The End of Europe's Middle Ages

The Instruments of the Middle Ages

Stringed Instruments

Although the Roman style harp existed into the Middle Ages, the oldest medieval instrument might be considered the harp, imported from Ireland and Britain before the ninth century. The vielle, or fiedel, was the principal bowed instrument and typically had five strings. It is the precursor of the viol and the modern violin. The organistrum began its career in the tenth century as a three-stringed vielle that was played by a revolving wheel that was turned by a crank. A large and cumbersome instrument, the early organistrum required two players but by the thirteenth century, it had evolved into a smaller form from which the hurdy-gurdy descended. The psaltery, a type of zither, is played by plucking or striking the strings. The lute was brought into Spain by the Arabs as early as the ninth century but it was not widely used until the Renaissance.

Wind and Reed Instruments

Flutes were common instruments throughout the Middle Ages and were of two main types, the recorder and the transverse flute. Shawms were reed instruments similar to the modern oboe. While the nobility enjoyed the sound of trumpets, the bagpipe and its variants were the instrument of the common-folk.

Percussion Instruments

Drums came into popular usage during the twelfth century, principally to beat time for singing and dancing.

Medieval Organs

The great churches had massive organs that frequently required two people to play them. In addition to these massive church organs, two smaller types existed during the Middle Ages. The portative (from Latin 'portatum,' carried) organ was small enough to carry but was often supported by a strap around the player's neck. The left hand worked the bellows while the right hand played the keys for a single row of pipes. The positive (from Latin 'positum,' placed) organ had to be placed on a table to be played and required an assistant to work the bellows.

During the fourteenth century, instruments were often grouped into "high" and "low," according to loudness. The low instruments included the harp, vielle, lute, Psaltery, portative organ, transverse flute, and recorder. The shawm, cornett, slide trumpet, and sackbut were considered high instruments. Percussion instruments such as kettledrums, bells, and cymbals were common in all kinds of ensembles. The earliest keyboard instruments of the clavichord and harpsichord type were invented in the fourteenth century but were not commonly used until the fifteenth century.

  The Cantigas de Santa Maria - Large image collection of 13th century manuscript illuminations depicting musical instruments

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The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
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