cantigas miniatures shows two musicians performing together, each on a long-necked lute. One of this is dark-skinned, in Arabic dress. The other, paler figure, who also appears to be singing, is in European garb. The image is interesting because it clearly depicts the lute in the role of accompanist to the voice. It also points to the very likely reality of an intercultural or cross-cultural musical ethos in medieval Spain.
Once again, we note that there is no extant performance treatise from the Middle Ages, neither for the lute or for any other instrument.. Many modern day European and American early-music performers who perform medieval repertoires on lutes and other plucked instruments derive their styles and techniques at least in part from current near Eastern practices.
The flute and the trumpet are mentioned in the Codex Callextinus passage cited above; various wind instruments are also featured in the Cantigas miniatures, some of these probably pointing to contexts of rustic music making and ceremony rather than to courtly society. Transverse flutes of the type portrayed in the miniature accompanying Cantiga 240 are still used in Algerian Arabo-andalusian ensembles (though not in Moroccan groups). Like other members of the organ family, the tiny portative organ* found in the Cantigas miniatures and in Italian medieval painting was probably a monodic instrument, played with one hand on the keyboard and the other operating the bellows. Long trumpets of the kind seen near Cantiga 320 are frequently encountered in Moroccan festivities and are sounded in the mosque during Ramadan ceremonies.
The tambourine* (tar* in Moroccan Arabic) is so important to Arabo-andalusian ensemble music that its absence in the Cantigas miniature is a source of surprise. It is an ancient instrument indeed; the onomatopaeic Hebrew word toph, naming the instrument Miriam plays in the book of Exodus, is traditionally shown as a tambourine in European painting (but see also the Arabic duff* and the Portugese adufa, which designate frame drums). Tambourines are frequently seen in medieval Italian art. The tubular drum or darbouk* depicted at the head of Cantiga 300 is played over the shoulder; this manner of playing is still in use in Moroccan folk music. The Cantigas miniatures also depict tuned bells and cymbals, these latter instruments, like so many others in the medieval instrumentarium, of Oriental origin.
Drums were probably in wide use in popular minstrely, those repertoires which were generally left un-notated. The role of percussion instruments in the performance of medieval monodic art song is unclear, however, even more so than the place of courtly instruments like the fiddle and the harp. In Arabic classical music, regularly recurring rhythmic cycles are an intrinsic element of music theory, and the drum is ubiquitous in performances of secular repertoire. In the European learned tradition, measured rhythm begins to be discussed and notated only in the thirteenth century, and much of the vernacular song repertory reposes, like Gregorian chant, on other principles of articulation and accent. In view of the semi-mensural notation of many Cantigas, of their popularizing melodies, and in view of the evident influence of Arabic civilization in the Iberian peninsula, the use of tambourine and drum appears plausible and even likely for that Hispanic repertoire. Similar evidence is lacking to justify such additions to modern day performances of old French, Occitan, and Italian songs from extant written sources.
How were these various instruments used in combination? The fiddle was the preferred accompaniment of courtly solo song. Minstrels working in pairs are documented in Occitan sources, in the majority of the Cantigas miniatures, and in descriptions of minstrelsy into the sixteenth century. One famous example, from the turn of the thirteenth century, is that of the troubadour Raimbaut de Vaquieras composing a song to an instrumental dance tune, an estampida* (French estampie, English stanpipes). The Occitan narration says Raimbaut first heard the tune played by two French minstrels, who fiddled very well (Dos joglars de Franza… qe sabion ben violar). Like the dos joglars de Franza, most of the minstrel pair in the Cantigas illuminations are playing the same or similar instruments, but there are also examples of mixity: fiddle and gittern, lute and rebec, horn and darbouk, pan flute and castanets/singing. Pierre Bec notes numerous literary descriptions of fiddle and harp performing together, and trios of fiddle, harp, and a wind instrument.
A medium sized instrumental ensemble, not dissimilar in makeup to those still performing Arabo-andalusian repertoire in Morocco and Algeria, can be seem in one of King Alfonso’s manuscripts illustrating the music of Paradise, where joy and laughter are omnipresent (Cantiga 100). In one illumination from this group of manuscripts, dancers are seen as participants in performance.
Many poems and courtly narratives give long series of instrument names, in the course of descriptions of splendid events — festivals and banquets. While larger ensembles could well have been formed on an ad hoc basis, the large groups described in these texts may owe a great deal to romanticised exaggeration and poetic license — and in any case they often describe minstrels performing sequentially, rather than all together. The angel consorts of medieval art, such as are often found in fourteenth century Italian painting, are a delight to the eye and the imagination. But these may be seen as moral allegories, and are not necessarily depictions of lived reality.
Pierre Bec, Vièles ou violes? Editions Klinsieck, Paris, 1992
Joel Cohen, “Peirol’s Vielle” in Historical Performance, 1990, or online at http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/articles/troubadours.and.instruments.html
Sibyl Marcuse, A Survey of Musical Instruments New York, 1975
Timothy J. McGee, Medieval Instrumental Dances, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1992
Christopher Page, Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages London, 1987
Reproductions of the Cantigas instrumental miniatures are available online at http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cantigas/images/
TERMS FOR GLOSSARY
 A propos of bowing in the Islamic world, Dr. Walter Feldman, in a communication to the author of this paper, mentions an old tradition of bowed instrumental practice among shamans from Kazakhstan to Baluchistan. Dr. Feldman points out that much of what we say in this matter is of necessity based on surmise.
- Exodus 15: 20 “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel (toff) in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.”