Early Medieval

notes and references

1. Ann Buckley, Music in Ireland to c.1500, being chapter 21 of "A New History of Ireland, Volume I" ed. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Oxford 2005. Order from the Emporium.

2. from Alan J. Fletcher, "Drama and the Performing Arts in Pre-Cromwellian Ireland: A Repertory of Sources and Documents from the Earliest Times until c.1642", D. S. Brewer, 2000. this book contains the original texts and English translations of a huge number of textual sources.

3. For more information see my web pages on Gaelic harp stringing practice.

4. Alasdair Ross discusses the possibility that all the Scottish (and by implication the Irish) figures were copied from foreign drawings and not from life, in 'Harps of Their Owne Sorte'? A Reassessment of Pictish Chordophone Depictions "Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies" 36, Winter 1998.

Cotton Psalter 5. There is one early medieval manuscript from Ireland showing a stringed instrument, the early 10th century Cotton Psalter (BL ms Cot.Vit. F.XI). The manuscript line drawing includes a lot more detail than is preserved on the eroded stone carvings, so it can be instructive to compare the Cotton Psalter lyre drawing with a similarly shaped one from the Durrow East stone.

6. Many of the stones show various type of lyre, e.g the one shown here from Clonmacnoise.Clonmacnoise round-top lyre These instruments are not harps; they have a flat soundbox with a bridge and tailpiece to hold the strings, like on a fiddle, but instead of the fiddle's neck and fingerboard they have two arms holding a yoke which supports the strings.

This type of lyre is relatively well known at this early period from many parts of northern Europe. There are even some surviving remains of instruments from the 6th and 7th centuries, found in royal burials in England and on the continent, e.g. the remains from Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell. It is usually assumed that these continental instruments were strung with hair or gut, in contrast to the metal wire of the Irish instruments.

Lyres would be plucked or strummed with the fingernails or a plectrum, and from at least as early as the eleventh century they were bowed just like a fiddle (See Mary Remnant, "English Bowed Instruments from Anglo-Saxon to Tudor Times", Clarendon Press, 1986). The bowed lyre was used from the eleventh century onwards in Wales (crwth) and England (crowd), and elsewhere in Europe. It often acquired a fingerboard between the two arms to allow fretting of the strings, although fretting is still possible without a fingerboard as in the case of the Karelian and other Baltic examples. There is a single Irish depiction of a bowed lyre, a 12th century stone carving at St. Finan's church, Lough Currane, Waterville, co. Kerry. The usual explaination of the origin of the idea of using a bow on a stringed instrument is that it came to Europe along with the rebec (rabab) from the Arabic world in the eleventh century.

Ann Buckley, who has published most on the musical isntruments depicted in early Irish stone carvings, describes three types: "(i) with one curved and one straight arm; (ii) round topped; and (iii) oblique" (see for example Music in Ireland to c.1500, being chapter 21 of "A New History of Ireland, Volume I" ed. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Oxford 2005). The Clonmacnoise carving shown above would be the "round topped" type, familiar from illustrations such as the Vespasian Psalter, and actual examples such as that from Sutton Hoo; Clonmacnoise round-top lyre the Cotton Psalter(above) and the Durrow East stone (shown here) would be "with one curved and one straight arm". There is also a large number of depictions, in Ireland, Scotland and abroad, of King David playing a vaguely drawn and organologically improbable rectangular chordophone. Although it is possible that detailed study could draw out workable instruments from these pictures, I am tempted to regard these as generic biblical instruments, copied and recopied from older exemplars, and not intended to depict actual contemporary instruments. However Buckley's "oblique lyre" is not a type generally recognised in wider organology, and I suggest that her Irish examples (e.g. the Monasterboice stone shown on the Early Medieval History page) are nothing more than a triangular frame harp with the lower corner hidden between the knees.

