claymore slinger

\Clay"more`\, n. [Gael. claidheamhmor a broadsword; Gael. claidheamh sword + mor great, large. Cf. Claymore.] A large two-handed sword used formerly by the Scottish Highlanders.

\Sling"er\, n. One who slings

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Medieval Instrument

Medieval and Tudor string instruments

Most of the instruments we know today, like the guitar or the violin for example, have medieval ancestors. Over the years these instruments have changed to a greater or lesser extent with the result that some, like the medieval fiddle, are easily recognisable while others, like the ancestor of the modern piano, are not.

The strings used on medieval and Tudor instruments varied, depending on how they were to be used. Most instruments had catgut strings - that is, strings made from the wound intestines of sheep, but metal wire was used on some plucked or hammered instruments to produce a louder tone. The strings for instruments were very expensive and there are records of minstrels being paid in strings for performance.

All string instruments feature a sound-box that has a great effect on the actual sound that is produced. This sound-box is usually wooden, using hard woods for the rear and side pieces and soft woods for the front (or soundboard). There are various ways in which sound-boxes can be made, the most common one being to glue or pin together several thin and carefully shaped pieces of wood. Another way is carve out a bowl from a solid block of wood and then attach a soundboard. The strings must then be connected in some way to the soundboard, sometimes by means of a bridge or otherswise, as in the case of the harp, by being directly attached at one end of the length of the string. There are nearly always sound-holes in the soundboard.

Sounds are produced simply by causing the string to vibrate, which might be done by bowing, plucking, hammering or even blowing!. The vibrations from the string travel down into the soundboard, causing the soundboard also to vibrate. This sets up vibrations inside the sound box, with the result that the sound of the string is amplified, or made louder.. The shape and quality of the sound box also adds its own tone to the overall sound.


The Citole is the ancestor of our modern guitar and, like many stringed instruments, is of North African origin. Instruments of this kind first came into Europe when the Moorish people of North Africa settled in Spain, from the 9th century AD.

The Citole usually had four or five catgut strings and is normally pictured being played with a plectrum. The instrument was carved out of a solid block of wood (in the case of our instrument the wood is maple) and then a soundboard was attached. The soundboard is the softer wood on the front face of the instrument with the sound hole.

Like the modern guitar, this instrument has frets. Frets are pieces of wood or catgut attached to the finger board. They set out the finger positions to help the player make notes that are in tune and have a good tone. If an instrument has frets, it also becomes possible to play different strings at the same time, so that the musicians can produce chords or perform polyphony (which means "making more than one melody at a time") on these splendid instruments.

Citoles appear in English records by the end of the 13th century and appear to have enjoyed high status as they were often used to entertain nobility.

Fiddle or Vielle

Our instrument is based on a fiddle in a painting by Hans Memling from the 15th century. It has a gently curved bridge and five strings, and this suggests that medieval musicians often used to bow two strings together. If the instrument is tuned in the right way, this two string effect can be very pleasing and is demonstrated on the sound file. As with the Citole, the Vielle had catgut strings, and it too has North African origins.

Records indicate that the fiddle was very popular in England in the 13th and 14th century, regularly appearing at banquets, festivals and ceremonies.

There are no hard and fast records indicating how these instruments should be tuned, and in fact the various sources differ. Most musicians nowadays prefer to tune them in fifths, rather like the modern violin.


People nowadays often think that the harp is a traditional instrument of the Brtish Isles, but this is largely because it is important in the modern folk tradition. In medieval times, the harp seems to have been popular in many countries , and harps appear in medieval illustration from all over Europe.

The harp is closely related to the lyre (which is described below) and its early history is difficult to separate from the lyre as scholars cannot be certain which words refer to which instrument! Although it is commonly believed today that the harp originated in Ireland and as a 'Celtic' instrument, this is almost certainly not the case. The word 'harp' is Germanic in origin (originally 'hearpe'), and the Christian writers of the Dark Ages associated the instrument that went by this name with the people they called 'barbarians' - that is, the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples that settled throughout western Europe after the end of the Roman empire.

