Medieval Instruments III a: Guitarras

General Background

When the area of art, with its impassioned, subjective, wishful thinking collides with the politically-driven, personal interpretation of amateur historians, there is bound to be colossal misinformation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in discussions about the medieval “guitars.” Just as every person wants their family tree to include Charlemagne, or other worthies, and to stretch back to the Garden of Eden, so modern guitarists want their instrument to be traced back to the Hittites and Egyptians. And God spoke King James’ English. When we add this to the yeasty mess which is Spanish history–Moorish invasions, the Battle of Tours, Roland, El Cid, Jews, the Reconquest, Infidels, Old Christians, Conversos, Heretics, the Inquisition–we get thigh-deep piles of rubbish. (My current favorite from the internet is “…the ‘guitarra morisca’ was brought to Spain by the Moors in their 16th century conquest…”) Let’s step back and take a deep breath.

The Mediterranean is one large cultural area: Europe, Asia, and Africa are artificial constructs which have no relevance. From antiquity, influences that arrived at one point on its periphery eventually washed ashore all around the sea. The Romans called it “our ocean;” they weren’t the first or the last. These influences followed the currents of power from the center to outlying areas and, historically, that was usually from east to west. In the early Middle Ages the Muslim courts in the Eastern Mediterranean were the source of the most sophisticated developments in all areas of human achievement, including music. Almost all modern European musical instruments are derived from Middle Eastern ancestors. There were instruments in Europe before Islam, of course, but they were mostly supplanted by their more advanced Eastern relatives. (The one curious exception, as has been noted, was the harp.)

Around the Mediterranean were found many different kinds of plucked string instruments. They varied in body shape, number of strings and sophistication, but the most important classifying feature was, strange as it may seem, the neck. In modern systems instruments with a body and neck along which strings run, are called, generically, lutes. Lutes are further divided into short-necked and long-necked. This is no arbitrary schema for the two types came into being for different reasons and play different kinds of music.

In short lutes, as they are familiarly called, the several strings are used sequentially to produce scales or melodic passages. The modern guitar is a good example: one begins an ascending (or descending) figure on one string and passes to the next and the next without having to stretch very far up the neck. Generally only the first few positions or “frets” are used, or are needed. Thus, even if the neck were longer, it would not be particularly useful.
Long lutes developed from a very different impulse. The melodies tend to be played on only one, or two, of the strings: the others used as drones or accompanying notes to the melody. Thus, long lutes tend to have fewer strings (usually 2 or 3), while short lutes tend to have 4 or more. Long lutes proliferated in the Middle East and Central Asia and illustrations abound.

Most of the “lutes” around the Mediterranean in Roman times seem to have been short lutes. And we would expect the music they played to have been primarily melodic. The long lutes seem to have entered the Western Mediterranean only with the advent of Muslim power beginning in the 8th and 9th centuries. Thus two different kinds of similar instruments were thrust together, especially on the Spanish peninsula: the older, familiar short lutes (probably thought of as indigenous) and the newer, introduced long lutes (probably associated with Islam).

We have been using “lute” as a generic, classificatory term since the word is familiar in modern European languages. The word itself is derived from the (medieval) Arabic and referred to one particular instrument.(see the Lute page.) But the word most frequently used in Latin (the common European language and the only language used for intellectual discourse), was some form of the Greek word “kithara.” [To make things even more confusing the Greek kithara was a lyre and no relative of lutes.] Thus the Spanish word “guitarra.”

Now, it is common for a people to explain the novel in terms of the familiar. A (Mexican) torta is described as a “Mexican sandwich” in the U.S. and gyoza are called “Japanese dumplings.” (My favorite was in the window of a Middle Eastern cafe in San Diego some years ago: “On Thursdays we have felafel: the Lebanese taco.”) In al-Andaluz and the Christian kingdoms of the Middle Ages, the three religions existed together, not always harmoniously, but among each other. The situation had existed for several hundred years and there could be no thought of “native” or “foreign.” Ideas of “race” were several hundred years in the future. The three groups identified themselves primarily by religion. The Jews were always a minority, thus kingdoms thought of themselves as Christian or Muslim, within which all three existed. In the early centuries Islamic culture was the magnet. As the Muslim kingdoms slowly lost power the Christian kingdoms, relying heavily on immigrants from France and the rest of Europe, became a cultural force to be reckoned with.
It is in this context that we must interpret the terms Guitarra Latina (Latin/European guitar) and Guitarra Morisca (Moorish/Muslim guitar). The “Latin” guitar is most likely to be a short lute, perhaps manifesting itself in many shapes and sizes. And the “Moorish” guitar a long lute, represented by the modern family of tars and sazes. (Though we must always be on guard against our modern preconceptions of fixed, standardized terminology: in traditional, oral societies names, and their referrents, can be much more flexible and changeable.)
In the illuminations of the Cantigas we can see evidence of this basic difference between the two kinds of instruments. The Latin guitars are played by Christians and the Moorish guitars by Muslims as well as those Christians most heavily influenced by Islamic technology: knights. Once again a careful study of dress and rank pays dividends.