However lyres are very different instrument from harps, and it is unlikely that triangular harps evolved out of these lyres. (see Graeme Lawson, An Anglo-Saxon harp and lyre of the ninth century, in "Music and Tradition", ed. Widdes and Wolpert, Cambridge 1991, for a discussion of the relationships between harps and lyres, and a review of the early medieval evidence for both).

7. The word cruit (also spelt crott) clearly referred to the triangular frame harp in the 12th and 13th centuries, before it was largely replaced by the new word cláirseach in Irish and clàrsach in Scots Gaelic from the 14th century onwards. (see Bannerman The Clàrsach and the Clàrsair, "Scottish Studies" vol. 30 no. 3, 1991). An assumption (most likely erroneous) that there were no triangular harps in the Gaelic world before c. 1000, and a comparison with English, where harp is assumed to have meant originally "lyre" and later "triangular frame harp", has led to a common view that the word cruit originally referred to a lyre. However if we accept that harps were different from and used alongside lyres from the earliest times, then it seems more likely to me that the English situation might be abnormal, and that cruit referred to a triangular frame harp and timpán the lyre. timpán is often compared to the Latin word tympanum, "drum or tambourine, occasionally psaltery" according to Bannerman (1991). But this is not necessarily relevant; references to a timpán with three strings in early Irish texts imply that it was indeed a lyre of some kind.

8. For discussion of "Pictish" harps, see Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird, "Tree of Strings", Kinmor 1992 and Ross Trench-Jellicoe, Pictish and related harps - their form and decoration, "The Worm, the Germ and the Thorn", ed. D. Henry, Pinkfoot 1997. The whole problem of ethnic identity in early medieval Scotland is called into question by Ewan Campbell, Were the Scots Irish?, "Antiquity" 75, 2001; the possible Gaelic context of the Eastern stone carvings is discussed by Alasdair Ross 'Harps of Their Owne Sorte'? A Reassessment of Pictish Chordophone Depictions "Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies" 36, Winter 1998.

9. It seems that there has always been a dichotomy between Gaelic harps in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, strung with metal (see note 3), and non-Gaelic harps in the rest of Europe, strung with soft animal materials (i.e. hair, gut, sinew, or possibly also silk). In England and on the continent, harps that we assume were gut- or hair-strung appear in manuscript drawings from the 10th century or earlier; in Wales there were a number of different types of harp in use which are quite obscure but seem normally to have been hair-strung (see Sally Harper, Instrumental music in Medieval Wales, "North American Journal of Welsh Studies", vol. 4 no. 1, Winter 2004, read it online). Scotland, having both Gaelic and Anglicised populations, seems to have had both types of harp as well, but in the early medieval period there are no Scottish descriptions to tell us what the harps depicted in sculpture were actually like, and whether the Pictish instruments are more likely to be of the Gaelic or English type. Certainly by later medieval times the Scots language (I mean the Scottish dialect or variant of English) seems to have distinguished between the European bray harp, called "harp" in contrast to the Gaelic harp which was referred to as "clarsach". See Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird, "Tree of Strings", Kinmor 1992.

10. Compare for example the 15th century Trinity College harp.

11. Edward Bunting, "The Ancient Music of Ireland", Dublin 1840, after interviewing surviving harpers in Belfast in 1792 and subsequently, comments "The Irish harpers played the treble with the left hand, and the bass with the right". Modern harp practice in Classical and traditional music throughout Europe is the opposite, using the left hand to play the bass and the right the treble. This latter orientation was the usual English and Continental practice at least as early as the 16th century; it passed into Irish and Welsh traditional music in the 19th century, to the extent that even historically-aware performers on the revived early Gaelic harp are much more likely to follow the modern convention (right hand treble, left hand bass) than to take up the historical Gaelic orientation (left hand treble, right hand bass), at least at the time of writing. As the revival continues we hope that Gaelic harp students will pay serious consideration to the correct right-hand-bass orientation and its implications for performance practice. New Orientation page.



© Simon Chadwick 2005 - part of the history of the Gaelic harp, at earlygaelicharp.info