From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
"Quinterne" made in 1450 by Hans Oth in Nürnberg, in the collections at Wartburg Castle.[1][2] Body, neck and pegbox made from one piece of maple, belly spruce or fir. Rose made of several layers of parchment & wood.[3]

String instrument

Related instruments

The gittern was a relatively small, quill-plucked, gut strung instrument that originated around the 13th century and came to Europe via Moorish Spain.[4] It was also called the quinterne in Germany, the guitarra in Spain, and the chitarra in Italy.[5] A popular instrument with the minstrels and amateur musicians of the 14th century, the gittern eventually out-competed its rival, the citole. Soon after, its popularity began to fade, giving rise to the larger and more evocative lute and guitar. It is also ancestral to the mandore.[6]

During the 14th century, the gittern's recognition constantly increased, eventually ousting the similarly popular citole. However, the lute eventually overshadowed even the gittern's popularity in the 15th century. Soon after, the vihuela-shaped guitar began to appear and may have existed alongside the gittern, although the latter was gradually losing ground to the newer instrument. In spite of the gittern's slow fall from favor, it was referred to as late as the 18th century as a small round backed instrument, illustrating its occasional use.

Up until 2002, there were only two known surviving medieval gitterns,[7][8] one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see external links), the other in the Wartburg Castle Museum. A third was discovered in a medieval outhouse in Elbląg, Poland.[8][9]


Two musicians depicted in a c.1322 fresco scene from the life of St. Martin of Tours, located in the lower church of San Francesco in Assisi. The instrument on the right is a gittern strung in four courses, with two strings per course. The gitterist is playing with a quill, held between his first fingers; the fingers are curled, so that he holds the quill in two places, with the tip between his finger tips.

The gittern was usually carved from one piece of timber. Occurring less rarely later in the 15th century, the back was built up from a number of thin tapered ribs joined at the edges, as was characteristic of the lute. Unlike the sharp corner joining the body to the neck seen in the lute, the gittern's body and neck always joined in a smooth curve or straight line. The sickle, or occasional gentle arc pegbox, made an angle with the neck of between 30-90 degrees. Unlike the lute, most pegboxes on gitterns ended in a carving of a human or animal head.

Most gitterns were depicted as having three or (more commonly) four courses of double strings played with a quill plectrum. Each course of strings was attached to an endpin, which was laterally inserted into the pegbox. Although there is not much direct information concerning gittern tuning, the later versions were quite possibly tuned in fourths and fifths like the mandore a few decades later. Frets were represented in a few depictions (mainly Italian), though absent in French and English depictions. Like nearly all early instruments, the gittern's sound hole was covered with a rosette (a delicate wood carving or parchment cutting).

The construction and shape resemble folk fiddles, including the Calabrian lira, Byzantine lyra, gadulka, lijerica, rebec, classical kemençe, gudok and cobza. These have similar shape, a short neck, and like the gittern are carved out of a single block of wood.

Relationship between Gittern, Citole, Lute family, and Guitar family[edit]

Illustration from Sebastian Virdung's 1511 book, Musica getuscht und angezogen, which shows a gittern (labeled "quintern".)

The Gittern was a predecessor of the guitar. However, in its early form, it outwardly resembled the mandore, and was a relative of the lute inasmuch as its back was similarly rounded. In fact the gittern is considered ancestral to the mandore.[5] The instrument developed into both lute forms and guitar forms, or the name was applied to both.[5] In its lute family form, it survived into the 18th century as the mandore in France, and into the 21st century as the mandolin.[5] In its guitar family form, it survived into the 21st century.[5]

Some have pointed out that there have been errors in scholarship (starting in the 19th century) which led to the mandore being called gittern and vice versa.[10] This does not deny that the instruments are related, just that they are not the same instrument. Among the differences, gitterns and mandores were tuned differently.[10] Also, the gittern was much smaller, and had no clear division between the body and neck. Generally its body and neck were constructed from a single piece of wood, where lutes/mandores were constructed from staves glued together. There was similar confusion with the citole.[10] As a result of this uncertainty, many modern sources refer to gitterns as mandoras, and to citoles as gitterns.


