The gittern was a relatively small gut strung round-backed instrument that first appears in literature and pictorial representation during the 13th century in Western Europe (Iberian Peninsula, Italy, France, England). It is usually depicted played with a quill plectrum. It was also called the guitarra in Spain, guiterne or guiterre in France, the chitarra in Italy and quintern in Germany. A popular instrument with the minstrels and amateur musicians of the 14th century, the gittern is also possibly ancestral to the mandore and gallichon.
From the early 16th century, a vihuela shaped (flat-backed) guitarra began to appear in Spain existing alongside the gittern, whereby the latter appears to have lost 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, 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.
The back, neck and pegbox were probably 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 either 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. There are also references to some five course gitterns in the 16th century. 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 and German), although apparently absent in most French, Spanish and English depictions. The gittern's sound hole was covered with a rosette (a delicate wood carving or parchment cutting), similar to the lute.
The construction and shape resemble other bowed and plucked instruments, including the Calabrian lira, Byzantine lyra, gǎdulka, lijerica, rebec, klasic 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, the Citole, Lute and Guitar family
The Gittern was a predecessor of, and ancestral to the modern guitar. Some have pointed out that there have been errors in scholarship (starting in the 19th century) which led to the gittern being called mandore and vice versa. There was similar confusion with the citole. As a result of this uncertainty, many modern sources refer to gitterns as mandoras, and to citoles as gitterns.
A number of modern sources have also claimed the instrument was introduced to Europe from the Arabic regions in a manner similar to the lute, but actual historical data supporting this theory is rare, ambiguous, and may suggest the opposite. The various regional names used (including the Arabic) appear derived over time from a Greco-Roman (Vulgar Latin) origin, although when and how this occurred is presently unknown. It is possible the instrument existed in Europe during a period earlier than the Arabic conquests in the Iberian peninsula with the names diverging alongside the regional evolution of European languages from Latin following the collapse of the Roman Empire.
While the name of the lute (Spanish 'laud' from Arabic 'al ud', 'al oud', etc.), and the instrument itself has been interpreted as being of Arabic/Persian origin, the gittern does not appear in historical Arabic source material to support what can only be speculation.
Etymology (see also Iberian Romance languages)
The gittern had faded so completely from memory in England that identifying the instrument proved problematic for 20th century early music scholarship. In Italy, Germany (and possibly North Africa), it survived and has been considered ancestral to other similar instruments. Because of the complex nature of the subject, the list and links below should assist in further reading.
- Names in English: gittern, giterninge, giterne. John Playford's A Booke of New Lessons for the Cithern & Gittern (published in London in 1652) may represent a response to the continued popularity of both instruments; although references to the gittern virtually disappear in England during the following century. The guitar that does reappear during the mid-1750's (referred to as English guitar or 'guittar') enjoying a wave of popularity but then fading itself by the mid-19th century; is an entirely different instrument related to later developments of the cittern. During the 14th century in Geoffrey Chaucer's time, the 'e' that appears at the end of his English spelling 'gyterne' would have been pronounced. But following the great vowel shift - Playford's gittern has lost the 'e' altogether.
- Names in French: gviterre (the 'v' is a Latin substitute for 'u'), guisterne, guitarre, guiterne, guyterne, guiterre, quinterne, quitaire, quitarre (the 'e' at the end of the word may have been stressed in a different and heavier manner to modern pronouncement in a similar manner to the English). In France, the plucked form of the flat-backed 'vielle' (cognate with Spanish 'vihuela'), never assumed the importance it developed in the Iberian and Italian peninsulas. As a consequence the replacement of the round-backed guitarre by the new Spanish style appears disconnected.
- Names in Italian: chitarino (It. diminutive, i.e. small chitara), chitarrino, chitarra, cythara. James Tyler has considered the possibility of the chitarino being ancestral to the early mandolin during the 15th century. The chitarrone (literally large 'chitarra'), is an instrument that appeared in the late 1580's and became important for it's role in basso continuo supporting various musical ensembles during the 17th century as well as for solo works. The alternative name 'tiorba' (English theorbo) displaced the original word, and is now the preferred term used by modern musicians.
- Names in German: quintern, chiterna, quinterna - possibly derived from the later development of a five course instrument (overlay of Latin quinctus 'five' with gittern or similar). The 16th century Spanish musicologist Juan Bermudo mentions having seen a 5 course guitarra but that 4 course instruments are normal. The quinterna that appears in the German Michael Praetorius treatise on musical instruments of 1618, Syntagma Musicum (Plate 16) - has pegs inserted sideways in the pegbox but the body is now a flat figure-of-8 shape. Like Bermudo, Praetorius also mentions 5 course instruments but considers 4 courses normal. The surviving instrument by Hans Oth is unusual in comparison to historical depictions, the strings pass over the bridge and are fastened to the lower edge of the body. The strings in historical illustrations are normally shown fastened to the bridge, which may suggest the instrument was converted from four courses at a later date to it's construction and the original bridge detached.
