The emergence of new approaches to plucked instruments, 13th - 15th centuries.[1]

Christian Rault, Michaelstein, 2001.



We are going to examine guitars and citterns, both plucked instruments with a neck. Our modest contribution to this field of study will consist in showing, through iconographical evidence, the first mediaeval appearances of guitars and cisters. By analysing the structure of these instruments commonly classified as members of the “lute” family, we will attempt to specify the context, both historical and cultural, in which they appeared.

Plucked string instruments with a neck up to the 13th century in Christian and Muslim areas.

Before giving a detailed description of their structural characteristics we would like to point out that if it has become necessary to specify that an instrument is plucked, that’s because, by the end of the first millennium, another way of producing sound from a stretched string had reached Europe from the East. This new method, known as the bow, made it possible to produce a continuous sound on stringed instruments as only voices and flutes could have done before.
This important discovery was related for first time in an impressive musical treatise compiled by Al-Farabi (872 - 950). A few years later, other Muslim scholars such  as Ibn Sina and Ibn Khurdadhbih corroborated the use of the bow, both for the Muslim rabab and for the five stringed Byzantine lura. Since Werner Bachmann’s studies on the origins of bowing (1964-1969)[2] it has been assumed that this new musical technique appeared among nomadic tribes of hunters living near the Aral Sea (Central Asia). The specific geographical situation of this cross-roads (on the outer reaches of the Muslims’ recently conquered territory), between the Byzantine Empire, western Christian Europe, the northern road to the Baltic Sea and the Far East, considerably contributed to the rapid circulation of the bow. It is remarkable to observe that at  exactly the same time as  Al-Farabi’s treatise was written, the use of the bow was illustrated in the North of Spain in an Apocalypse illustrated by a monk from Liebana (920 - 930), five thousand kilometres to the west. The bow actually spread more slowly via the northern routes. There is no evidence to suggest that it was used in Northern Europe and the British Isles  before the second half of the 11th century.
Let’s remember the kind of world the people of the tenth century had to live, or rather to survive in. A continuous succession of Norman and Hungarian invasions and Arabic incursions took place after the fall of the Carolingian Empire. As a result the whole society was disorganised and it was a time of terror, burnings and famine, a Dark Age. What the populations experienced at that time  became known as “the Great Fear of the year one thousand”.
But, after this sombre and frosty winter came a spring that lasted three centuries, characterised by innumerable edifications: architectural inventions, technological innovations, spiritual, intellectual and social breakthroughs. From the early 11th century the whole society appeared to wake up, and consider its future, changing its views on and relationship with both nature and man. For the first time men came to realise that they could dominate and modify their natural and social milieu. The arrival of the bow in Western Christian Europe, exactly coincides with the first steps of this new historical era beginning with what we now call the Romanesque period.

Now, you may be running out of patience ! We are supposed to be examining plucked instruments so why are we talking about the Dark Ages, the origins of bowing and medieval springtime.
In order to establish the fact that the unique historical (social, cultural and spiritual)  context of Renaissance can account for the fact that the arrival of the bow aroused immediate and boundless enthusiasm among western musicians. This fascination for novelty was so great that we have to accept this first statement: in Western Europe, from the year one thousand to the last decades of the 13th century, erudite stringed practices on necked instruments (religious as well as profane) were unthinkable without a bow. [3]
At the same time and in close geographical proximity, in the south of the Pyrenees, another refined civilisation had, since the 7th century, developed an immense erudite musical repertory around a single plucked instrument: the ‘ûd (or Arabian lute).[4] At that time, Muslim religion and culture had spread over a vast territory from central Asia to the Iberian Peninsula, and from the south of the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. If, unquestionably, the bow was conveyed from the East to Spain by the Muslims[5], it is important to note that this novelty has always remained of  very limited interest in Arabic society, staying in use only in the lower echelons of society, namely shepherds and nomads. From the ninth century onwards the name rabab has not altered , neither has its primitive frame of a spike fiddle, nor its musical function of rhythmic and monodic accompaniment to the long melopoeias or traditional popular tales.[6]
Secondly, it is very interesting to draw a comparison with what happened in western Christian areas: from its origins in Medina to our time, the only representative and symbol of Muslim erudite music has been the lute: a plucked instrument with a neck.
We do not know if the lack of plucked instruments with a neck in Christian societies (between the year one thousand to the last decades of the 13th century) may be explained by their enthusiasm for polyphonic continuous sounds, or if it is a conscious act of opposition to the Saracen’s refined musical practices. We must, in any case, wait for over two centuries of Crusades and battles in Spain, and the decisive victories over the Almohades (13th century) before rediscovering some evidence of the use of plucked instruments in Western Mediaeval literature and iconography. If, indeed, Muslim technical knowledge did eventually deeply influence our Western instrumentarium, the penetration and acceptance of new aesthetics from the south seems slower than has often been claimed. The pear-shaped Arabo-Andalus rabab, for example, only appeared in the last quarter of the thirteenth century and it is only at the very end of the fourteenth that for the first time, the word rebec is mentioned in Christian literature.[7] The same may be said of the lute, which had been well known for more than five centuries, but very slowly penetrated western countries. The first mention of the word laúd in Spanish Christian culture occurred only in 1250, the French word luth in 1377…
Paradoxically, the actual adoption of Muslim musical instruments in the West did not bring about a definite expulsion of Saracens and Judes from Spain in 1492. Previously, the specific Arabo-Andalus culture, which acted as a melting pot, had been the source of a myriad of instrumental discoveries. This vital fact should not minimise the importance of new creations from the north, which coincided with the enlargement of the French Kingdom, the building of huge cathedrals and the emergence of a new musical way personified by the “trouvères”.
Muslim and Christian cultures have developed specific constructional features for their traditional instruments. The following table, summarising some of these long-standing essential preferences, will help us to understand how much new comers depended on southern or northern influence.

