Medieval Instruments II: Psalteries

The principle of the psaltery is simple enough: it is a box with strings stretched across it. In the Middle Ages, and even in the Cantigas, variety was the norm. There is a picture somewhere or other of a psaltery in almost any conceivable shape. (And some a little hard to believe.) The most obvious shapes are, predictably, the most common: squares, trapezoids, and triangles. Given the range of shapes it is likely that no two psalteries sounded alike unless they were made at the same time by the same maker. Let’s look at the examples from the Cantigas.

Cantiga LXXX

Cantiga 80 shows a very simple rectangular instrument with a large central soundhole. In each corner is either a smaller soundhole or an elaborate inlay. Both instruments are identical and the players are holding their hands in the same position, but notice the tuning crank on the far right and the strings that seem to be in courses of threes. The ordinariness of the instruments is reflected in the unadorned background and frame and the simple costumes worn. In my not-very-satisfactory color reproduction the artist seems to have settled for a basic substitution scheme in portraying the outfits. The figure on the left wears a pink saya with gold yoke and a dark green manto, or cape, while the player on the right has a dark green saya with gold yoke and pink manto. Even the frontal positions reinforce the rudimentary impression and their benches are stylized. This is noticeably one of the blandest illuminations in the manuscript and looks to be from a different hand than the majority.

Cantiga L

Cantiga 50 portrays psalteries of not much more interest, but in a more typically extravagant setting. The instruments are semi-trapezoidal with central soundhole and three other holes (or inlays) but the players hands seem to be in slightly differing positions. The player on the left is frontal but portrayed with much more detail: he wears a noble capa (with fur collar and armhole) with gold embroidery along the margins. His companion is turned slightly toward him. He wears an overcloak with gold embroidered edges and a caperón (a detachable hood, often worn as a head covering). These two nobles are set against the characteristic coffered background of the Cantigas manuscripts.

Cantiga LXX


Cantiga 70 lies somewhere between the others’ style. The background is plain but the instruments and figures are quite distinctive. The psalteries are unusual but not unique: a basic T-shape (“pig’s snout”) but with a semicircular extension at the bottom. (A similar instrument is shown in manuscript T.j.1, which has the larger number of illustrations of the stories of the miracles.) The figures themselves seem to be Jews but with distinctive capes fastened at the right shoulder and exotic Phrygian-style hats with wing-like decorations. Their origins may have been obvious to the court of Alfonso but, like so many of the unusual ethnic groups portrayed in these manuscripts, they no longer convey that information.

Piedra psaltery
My Piedra psaltery

I have made two different psalteries for the group Alfonso X: one was in the characteristic “pig snout” form, similar to the last above, but the other was patterned after one of the most important sources for 14th century instruments: the beautiful tryptich from the Monastery of Piedra. In addition to a fine small lute, Romanesque harp, and rebab, there is an exciting triangular psaltery which I copied in 1970. There are clearly shown pins at the stepped ends in courses of three. My inlays were made from ivory, walnut, silver, and abalone. The rays were burned into the wood.

The strings are tuned by autoharp pins, readily available, while the other ends go through small holes to the far side. I originally thought to wrap them around small sticks or to have pins or nails to which they would be attached but eventually was converted by tradition. I had a Turkish kemence where the strings were wrapped around tiny rolled-up pieces of cloth to act as the ball on the end to keep them from slipping through the tailpiece hole. I thought the cloth too unsubstantial and decided on heavy sole leather: the steel strings slowly sliced through the leather. I went to the cloth and, thirty years later, it is still holding. That’s not the last time that I’ve been humbled by Tradition.

Psaltery Cousins

The Rota

Cantiga XXXX
There was another type of instrument depicted in the Cantigas which for years I called a harp-psaltery. In “Voices & Instruments of the Middle Ages,” Christopher Page convincingly identifies it as the rota, another name for years in search of an instrument.
Cantiga 40 shows two rota players, tuning: it is tempting to see a master and a student. The instrument seems to have had a central soundbox and strings on both sides! That might account for the depiction of the musicians tuning here: the front and the back. [Notice the right-hand end of the pin-block under the master’s hand, tuning: it seems to imply the block is on both sides of the central sounding board(s).]

From another MS, a battle between St. Peter and the devil for the soul of a lapsed monk shows a king playing a rota.

Concert at the Oasis
Here a rota player joins others in accompanying a round dance presented by Alfonso in person, for the Virgin Mary herself.
And, in another ensemble, angels in a heavenly oasis, guarded by an armiger, perform with rebab, lute, psaltery, rota [tuning again], and cymbals. Make a joyful noise, indeed!

A century earlier, this painting from the Cappella Palatina in Palermo shows the same instrument, tuning, of course.

Finally, there is a noble musician presented sitting in an elaborate chair, playing a unique instrument. It seems to be a psaltery with strings arranged, if the illumination is to be believed literally, in courses of four strings attached to a common tailpiece,and undoubtedly in unison (or perhaps octaves) but portraying only four (perhaps standing for “a few”) different courses or notes. One is tempted to extrapolate from late 19th century zithers with similar arrangements, but they had chords–and those did not exist in the Middle Ages. The instrument is beautiful in shape and impressive in size but what music could it possibly have played with only four, or a few, notes? The only thing vaguely like it in Europe is the Finnish kantele with 5 (pentatonic) strings, but it is a modest instrument and certainly not designed for court display.