Medieval Instruments I: Harps

The Middle Eastern Jank

Image reversed from Book of Games. (Note geta-like clogs.)
Persian, ca 1300

Let’s look at some of the information we have about the medieval Middle Eastern harp, the jank. Above are examples from Central Asia in the 6th century, Spain in the 13th, and Persia in the 18th. The details vary but the basic construction can be ascertained by careful comparison with the present-day classical Burmese harp, the saung-gauk.

Photo and drawing of Kizil harp.

Though morphologically the saung-gauk is an arched harp and the jank was an angular harp, the essential structures of the bodies are, conveniently, the same. Compare below the view of the Burmese body with the Central Asian version.

Look at the insides of the saung-gauk. The body is a long bowl with several crossbars and a transverse bar which is attached to the skin face and to which the strings are tied. These elements are clearly visible in the Central Asian jank where the transverse string bar is even threaded in and out of the face. It seems clear that anyone who could make a saung-gauk could, with a little coaching, make a jank. That may seem like the long way ’round Robin Hood’s barn but it beats waiting for a time machine.

Nizami, 12 c.
Melchior Lorck, 1583

Other Harps in Alfonso’s Time

Harps, in general, seem to be fairly rare in peninsular music in the 13th century. But in addition to the jank, which appears to be associated exclusively with Muslim circles, there are two other harps shown in manuscripts from Alfonso’s ateliers.

The most well known is the single example of small Romanesque harps shown in the Cantigas manuscript. They are being played by two richly-dressed Jews who, it seems to me, may be from Provence. (Their dress is somewhat different from the Cantigas norm, there was an important Jewish community in southern France, the type of harp is much more characteristic of France, and the conventionalized “European” architectural frame may imply they were from “out of town.”) These harps were ubiquitous in 12th and 13th century illuminations but were to die out in the succeeding century. [One of the harpers has been described as playing left-handed, but it is more likely an example of artistic symmetry. And there would have been no “correct” method which dictated “handedness.”]


The last harp has only recently come to my attention and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It’s from Alfonso’s Book of Games (which is as rich as the Cantigas in depictions of costume, ethnic groups, and even instruments, but much less known) and shows a very plain, almost stylized, frame harp. It may, indeed, be just a generic “harp” by someone who had only heard about them but, given the level of detail in the other illustrations, that is unlikely. It may intend to show a particular kind of harp which was not-jank and not-Romanesque but for which there was no established iconography.

[There is also the possibility that it is intended to portray the “rota,” (see under psalteries), which it otherwise resembles and the limner simply forgot to include the soundholes in the soundchest.]

Or it may intend to depict exactly what it shows: a very simple thin soundbox harp. Which is precisely what is usually called the Gothic harp. The only problem is that it doesn’t commonly show up in illuminations for another hundred years. Could this be the earliest example? Or an early prototype? Or just a lucky prediction of the direction in harps? Once again the player is an elderly Jew (judging by his gray beard and pointed solonbrero) performing for two young Jews (with shorter, blonder beards-though they do seem to be trimmed), one wearing the most sumptuous clothes in the manuscript, and a servant (also with a point on his cap) who is serving food and drink.