Stringed instruments with a neck (11 th - 12 th centuries).
Muslim constructional features: Christian constructional features:
Pear shaped instruments. Separation of body and neck.
Right angle straight pegbox. Round or diamond shaped Flat pegbox.
Added pegbox. Ribs (sometimes with back),
neck and pegbox in a single piece of wood.
Lateral pegs. Frontal pegs.
Round back. Flat or slightly vaulted back.
Flat soundboards. Vaulted or flat soundboards.
W shaped sound holes. C, B or D sound holes.
  Circular rose.
Flat glued bridge. Free unglued bridge.
Fretted instruments. Unfretted instruments.
Strings fastened to the bridge. Strings fastened to the lower end of the body.

Table 1.


A Who’s who ? of mediaeval guitars and citterns.

It appears that both the names cittern and guitar come from the same Greco-Latin roots: Kitara and cithara, from which a myriad of geographically and temporally specific variations are derived. Up to the 15th century we can find:
Guitar:  quinterne, guiterne, ghuisterne, quitaire, quitarre, (Fr.), gitarra, guitarra, ghiterra (Spain), chitarra, ghiterra, chitarino, ghiterra, ghiterna (Ital.), viola (Spain, Ital.) gyterne, gitern (Engl.), quintern, quinterne (Ger.)…
Cittern: citola, citole (Fr. Spain, Ital.), cetera, cetula (Ital.), cedra (Spain), zitol (Ger.), sitole, cetola, cytolys (Engl.) …
If there are two clearly distinct  families, since the beginning of the 20th century confusion has surrounded the organological identity of each kind of instrument. Recent studies[8] have definitively shown that:
the medieval guitar or gittern is the pear-shaped instrument with a round back (very similar to the Renaissance mandora) before being re-shaped in the 16th century on the model of the vihuela.
The medieval cittern or citole generally bears the holly leaf design with a marked taper from top to bottom and the “filled-in” neck with thumbhole.
In both cases we are lucky enough to have access to archaeological evidence. One is the gittern built by Hans Ott in Nurenberg around 1450,  now in the collections of the Wartburg near Eisenach[9], the other is the citole from the early fourteenth century owned by the British Museum[10]

The pear-shaped gittern.

Curiously, the word quitarre makes its first appearance in French a few decades earlier than in Spanish literature. The earliest occurrence is to be found In the Roman de la Rose, by Jean de Meung (Ca. 1275): “… Harpes a, gigues et rubebes, Si ra quitarres et leüz…”. Some years later in a Latin text called Ars Musica (1296-1302), the Spaniard Juan Gil de Zamora cites the names of some instruments from the Roman language: “… Canon et medius canon et guitarra et rabr…”.
It is interesting to note that both early examples are placed among other instruments clearly connected with Muslim musical influence, such as the rabab, lute and psalteries. This Oriental connection seems established by the Spanish origin of the earliest iconographical evidence of the pear- shaped gittern.
Let us consider the Cantigas de Santa Maria (plate 1) compiled in Sevilla at Alfonso X el Sabio’s request ca. 1280.[11] Two Christian musicians are sitting side by side, one is playing his three stringed gittern with a long white plectrum, while the other is tuning a similar instrument. Both instruments are narrow and pear-shaped with a round back (observation based on sculptures) and have a sickle pegbox with lateral pegs, elements clearly connected with Muslim practices. But certain details denote other cultural influences.