However, the harp referred to in these early records most likely refers to an instrument resembling the lyre. The earliest illustration depicting a triangular harp dates from an English source of the 10th century. For the next few centuries, there are lots of images and references to minstrels performing on the harp, which shows that the instrument was very popular in England. It began to lose popularity as the fiddle, citole and lute became popular, and it appears less and less in illustrations of the 14th to 16th centuries.

The medieval and Tudor harp had anything between 8 to 29 catgut or wire strings, depending on the century and the region in which it was being played. Early 11th and 12th century harps had very few strings while the later 14th century harps had far more.

Early medieval music was often diatonic, that is using only one mode or scale. The medieval harp was ideally suited to this type of music as ach string was tuned to a note of the scale. By the 14th century, music featured more chromatic notes or musica ficta (notes outside the usual scale) and were as a result unplayable on the harp, at least until tuning levers were introduced later on. This is probably why the harp became less popular towards the end of the Middle Ages..


Psalteries were wire-strung instruments mounted on a hollow wooden box. As with the harp, the number of strings varied, with the earlier instruments having fewer. The instrument shown to the left in the pictures below has a very simple shape, like the psalteries which are shown in many early illustrations. It is played with little wooden hammers which are used to gently tap the strings, creating a clear ring or a sweet shimmering sound. The instrument to the right is a "pig-snout" variety that is plucked with the fingers or with quills. This instrument has many more strings than the earlier one.

The psaltery appears in many illustrations and carvings being played by saints and angels. This could be because our medieval ancestors thought that this instrument had ancient origins, and therefore believed it might have been played in biblical times. Actually, they were right about this, because the psalterion was known in ancient Greece as a box-like instrument for the sounding of strings with the fingers - however, most medieval people didn't know much about ancient Greeks so this was really a lucky guess!

Psalteries were still in use in the 14th and 15th century, though illustrations show a number of differences. In the middle of the 15th century, instrument makers started to design ways in which keyboards could be attached to the box of the psaltery, with simple machinery leading from the keys to the strings, and this makes the psaltery the ancestor of our modern piano.


This instrument is one of the few that have not really survived to become modern instruments. Where many other instruments have found their way into today's classical or popular music, the hurdy-gurdy has changed very little. The instrument can still be seen in some regions as a traditional folk instrument, particularly in France.

The hurdy-gurdy is a curious "mixture" of an instrument, which seems to have bits of both the violin and the piano. There is a box in the middle of the instrument that contains a number of catgut strings. At one end of the insturment, there is a wheel that the musician turns with a handle. As the wheel turns, it rubs against the strings (like the bow on a violin), and this makes the strings vibrate. Then, at the side of the instrument, there is a set of keys (a bit like on a piano), and by pressing these the player can change the length of the strings in the box, and therefore produce different notes (like violin or guitar player pressing on the strings to change the notes). If this sounds quite complicated, well - it is! Setting up a hurdy-gurdy to play is a hard-won skill in itself, but if you can manage it you can produce a surprisingly powerful and rich sound. The hurdy-gurdy is often fitted with a sympathetic resonating bridge (the 'chien') that with skilful playing can add a strong rhythmic edge to the sound as the little resonating bridge vibrates against the soundboard.

The hurdy-gurdy is often thought of as a low-status instrument but this is entirely because of the way it is used today and not necessarily true for medieval and Tudor times.. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the hurdy-gurdy would have been an expensive instrument, and not an easy one for poorer musicians to get hold of.


The word 'symphony' is a Greek word meaning 'sounding together', and this is because this instrument is designed to make two or more strings sound together. The symphony is the medieval ancestor of the hurdy-gurdy described above. As can be seen, it has a plainer box and it had a narrower range of notes. The hurdy-gurdy would have been capable of playing sharps and flats whereas the symphony is limited to diatonic melodies (using only one mode or scale, like the medieval harp described above). The symphony produces a similar tone to the hurdy-gurdy but is much quieter, and it can be seen in illustrations from as early as the 13th century.