- Name in Spanish: guitarra
- Name in Portuguese: The process whereby the round-backed guitarra became a flat-backed instrument in Spain and the nomenclature changed appears to have left little impact on Portuguese history. The useage of 'guitarra' in 18th century (to present) Portugal refers to a different instrument - the guitarra portuguesa, related to later developments of the cittern. The modern Portuguese equivalent to the 'Spanish guitar' is still generally known as viola (violão in Brazil - literally large viola), as are some smaller regional related instruments. Portuguese 'viola' (like Italian), is cognate with Spanish 'vihuela'. Unlike in Spain, all these instruments traditionally used metal strings until the advent of modern nylon strings. While the modern violão is now commonly strung with nylon (although steel string variations still exist), in Portugal musicians differentiate between the nylon strung version as guitarra clássica and the traditional instrument as viola de Fado, reflecting the historical relationship with fado music.
- Names in Arabic: kouitra, quitra, kaitara. This four course round-backed instrument is usually mentioned in connection with theories supporting an Arabic origin for the gittern. It is constructed in a similar manner to the chitarra Italiana and the oud, although the pegbox has lost all trace of it's 'sickle-shaped' predecessor. The modern instrument appears to have survived and developed in Algeria in isolation from surrounding regions, and is traditionally associated with the music of Al-Andalus. This cultural tradition in North Africa is considered closely linked to development in the Iberian peninsula and the later expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609.
The Spanish "guitarra", Italian "chitarra", and the French "guitarre" are believed ultimately to be derived from the Greek "kithara"  although the origins of the historical process which brought this about are not yet understood, with very little actual evidence other than linguistic to explore.
The English and the Germans are considered to have borrowed their names from the French.
Role in literature
The gittern 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 during the 14th to early 15th century in the inventory of several courts. Charles V of France's court recorded four, including one of ivory, while the Italian courts of Este and Ferrara recorded the hiring of gittern (chitarra) masters. 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."
"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]."
According to Praetorius: "..in Italy, the Ziarlatini and Salt' in banco use them for simple strummed accompaniments to their villanelle and other vulgar, clownish songs. (These people are something like our comedians and buffoons.) However, to use the (chiterna) for the beautiful art-song of a good professional singer is a different thing altogether."
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" (lit. the gittern of four strings).
- Google Books. A Performer's Guide to Medieval Music. Retrieved 2010-12-03.
- Nairolf der Minnebolt. "Die "Quinterne"". Retrieved 2010-12-03.
- Lute Society of America. "[Lute ID 158]". Retrieved 2010-12-04.
- P. 118. The Encyclopedia of Music. New York: Hermes House, 2002.
- Music Encyclopedia. "Quinterne [quintern]". Retrieved 2012-03-13.
- James Tyler, The Mandore in the 16th and 17th Centuries
- Tyler, James; Sparks, Paul (1992). The Early Mandolin. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 1–7. ISBN 0-19-816302-9.
- Dr. Martin Kirnbauer, Musikwissenschaftl. Institut, Uni Basel. "Mittelalterliche Musikzeugnisse". Archived from the original on 2004-12-25. Retrieved 2010-12-06.
- "Unprofitable Instruments". Retrieved 2010-12-06.
- Music Encyclopedia. "Mandore [Mandorre].". Retrieved 2010-11-20.
- Music Encyclopedia. "Gittern [gyterne]". Retrieved 2012-03-13.
- Music in the age of Chaucer By Nigel Wilkins. Page 114. Published by DS Brewer, 1999
- The Canterbury tales By Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Tyrwhit. Page 93-94. Published by D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1870.
- Robert Boenig and Andrewy Tayler, editors, The Canterbury Tales, Second Edition, Broadview Press, Broadview Editions 2nd Edition, page 118, line 4396, ISBn 9781554811069.
Elbing (Elbląg) gittern
- Article with several pictures of Elbing gittern. Article is for flutes found in the same dig as the gitterns, but the photos are of the gitterns.
- The text article that goes with the photos from the above link. Polish language, but Google translate does a good job.
- Large closeup of Elbing gittern.
- Closeup of Elbalg or Elbing gittern.
- Article in German about Elbing gittern with good picture.
- Page with a good side view photo of the Elbing gittern.
- Guide to Early Instruments - The Gittern and Citole discussed. Author writes strongly as to why there is historical confusion over instrument names.
- Guide to Early Instruments - The Guitar and Vihuela.
- The Guitar in England
- Plucked, fretted instruments in Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque Scotland
- Gittern Businesses - Early MusiChicago
- The History of the Guitar in Spain
Video examples of sound
Playbooks of tunes
- Cover of John Playford's A Booke of New Lessons for the Cithern & Gittern, 1652, with table of contents. This was revised and reprinted in 1666 as Musick's Delight on the Cithren
- 1450s Gittern in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. Cited by James Tyler in "The Early Mandolin", pages 3 and 4. The museum has labeled this a "mandora." The identification of the instrument as a gittern is tenuous, the appearance and small size could lead to other possible interpretations.