Plate 1 : Cantiga XC, Cantigas de Santa Maria,
Sévilla, 1280-83. Madrid Escurial, Bibl. San Lorenzo, ms.j.b.2, f°104 (Ph. Patrimonio Nacional)

In this early example provided by the Cantigas, the two D shaped sound holes are clearly borrowed from the western medieval fiddle, but we do not know of any other instance of this design on gitterns. All the following pictures bear a different kind of sound hole, another western attribute quite frequent in this illustrated manuscript: the rose. Here, it is a simple composition of four circular holes, but a few years later (plate 2) the rose will be replaced by a large erudite geometric pattern adopted both on Arabian, and on Christian instruments.


Plate 2 : Fresco by Juan Oliver in Pamplona Cathedral's refectory, ca. 1330. Pamplona, Navarra Museum.

Another detail combining Muslim and Christians influences is the sickle pegbox ending with the zoomorphic or grotesque carved head. The first appearance of the sickle pegbox occurs in the same context of cultural interpenetration, though much earlier (first half of the 12thc.) on the Capilla Palatinas’ frescoes in Palermo, Sicily. But we must wait for the 13thc. to see, in al-Andalus, the useful Oriental system generalised and definitively adopted by Christians. The right-angle pegbox with transversal pegs, (more efficient than the flat one inherited from the Romans) takes the curved aspect from a sickle and the old Western tradition of the carved head is added to its upper end. This system will later be extended to the whole family of viols and violins.


Gittern (13-14th centuries)

Muslim  influences:

Christian  influences:

Al-Andalus influences:

General outline of the ancient pear-shaped lute.


Round back.


Flat sound-board.


Right-angle pegbox.

Zoomorphic carved head.

Sickle pegbox ending with a carved head.

Lateral pegs.


Little circular rose.

Large circular rose.


Free bridge.


Strings fastened on the lower part of the body.


Four strings (or courses)
tuned in serial fourth.

Three strings (or courses)
tuned in fifth - fourth.


Table 2. summarises the different cultural influences combined in the gittern.

In the Cantigas, it is not easy to understand how the bridges are fastened. The instrument on the left seems to have the glued bridge of the lute while the other one, on the right, clearly shows the two parallel strings usually holding a tailpiece. The final element denoting some Western influence is the number of strings. From the 11th to the 13th century the basic pattern of Western musical instruments was composed of three strings (or courses) dividing an octave in fifth and fourth (C – G – c) while the Muslim one was based upon four strings tuned in fourth (A - D – G – c). Very soon after the Cantigas picture other documents show a six-stringed instrument in three double courses.[12] Later we can observe variations in the composition of the courses as for example, on Valencia Cathedral: three, three and one stringed courses (Plate 3) as well as the extension to four courses, five for the instrument kept in Eisenach.


Plate 3 : Valencia  Cathedral : Apostel 's Door, 14th century.

The citole.

As we are now going to see, the citole is a completely different instrument. Let us describe it as it appears in medieval iconography (Plate 4). If the general outline of the body can differ in some details, the structure of the instrument is so unique that there is no possibility of confusion with any other plucked instrument. Very often, the body outline resembles a holly leaf with five prominent corners and slightly incurved sides. Two corners are towards each end of the body and one at the lowest point in the axis. Sometimes the bottom end of the instrument is rounded and devoid of corners. However, the main characteristic is the downward continuation of the neck that reaches the increasing depth of the back (Plate 5). This arrangement creates such a thick neck that a thumbhole becomes necessary. The back is neither flat nor curved, but slants upwards from each side to a central ridge extended in the neck.


Plate 4 : Toro Collegiate : West Door, ca 1240.

Plate 5 : Citole reconstructed by the Lugo workshop, 1994.