The lute is originally a middle eastern instrument. In fact, its name is derived from the Arabic words 'el oud' meaning 'the wood', and this instrument is still very popular in the Middle East. The instrument was known throughout Europe from at least the 13th century but only became truly popular in the 16th century, when it was a great favourite with English kings and queens - King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I were both said to be skilled players.

The lute was a carefully constructed instrument. The back is ribbed - that is, made from lots of pieces of wood put together, and has a deep rounded shape. The soundboard on the front is made from a soft wood and usually has an elaborate rose (or soundhole carving), while the fingerboard is made of a hardwood. The strings were made out of catgut and varied in number. Some earlier lutes show only nine strings while the one pictured, which islate 16th century in style, has 15 strings. The strings are arranged in double courses with the highest string always being a single. Unlike the modern guitar, the instrument has no fixed frets, and it can be played without frets or with frets tied on - little off-cuts of catgut are very useful for this.


Like the fiddle, the rebec is an ancestor of the modern violin family. Like the citole, rebecs were imported into Europe from North Africa, and this nstrument rapidly became popular throughout Europe.

The instrument is contructed in a very similar manner to the citole, being carved out of one solid piece of wood with an added soundboard and fingerboard. The instrument in the picture is a reconstructed bass-type instrument that produces a very rich deep tone.

Rebecs had between two and four catgut strings and were not fretted.


During the 16th century instrument makers tried out different ideas to improve on the earlier medieval fiddles described above. Many instruments were developed at this time, including the Viols. The Viol family resembles our modern violin family but it is not a direct ancestor. The Viol family and the violin family both existed at the same time for over a century, and they served different purposes, but the Viols gradually lost favour as the violin came to dominate the string instrument family. Only in recent years has the viol become more popular again with many new musicians taking up the viol and with new works being composed for this unique instrument.

Viols differ from violins in three main ways. Firstly, viols have six strings as opposed to four. Secondly, viols were fretted in the same way as the lute described above (with frest just tied round the fingerboard). Thirdly the construction of the box is quite different, providing each instrument with its own distinct tone.

Lyre, Rotta

This kind of instrument is typical of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and the 'Celtic' and Germanic inhabitants of north-west Europe during the first thousand years AD. However, these instruments do still appear in many early medieval illustrations, usually those which depict King David playing music to honour God.

Lyres, like harps, have a number of strings that are tuned to the notes of a mode or scale. Medieval lyres tend to have only six strings, which means they are not so useful for playing melodies, but more useful for accompanying melodies.

Crwth, Bowed Rotta

This instrument is very similar to the lyre in its general appearance, but the main differences are that the crwth has fewer strings and also a fingerboard, and that the strings are sounded with a bow. The instrument seems to be an awkward mixture of the early lyre and the newer rebec-style instruments being introduced into Europe in the Middle Ages.

The crwth was still being played in the early 14th century as is shown in royal and baronial records. Interestingly, all the crwth players featured in these records are Welsh, and the crwth might well be thought of as the typical and traditional instrument of Wales up to modern times.


This eastern European instrument is clearly related to the psaltery and lyre type instruments of the west. Our version is a nine string instument and is based on surviving 13th century Guslis from Russia. The strings are wire and produce a delicate shimmering sound. Nobody knows for sure exactly how old the gusli is, but it is often thought to date back at least a 1000 years.

Medieval and Tudor wind instruments

Any instrument that produces sound by having air pushed through it (usually by blowing) is a wind instrument. This covers some considerable variety including flute-type instruments, reed-type instruments, brass-type instruments and organs. Each different type of instrument requires different techniques, different lip positions, fingerings, embouchure (lip and mouth position), stamina, breath control and articulation.

Flute-type instruments have the simplest construction and produce the purest and simplest tone. The breath of air must be carefully channelled into the instrument in such a way that it is split. Most of the air goes away from the instrument and does not have any further effect on the tone, but the rest of the air sets up a vibration within the pipe. For example, in the case of a recorder you blow into the mouthpiece and some of the air goes out through the hole just below the mouthpiece while the rest of the air goes down into the pipe to make the musical sounds. The pitch of the note caused by the vibrations is determined by the length and bore (shape) of the pipe and also by how many holes are covered.