  • Names in English: gittern, giterninge, giterne, cittern, cittarn.
  • Names in French: gviterre, guisterne, guitarre, guiterne, guyterne, guiterre, quinterne, quitaire, quitarre, citterna
  • Names in Italian: chitarino, chitarra, cythara
  • Name in German: Quinterne, Toppel Cytar
  • Name in Spanish: guitarra

The Spanish "guitarra", the Italian "chitarra", and the French "guitarre" are derived from the Greek "kithara" via the Arabic "qītārā".[11]

The English and the Germans borrowed their names from the French.[11] "Guiterne" was the standard usage in English until the 16th century.[11] The occurrence of the use of the word "guita(r)e" remained rare.[11]

The French "quitaire", became "qui(n)terne" as a result of confusion with the unrelated Latin word "quinterna", meaning fivefold.[11]

Although the common use of the lute shape was displaced by the vihuela (similar to a guitar), the immediate change of name did not follow. Both "guiterne" and "guiterre" fell out of use in the 17th century.

Role in literature[edit]

Gittern, Cathedral Saint Julien du Mans, France, c.1325.

The gittern entered Europe in the 13th century from Arab countries. It is referred to originally in French literature. From around 1270 onwards, it was continually mentioned, although it was only commonly depicted after 1300.

It was mentioned by French poet Guillaume de Machaut in his 14th-Century poem La prize d'Alexandrie: "Lutes, moraches and guiterne / were played in taverns".

The gittern was often referenced from the 14th to early 15th century, including the inventory of several courts. Charles V of France's court recorded four, including one of ivory, while the courts of Este and Ferrara recorded the hiring of gittern masters. However, the gittern was also popular with amateur musicians of every class, owing to its portability and ease of playing. Dante, referring to the structure of the gittern, said, "just as it would be blameworthy operation to make a spade of a fine sword or a goblet of a fine gittern." It was frequently recorded as being used in taverns, often for serenading.

Another 14th-Century author, Geoffrey Chaucer, mentioned the gittern in the Canterbury Tales as being played by people who frequent taverns. In The Miller's Tale, Absalom serenades a woman outside her window:[12]

"Now was ther of that chirche a parish clerk, 
the which that was ycleped [called] Absalon...
and as wel coud he play on a giterne. 
In all the town n'as [there never was] brewhous ne [nor] taverne, 
that he ne visited with his solas [solos]."[13]

Chaucer also mentioned the giterne's use in The Cooks Tale.,[12] linking together the gittern and rebab as being similar instruments, used for similar purposes. Al konne he pleye on gyterne or ribible (all can he play on gittern or rebab).[14]

During its heyday of popularity, the instrument was included in religious literature. Theologian Jean Gerson, in a French sermon, compared the four cardinal virtues to "la guiterne de quatre cordes" (the gittern of four chords).


  1. ^ Google Books. A Performer's Guide to Medieval Music. Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  2. ^ Nairolf der Minnebolt. "Die "Quinterne"". Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  3. ^ Lute Society of America. "[Lute ID 158]". Retrieved 2010-12-04. 
  4. ^ P. 118. The Encyclopedia of Music. New York: Hermes House, 2002.
  5. ^ a b c d e Music Encyclopedia. "Quinterne [quintern]". Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  6. ^ James Tyler, The Mandore in the 16th and 17th Centuries
  7. ^ Tyler, James; Sparks, Paul (1992). The Early Mandolin. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 1–7. ISBN 0-19-816302-9. 
  8. ^ a b Dr. Martin Kirnbauer, Musikwissenschaftl. Institut, Uni Basel. "Mittelalterliche Musikzeugnisse". Archived from the original on 2004-12-25. Retrieved 2010-12-06. 
  9. ^ "Unprofitable Instruments". Retrieved 2010-12-06. 
  10. ^ a b c Music Encyclopedia. "Mandore [Mandorre].". Retrieved 2010-11-20. 
  11. ^ a b c d e Music Encyclopedia. "Gittern [gyterne]". Retrieved 2012-03-13. 
  12. ^ a b Music in the age of Chaucer By Nigel Wilkins. Page 114. Published by DS Brewer, 1999
  13. ^ The Canterbury tales By Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Tyrwhit. Page 93-94. Published by D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1870.
  14. ^ Robert Boenig and Andrewy Tayler, editors, The Canterbury Tales, Second Edition, Broadview Press, Broadview Editions 2nd Edition, page 118, line 4396, ISBn 9781554811069.

External links[edit]

Elbing (Elbląg) gittern[edit]

Other pages[edit]

Video examples of sound[edit]

Playbooks of tunes[edit]

Museum examples[edit]