The strings are generally fastened at the lower end of the instrument to a projection often taking the form of a trefoil or a fleur de lys. Few examples show a tailpiece. The strings passed over a free, unglued bridge and a fingerboard with frets before being fixed to the frontal pegs. In most examples the pegbox is inspired by the medieval fiddle and the strings generally disappear at the end of the neck to be attached from below to the pegs. Naturally, the whole instrument is carved out of a solid piece of wood, we frequently find a zoomorphic head at its upper end. The flat belly bears sound-holes sometimes in C-shaped pairs but more often in the form of a round hole or a rose.
We cannot here go into the relationship between the citola and the Italian cetera, both instruments related with the cister[13] but, coming back to the Table 1, note that unlike the gittern, both the citole and the cetera only bear Western constructional features, except for the fretted fingerboard[14].
The origin of such a strange frame (with a downward continuation of the neck that reaches the increasing depth of the back) can perhaps be found in the structure of the Antic Greco-Roman cithara. We know that this instrument was still in use in northern Europe, long after the fall of the Carolingian Empire. Both arms sustaining the yoke are now reduced in two corners (or wings or trefoil) towards the upper part of the body. The architectural part they played as a reinforcement is now replaced by the lengthening from the back to the pegbox.
In some northern Carolingian manuscripts such as the frontispiece of the Vivien Bible, the New Testament manuscript from Heidelberg or the Utrecht and Stuttgart Psalters we can recognise (beyond a clear Latin influence) the general outline of our citola : a round bottom with a trefoil at the lowest point in the axis and two corners or wings at the upper part of the body, the neck ending with a frontal pegbox. Unlike the gittern, the citola only bears Western attributes surviving in northern Europe from the ancient Roman cithara.



If, during the 13th century, the West as a whole reaped the benefits of the profound musical evolution initiated in the South of France by the “troubadours” (and partly influenced by the Moors’ musical practices), the Andalusian culture also developed at the same time a specific way which distinguished it from Baghdad references. Contact with Christians brought about the introduction of the bow in Spanish Muslim courts through the creation of a new instrument called the Arabo-Andalus rabab. To have access to the palaces, the rabab of shepherds had to abandon its primitive spike fiddle frame for the widely accepted appearance of the lute as it was up to that time: carved out of a solid pear shaped piece of wood with the right-angle pegbox.
During this effervescent 13th century we can also observe, for the first time, both the increasing size of the Arabian lute and the appearance of a clear separation between body and neck. This important point is indicative of a deep change in constructional techniques: from then on, the body of the lute can be made out of many ribs glued together before adding a separate neck. Therefore, two different kinds of plucked instruments were to coexist, the large and deep lute (made of many wooden pieces) adding bass strings to the number of its courses and the little treble gittern hollowed out of a block as the lute was before.
Some years later, in 1330, the Spanish poet Juan Ruiz, Arch-priest of Hita[15], seems to confirm this differentiation in his Libro de Buen Amor  when he opposes the
“screeching gitarra morisca, with its shrilling voices and its wild rhythms, to the stout lute”…

  The studies of Ménendez Pidal[16] and Gomez Muntané[17] have informed us that the gittern took an important place in the courts of Castilla before Navarra and Aragon, and many account books allude to musicians playing the guitar, the lute and the fiddle in small groups as early as  the 14th century.
Both instruments from the south spread throughout the whole of Christian Europe and it seems that, progressively, the deep lute was preferred to the treble gittern in the upper layers of the society. But the decline of the latter prepared a new departure in Spain, in the middle of the 15th century. The medieval fiddle turned into a large instrument, the neck grew longer, the flat pegbox was replaced by the right-angled one of the lute and the corners appeared. A few years later, around the year 1500, the smooth guitar-shaped waists of the Renaissance vihuela were introduced.


In conclusion, it seems obvious that the enthusiasm for polyphonic continuous sounds strongly contributed to the hegemony of bowed instrumental practices in the West from the 11th to the 13th century.  In al-Andalus, as the Moors were discovering the use of the bow for erudite performance from Christians, so Christians progressively adopted the Moors’ inclination for plucking necked instruments during the second half of the 13th century.
In this context of deep interpenetration between two different cultures in the south of Spain, both the gittern and the Arabo-Andalus rabab appeared. These instruments with exactly the same frame were progressively adopted, as was the lute, among Christians. Today, in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, the rabab has remained unchanged since the 13th century and still plays the leading role in the erudite Arabo-Andalus music. The evolution of the gittern in the Muslim era should be studied, but it is possible to recognise in the narrow pear-shaped Kwitra (the old traditional four-stringed lute of these countries), a survival of the ancient guitarra.
The gittern (later known as mandora during the Renaissance) remained quite unchanged in the North of the Pyrenees for a long period, whereas the rabab emerged as an ill-adapted bowed instrument. The left-hand technique ignoring the fingerboard and the skin belly unsuited to our climates, have forced Christians to modify the instrument considerably and then to add more strings. These modifications have made the gittern and the recently named rebec so alike that it often seems pointless to try to distinguish between a bowed gittern and a plucked rebec in the iconography of the 14th and 15th centuries.[18]
Far from any Muslim constructional influences, the citola and the cetera with all their attributes, seem to be from a clear Western origin connected with the ancient Roman cithara through the Carolingian Empire. Its architectural structure can be characterised as Gothic,  an obviously Christian instrument  appearing at the same time as the “trouvères”,  from the North.
In the 14th century the Spanish poet Juan Ruiz[19] sowed the seeds of discord among modern musicologists and organologists by differentiating in his Libro de Buen Amor between two kinds of guitar : the guitarra morisca and the guitarra latina. Let’s hope our modest contribution could shed some light on this problematic distinction, putting an end to some sleepless nights!


