Medieval Instruments III b: Guitarras

Guitarra Morisca


There are three illuminations which show instruments clearly in the tanbur-tar-saz family of Middle Eastern long lutes. The most famous (or infamous) is the pairing of a Muslim and Christian in Cantiga 120. Some commentators have seen the Christian berating the Muslim when it is fairly obvious he is represented as singing. The Muslim’s face has unfortunately been disfigured, perhaps intentionally, but probably not by a Christian. (See my dissertation for a discussion of this.) Even without the turban and dark (gray) skin and beard the left hand figure would be identifiable as Muslim for he is wearing the required shoulder patches on his embroidered, full-sleeved saya and is barefoot. But he also wears the fur-lined jumper, pellote, fashionable among the upper classes at the time. The righthand figure is wearing a stiff gold hat, the birrete, worn only by nobles, and the saya encordada, the tunic laced up the left side to show off the camisa. He also wears red stockings, theoretically restricted by sumptuary laws, which were constantly restated. But most distinctively, he is armed with a sword and sword belt. He is clearly a knight. Arms were generally not worn indoors, and certainly not in court: one checked weapons at the door. The armiger, the king’s sword bearer, was the sole exception. This is clearly not in court but a social occasion, witness the low three-legged stool with wine pitcher and cup. There is one other sign that this man is a knight: his saya comes only to the knee. The fashionable length in court was halfway down the shins. Only knights and other people who needed freedom of movement (including laborers) wore their saya short.

The instruments themselves are quite large with oval bodies, long necks, and large round pegdiscs. The number of pegs and strings is indistinct but intended to be numerous, probably in courses. Interestingly, the faces of the instruments are depicted as white and the triangle of dots is usually diagnostic of a skin face. All the Muslim’s guitarra’s decorations are consistent with small pinhole decorations in a skin whereas the Christian’s top also has a seemingly continuous scalloped design which would have been impossible in skin, though it could have been painted on. If the faces were actually wood, the decoration would indicate a skin-faced predecessor, as such details often outlive their literal need.

The next picture shows a seated noble, wearing the birrete, a green camisa under a reddish-brown saya with three-quarter length sleeves, red hose, and gold embroidered shoes. He holds a plectrum in one hand while the other turns the tuning pegs. He is clearly not playing but rather tuning. And since it takes cooperation for two musicians to get in tune with each other, it is fair to say the other musician is engaged in tuning as well by giving him his note.

This brings up a fascinating subject in medieval iconography. Almost all the pictures of King David in early manuscripts show him holding a harp or harp-like instrument. But seldom is he portrayed as playing: he is almost always tuning! This is a topic for another day but suffice it to say that of the 40 illustrations of musicians in the Cantigas manuscript (E2) there are 34 which show two persons and fully ten of the pictures show people tuning! Perhaps non-musicians were impressed with both the things musicians did: playing and tuning. That calls to mind Thomas Mace’s comment that a lutenist would spend half his life tuning. And I have seen crowds burst into applause when a bagpiper was just tuning up.

This musician also is distinctive in that he sports a thin, short beard around his jaw. In general, Christian men were clean shaven; only Jews (always) and Muslims (frequently) wore beards. Among Christians the one notable exception was knights. So this young noble was also a knight or, at least, affected military airs. In addition, it seems that the guitarra morisca, ordinarily played only by Muslims, was played by non-Muslim military men. This may have been partly a result of the intimate contact between the various religions in military circles, as well as the pragmatic attitude taken, traditionally, by knights. Good technology, like science, knows no borders or religion. The various armies utilized the best weapons and the best fighters from North and South. Christian and Muslim mercenaries fought for kingdoms irrespective of religion. The evidence seems to indicate that the guitarra morisca was one of the favored instruments of this warrior class.

The other player, though not bearded (he may represent a youth), is armed with a sword belt and dagger. He is also noble, wearing a purple-red capa or manto with shoulder hole over a knee-length dark green saya with laced cuffs, black hose and what look like knitted shoes. Both men hold identical instruments which have a strange brace-like affair connecting the neck and body. I have no explanation for this unique feature and no understanding of what its function might be. The guitarras would look like the following instruments without it. The face is undoubtedly wood with typical paired, crescent-shaped soundholes. Three strings are depicted but five pegs, a common problem.

The last picture shows two nobles, neither one obviously a knight, with two-stringed guitarras which have the three dot convention for skin heads. The figure on the left, once again, is tuning. He wears the birrete, an unusual white-striped red saya with laced cuffs, black hose, and golden shoes. He is covered with an ambiguous dark green cloak. The man on the right is bareheaded, wearing a red saya encordada, blue pellote, red hose, and gold embroidered shoes.

One of the first instruments I made for Alfonso X was a guitarra morisca from an old “tater bug” mandolin body I had. The neck is poplar, canted back at a substantial angle so that the bridge is 2 1/2″ high, powerfully driving the Spanish cedar face and making it quite loud. There are three courses (1-2-2) usually tuned D-A-d but occasionally A’-A-e. Some of the bone frets are partial.

The latest guitarra morisca, from 2001, was inspired by a beautiful wooden bowl I acquired which was exactly the right shape. Its provenance is unknown, perhaps Africa, but traditionally carved with a square foot on the bottom which became a small reliquary on the back of the instrument. The strings are arranged 2-1-1 and the frets are tied on. I have also made several 2- and 3-stringed instruments from other small wooden bowls.

The family of tanbur-tar-saz in the Middle East, from which the Guitarra Morisca came, has always had occasional unusually-shaped instruments in addition to the common oval form. When I found this unfinished piece of wood in a thrift store it cried out to me. I have no idea what the original person intended, but it was probably a musical instrument. It is two pieces of walnut joined together down the middle, shaped, and hollowed out to a fairly thin wall on the sides. I cannot find an illustration of an instrument with this specific shape but it looks reasonably familiar. With a long maple neck with tied-on diatonic frets, pegbox patterned after a 6th century Central Asian example, three strings, and a skin face, it produces a wonderful contrast to the other long-necked lutes.