Medieval Instruments V: Fiddles

Around the year 1000 an invention arrived in the Mediterranean world which was to change music forever: the bow. Just as the hunter’s bow had revolutionized weaponry millennia before, so the musical bow transformed musical instruments. We are so accustomed to thinking of the bow as merely part of an instrument it is difficult to imagine it a powerful thing in itself. When it arrived, or as likely, the idea of it arrived, musicians saw its potential and raced to find a use for it. The latest in technique, it was applied to every already-existing stringed instrument: harps, psalteries, lyres, and lutes. Some of the experiments were more successful than others: bowed lyres and harps had a modest run and died out. Bowed psalteries were invented (or revived?) in the 20th century with limited success. The one family of instruments which flourished under the bow, so to speak, was the lutes. Because of the difference in musical purpose and playing style (discussed under Guitarras), in Europe the long lutes were not used with the bow. The big winners in the Bow Competition were the short lutes. It is important to realize that the bow did not create fiddles: it only created fiddling. “Fiddles” existed even before the bow arrived in Europe, only they were known as “guitars,” because they were plucked. It is therefore not surprising that often we cannot tell from looking at a picture of an early instrument whether it is a “fiddle” or “guitar.” The shapes of the successful short lutes varied greatly but they had one clear advantage: a limited number of strings running along a neck and an elongated body which allowed the bow access to the strings. With the wide variety of different kinds of fiddles in the 13th century and the obvious delight on the part of the illuminators of the Cantigas in showing exotic instruments, it is disappointing that almost all the fiddles shown in the manuscripts are of the common French type.

This is an illumination from an illustrated Bible roughly contemporary with the Cantigas and which is closest to it in style and spirit. It was produced in northern France around 1250 and is known as the Shah Abbas or Maciejowski Bible. This illustration shows a fiddler playing while young women in the background dance. (Of course, they are also being led away by armed men on the right: it represents the Benjamites taking wives from the daughters of Shiloh.) Notice the joined hands, raised and lowered, which is the convention for women dancing in a circle. The musician, in particolored, fringed tunic, plays a fiddle which is almost indistinguishable from those in the Cantigas with the exception of a bourdon: a separate, drone, string that runs off the neck to a peg on the side of the pegdisc. This was a popular trend in France at the time but seldom made it across the Pyrenees. Also notice the pipe and tabor player in the left tower, perhaps (also) playing for the dance but the tabor and large, curved beater are held in an impossible position.


I include these two illuminations, also from the Shah Abbas Bible, because they do something I don’t think I have ever seen in a medieval manuscript. They portray essentially the same situation from two different perspectives: from the front and from behind. Thus we get a great (even though not very informative) picture of the back of a fiddle and the back of a square timbrel, and the other side of a bones player and a harper. (That’s David dancing before the Ark.) Of course, between scene 1 and scene 2 some of the musicians changed clothes. But regardless, congratulations to the artist. I appreciate it, even though he’s been dead for seven hundred years.

Cantigas X and XX
Prologue from MS E2

In these Cantigas illustrations you can see the common fiddle shape, bow, and playing position, including tuning. In the picture below we also see the dancing women and their characteristic hand positions. If you look closely at the pegdisc of the fiddle, even though the strings are not shown, the peg to which the bourdon was attached can be seen very clearly. This is one of the rare examples shown in the Cantigas. In addition, the group of musicians is shown playing two different psalteries, a rotta, and a mysterious type of double reed instrument–not a shawm. Alfonso is presenting his musical offering to the Virgin Mary in person.

Other Fiddle Types

Cantiga C

There was another type of fiddle found in medieval Europe which varied from the common fiddle not so much in form as in playing position. We do not know if it was thought of as a different instrument and had a separate name or whether it was considered only a variant technique. The family, referred to in later times as violas da gamba (the Italian for “leg,” from its playing location, rather than the shoulder) became very important in the Renaissance. It only occurs once in the Cantigas where it is given special treatment. The player sits on a throne; is it a portrait of a particular person at court? (See Note, below.) He is bareheaded but wears a noble’s manto and sports the fringe beard associated with the military. An especially relevant point for the Cantigas is that this “gamba” playing position was originally the norm: it came from the Middle East and is the only style outside of Europe. Even though the fiddle, structurally, is Christian, the playing position and perhaps, therefore, the musical style, is Muslim. And we have seen that knights were associated with another Islamic instrument, the Guitarra Morisca. This brings us to the next bowed instrument.



Cantiga CX
Cantiga CLXX

In addition to the bowed “guitars” there was another plucked stringed instrument which had the bow applied to it. That was the mandora, a type of small gittern, a 2- or 3-stringed instrument with a narrow body, easily carved out of wood, whose ancestry stretched back to Greece and Mesopotamia. Its bowed manifestation was called rebab in Arabic. There are two versions in the Cantigas.
Cantiga 110 shows a knight on the left, wearing the fur-lined noble capa, and a noble on the right, wearing a manto, playing tiny rebabs with their characteristic semicircular bows. Notice their delicate bowing grip and compare it to the player above. Does the man on the left look familiar? He appears to be the same person in Cantiga 100 above. (See Note, below.)
Cantiga 170 shows a slightly different rebab played along with a large lute. This rebab seems to have a separate neck and body, unlike the tiny versions and the following. It also has an elegant, long bow held in the supine (underhand) position which was to become standard for gambas, the inverse of the modern cello position.
Finally, there is a larger rebab from the Piedra Monastery tryptich, dated 1390. Notice that on all three versions the lower end of the face, where the bridge rests, seems to be skin. This is still characteristic of the rebab played in the Maghrib today (below).

Around 1982 I made a rebab and a mandora from the same dead pear tree which had been standing in my back yard for ten years. The bodies were basically similar, differentiated only by their playing technique and slightly divergent evolution. The bottom of the face of the rebab is covered in calf skin. The gut strings are generally tuned to a fifth.

Note & Query

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN? Only in constructing this page did I notice the undeniable resemblance among these three illuminations. Although many commentators have described various of the Cantigas illustrations as “portraits” I have resisted such modern, subjective interpretations. For reasons discussed at length in my dissertation, traditional societies view portraits differently than we do. Traditionally, the external, superficial appearance is less important than the internal, functional, eternal essence. Thus a traditional portrait is not a photograph but something like a Chinese painting of an emperor: the robes, insignia, attributes, and power of the office overshadow any individual warts or personal characteristics.
That having been said, it cannot be an accident that the 9th, 10th, and 11th Cantigas, sequentially, portray a knight-musician, in the center or on the left-hand side (the position of honor), who is delineated with such care that denying his individual identity would require someone more adamantine than I. In each case he is playing an instrument associated with Islamic music.
Who is this person? And why did the limner choose to portray him three times? It would be tempting to see one of Alfonso’ sons who had inherited his love of music but I know of no information to corroborate this. Who can shed some light on this mystery?