If certain instruments from medieval times remain familiar to us, many are those that have been lost in the mists of time.
What, for example, was the gemshorn? How exactly was the portable organ played? Here’s our guide to both, along with many important instruments that coexisted with them during the medieval period.
medieval musical instruments
This bowed string instrument was one of the most popular instruments of the medieval period, often used by troubadours and jugglers from the 13th to 15th centuries. Similar in shape to a modern violin, but with a longer, deeper body, it had three to five gut strings and a leaf-shaped pegbox with front pegs.
The name of this multi-stringed plucked instrument is derived from its Arabic predecessor “al-‘ud” (“the wood”), which came to Spain and Sicily by conquest in the Middle Ages.
From these regions it traveled to the rest of Europe, including Germany, where by the early 15th century it had taken on a somewhat evolved form: with frets added to the fingerboard and a neck shorter.
Although not lutes survive from the medieval period, the instrument is depicted in many manuscript illustrations as well as drawings, paintings and sculptures from the period.
This harp-like stringed instrument—featured widely in medieval paintings, manuscripts, and sculpture—consisted of plucked gut strings stretched across a flat soundboard.
Probably of Middle Eastern origin, it reached Europe in the 12th century and evolved into different shapes, including the “boar’s head”. Among its descendants are the harpsichord, the harp, and the dulcimer, which is struck with hammers rather than plucked.
This first version of the trombone was invented – probably in Burgundy – in the 15th century. Having the characteristic slide of the trombone, but with a narrower bell and a softer tone, it was widely used as part of ensembles in England during the medieval period and the two centuries that followed. But it fell into disuse in the 18th century, when it was rendered obsolete by the more assertive-sounding trombone.
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Made in Europe from the 13th century, this powerful double-reed wind instrument played an important role in dance bands and ensembles for municipal and court ceremonies throughout the medieval period. The precursor of oboe, it was commonly used to sound “all is well” from the city tower during social and ceremonial events.
The medieval version of the bagpipe was similar to its modern Scottish counterpart, but probably with a softer sound and less drone. According to the pictures, it was mouth blown, with a conical bore, a single drone and a large round bag. This is impossible to verify, as none of the instruments themselves have survived.
What we do know is that they were a common feature of medieval English life, even getting a mention of Chaucer, who describes the Miller passing his fellow pilgrims on their way to The Canterbury Tales.
7. Horn of Gems
Historically made from the horn of a chamois, goat or other suitable animal, the gemshorn was a type of flute used in the 15th century. A skeletal figure is shown holding an in a Dance of Death illustration dated 1485. But there is nothing very “macabre” about the instrument itself, which uses the same fingering as the recorder and whose sweet sound was often exploited as part of ensembles of folk music.
Known in French as the vielle à roue (the hurdy-gurdy), the hurdy-gurdy was a stringed instrument that was put together primarily for the purpose of making drones. A wooden rosin wheel, turned by a crank, produced the sound by putting a number of strings into a continuous, buzzing vibration.
One of these was also a melody string that could play tunes while being stopped by keys along its entire length. Introduced to England in the 12th century, the hurdy-gurdy remained a popular instrument beyond the late medieval period.
Tuned bells that were strung together to form chimes were among the most popular percussion instruments of the medieval period. Particularly associated with representations of King David, the second Israelite king, they are frequently represented in manuscript illuminations from the tenth century. Struck on the outside by a hammer, they produced notes of varying pitch determined by the thickness of their casting.
10. Portable Organ
This small precursor of the organ, played from the 12th to the 16th century, was one of the most popular instruments of its time. Suspended from a player’s neck, it consisted of a sheepskin and wooden bellows, along with a keyboard and a row of pipes, which produced a flute-like sound when the bellows were pressed and the keys were struck.
Unlike its modern descendants, it could only sound one note at a time. As a result, it was generally used for monophonic dance music or a single part of a motet, song, or other polyphonic work.