Medieval Instruments VII : Miscellaneous


I know these are chordophones and could have gone next to the gamba-style fiddle in the first half, but they are also very strange. I suppose if we have bowed guitars we should expect bowed banjos and that is exactly what these look like. The entire instrument is rather large: it would likely be in the tenor range or lower, which would make it unusual for the time. The body could be vaulted, carved out of a single piece, but it seems more lightweight than that would probably be. The face could be wood but seems to me to be more likely skin. The neck has a separate fingerboard (which is unusual) that extends over the body. If the face were wood it would be unnecessary. There is a tailpiece holding–on one instrument 4, on the other 3–strings but no indication of a bridge. (Bridges are often not depicted in medieval manuscripts and have caused much discussion by their absence, or careless omission.) Both pegdiscs, however show four pegs. The fact that the instrument is supported only by the playing hand argues against sophisticated melodic work, especially position shifts.
The performers wear the fur-collared noble capa and long, curly hair under their coifs. The player on the left, usually the position of honor, seems to be tuning while the other bows the note. The bows are long and handsome, looking like the elegant rebab bow seen earlier. Like many bows in medieval manuscripts they are identifiably cane, with their segments shown.
These fiddles are definitely sui generis; I have never seen any others like them. Since, in general, fiddles were made by applying the bow to previously plucked instruments, what instrument was this derived from? It resembles a rotund guitarra morisca but would have been unwieldy even if plucked. Because this instrument also seems to have had no offspring, I think I am justified in placing it in the Miscellaneous section.


These small square hurdy-gurdies are also chordophones but how would medieval observers have classified, or rather, thought of them? The internal sound production is, indeed, a string but from the outside their mechanical aspect might seem to separate them from their obvious fiddle cousin and relate them closer to an organ’s mechanism. Push a button, get a sound; very mysterious. In any case, these symphonias are very compact, unlike the huge two-man version from the Portico de Gloria. The supposed antiquity of the instrument, unaccountably predating the introduction of the bow, has been resolved in recent years but we still don’t know much about its origins or distribution. A religious context seems the most likely, unlike most other instruments, with the significant exception of the organ.

The musicians in this case are more interesting than many. The primary figure, on the left, wears his hair in the longer marcelled style with a coif. His particolor saya is unique in the manuscript, having also dolman sleeves and large gold buttons, or embroidery, at the neck. His partner is clearly in religious orders, tonsured, with embroidery at the neck of his saya as well, and a cloak with light binding around the edges. Both show contrasting camisas at the wrist under their slightly-shorter sleeved sayas. One observer has described the left-hand figure as delivering “a stinging reprimand,” and the monk does look a trifle sheepish. But I suspect modern projection. There may, however, be singing involved. There always may be singing involved where there are musicians.


This featured solo performer (for Cantiga 200) wears a fur-trimmed noble capa in rose over a red saya and matching red boneta with fur brim over his cofia and hair of fashionable length. Even his shoes, so often simply rendered, are elegantly detailed. The sleeves of a violet camisa peek out around his wrists; there is nothing rash or out of place. This could be Alfonso himself, the model of a medieval Castillian gentilhombre. The portative organ is tiny, with a correspondingly diminutive bellows gently tweaked by sensitive fingers, the whole supported by a red strap. Only the oxidized (originally silver) pipes detract from the perfection. Whether the instrument could have actually been this small is beside the point: any larger and it would have been out of proportion. Notice how the bench and figure are offset so the organ is in the center. This is one picture which seems to stress esthetic appearance over physical reality. Very modern, indeed.


Pipe and tabor, the original “one-man band,” here performed a dos. [In Alfonso X concerts we usually have at least three: highly redundant, but a great sound.] These ruddy-cheeked shepherds in their simple cloaks and hoods (in carefully contrasting colors) look a little too rustic to be sitting on fancy benches in Alfonso’s palace. The instruments are unremarkable; if you had never heard the ensemble you might be tempted to dismiss it. Someone in Alfonso’s court had heard it. And here they are. It is always possible, of course, that these players, as well as the Basques mentioned before, are here because of their association with the homeland of the language in which the Cantigas were written: Galicia.


Pictures of pipe and tabor players are reasonably common but I believe it is only in the Shah Abbas Bible that I have seen this strange combination: pipe and bell. This example is (King) David when he was a shepherd. Maybe it’s because sheep don’t wear drums. Someday I’ll try it in concert.


Two blonde men, one with slightly longer hair, sit facing each other playing cymbals, one perhaps singing. If we hadn’t seen it here we probably wouldn’t have believed it. The man on the left wears an outdoor garnacha with separate hood. The player on the right wears a manto, a cape with ties, limited to the nobility. They both wear red stockings, an item of much discussion in sumptuary regulations.
The cymbals themselves have distinct bosses and were probably much heavier than modern versions, more like Tibetan cymbals, and likely produced a ringing tone, perhaps even a pitch. They are connected by a cord since they were probably made as a pair. It would be interesting to know if they played interlocking patterns.


The last two examples of musical instruments depicted in the Cantigas are both sets of bells. The group of three hung in an architectural frame on the left is of a type which has been shown to represent Musica as an abstraction. And, sure enough, the figure wears a soft, beret-like boneta, and is probably meant to represent an intellectual. The bells, though being struck, also have their clappers and notice that the hammers he uses have claws at the rear, very much like a modern carpentry tool.
The other personage is a monk playing an automated kind of bell chime containing seven bells, conveniently labelled [A, B,] C, D, E, F, G. Exactly how the mechanism works is unclear. The knobs could be springloaded and strike the bells, they could turn or pivot or be raised and have a tangent which strikes the bells, or they could swing the bells and clappers would ring them. It is uncertain whether the instrument shown is actually a musical or merely a teaching device, like the monochord.