[1] I would particularly like to thank Valérie Chauvin and Alison Charamon-Hill for helping me to write this article in English.

[2] Werner Bachmann, The origins of bowing and the development of bowed instruments up to the thirteenth century, Oxford University Press, (English translation), London, 1969.

[3] This doesn’t mean that the former technique completely disappeared. But, from this time on, plucking was only practiced on open-string instruments such as the “harp-psaltery” in the south, crwth and harp in the north and later (ca.1140) the small triangular psaltery.

[4] We can’t examine here the question of Muslim open-string instruments.

[5] And at the same time throughout the Byzantine Empire and Italy.

[6] We have to wait for the birth, during the thirteenth century, of the Arabo-Andalus rabab in Spain (as a result of the deep cultural interpenetration between Muslims and Christians) to see the bow accepted in Muslim courts and palaces. But this exception will never extend to the whole Muslim world and will always remain an Andalusian specificity.

[7] So the rebec is not a medieval instrument but a Renaissance and “pre-baroque” one. For more details see C. Homo-Lechner et C. Rault, Instruments de musique du Maroc et d’al-Andalus, CERIMM/Fondation Royaumont, Paris, 1999.

[8] E. Winternitz, Musical Instruments and their Symbolism in Western Art, London, 1967, pp. 57-65. - L. Wright, “The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A case of mistaken identity”, in G.S.J. 30, 1977, pp. 8-42. - C. Young, “Zur klassifikation und iconographishen interpretation mittelalterlicher zupfinstrumente” and P. Rey, “Cordophones pincés et styles musicaux dans la Péninsule Ibérique (1200-1500)” in Instruments à cordes du Moyen Age (sous la direction de C. Rault), Créaphis, 1999 pp. 95-113.

[9] This instrument has been studied by Friedemann Hellwig, “Lute-making in the late 15th and 16th century” in Lute society journal, 1974 n°16 pp.24-38.

[10] See Mary Remnant and Richard Marks, “A Medieval Gittern, The Early History of the Guitar” in Music and Civilization, British Museum Yearbook 4, 1980, London, British Museum Trustees.  pp.83-132.

[11] Note the chronological synchronization between these first literary and iconographical proofs.

[12] Fresco in the Monastery of Santa Maria de Valbueno (Provincia de Valladolid - Spain), Fresco in Le Mans Cathedral (France).

[13] This work has been developed by Crawford Young in his article “Zur klassifikation und iconographishen interpretation mittelalterlicher zupfinstrumente” in Basler Jahrbuch für Historishe Musikpraxis, herausgegeben von Peter Reidmeister, VIII, Basle, 1984.

[14] This specific matter of the frets is detailed too, by  C. Young in the same article.

[15] P. Jaurade, Arcipreste de Hita, Libro de Buen Amor Edition, notes and modern version, Barcelona, PPU, 1988, p.376.: V.1228: Ally sale gritando la gitarra morisca, – De las voces agudas, de los puntos arisca, - El corpudo alaut, que tyen punto a la trisca, - La gitarra latina con esos se aprisca.

V.1229: El rrabé gritador con la su alta nota …

[16] R. Menendez Pidal, Poesia juglaresca y origenes de las literaturas romanicas, 6th edition, Madrid, Instituto de Estudios Politicos, 1957, p.335.

[17] M.C. Gomez Muntané, La musica en la Casa Realcatalano-aragonesa durante los anos 1336-1442, Barcelona, Antoni Bosch, 1979, p. 222...

[18] The same remark could later be applied to vihuelas de arco and vihuelas de mano.

[19] See note 14.