Reed-type instruments require a single or double reed to be mounted on the instrument through which the breath of air is channeled. The reeds vibrate to allow the air through, and this creates a rich sound. The pitch of the note is determined in a similar way to flute-type instruments, by the length and bore of the pipe and by how many holes are covered. Many reed pipes also have a bell (a flared out part at the end of the pipe) which can affect the tone of the instrument and certainly makes a difference to the volume.

Brass-type instruments are not all actually made of brass, but they all share the same technique. The embouchure for these instuments (the shape you need to make with your lips) requires great dexterity in the lip muscles to create vibrations - a bit like 'blowing a raspberry' - and this can be quite tiring.

The organ stands apart from the other wind instruments and is covered in detail below.

Many of the instruments described here have attached sound-files. Click on the image to hear these instruments in action.


This is a reed instrument that is known in the folk music of most European countries. These instruments were intended for outdoor playing and could be very loud; however, some bagpipes had a very gentle sweet sound. The bagpipe usually features a drone pipe that sounds a continuous tone to accompany the melody played on the chanter (the fingered pipe). If the instrument has more than one drone pipe these can be tuned to sound an octave or a fifth apart. Some bagpipes, have no drone pipes at all. The earliest account of bagpipes can perhaps be seen in surviving Roman written records, giving the instrument at least a 2000 year history!


These curious instruments first appear in manuscripts and illustrations in the 16th century, though they were almost certainly around in the 1400s. Like the bagpipe chanter, they have a double reed which produces a nasal buzzing tone. The reed on the crumhorn is inside a wooden chamber next to the mouthpiece, and this chamber protects the reed from damage. This instrument, along with other similar pipes, is the ancestor of the modern oboe, although with the oboe the reed is held by the lips for more expressive playing. The crumhorn shown here is a reconstruction of a European alto crumhorn in 16th-century style. However, like all European reed pipes, the origins of the crumhorn are eastern. Double reed bladder pipes and shawms were imported into Europe from Africa and the Middle East from the time of the earliest Moorish conquest of Spain in the 9th century AD and through the period of the Crusades.

The curve of the crumhorn has no effect on the tonal qualities of the instrument - that is, how the instrument sounds; it is there just for fancy. By the early 16th century, the crumhorn had developed into a full family of instruments ranging from squeaky sopranos down to flatulent basses.


These instruments have a very long history, as prehistoric remains of simple flute-type instruments have been found in many countries. The medieval and Tudor flute was not largely different from the flute we know today. Like many modern folk flutes and whistles, the instruments were six holed and did not have any keys. By the time of the Tudors, the instrument came in a variety of sizes, like the crumhorn. Surviving flutes from the 16th century show an interesting difference in the breath hole. On a modern flute, the mouthpiece hole is oval, while on the Tudor flute it is round. This calls for some adjustment in embouchure (mouth position) and breath control for modern players who take up the early flute.


This was also called "the flute of nine holes", because many early recorders dating from as early as the late 14th century did indeed have nine holes. Eight of the holes were just as we see on our modern recorders, while the ninth hole was opposite the right-hand little finger hole allowing for the option of left-handed playing. Whichever hole was not required would ordinarily be filled in with beeswax.

A small number of medieval recorders have been found in archeological digs showing the nine holes and curiously no beak (the pointed end which you put in your lips). This may be simply because the beak was lost or the recorder was not complete - though it is possible to play the recorder without the beak. However, illustrations of 15th-century recorders show beaked instruments and surviving Tudor instruments have beaks.

Three-holed pipe

These instruments are sometimes called tabor pipes, referring to the drum that is often played at the same time. The three-holed pipe is a simple flute-type instrument with - as its name suggests - only three holes. This allows for four basic positions of the fingers giving four different basic notes. However, by blowing a little harder higher notes can be produced allowing for ranges of at least one full octave and up to two octaves on larger pipes. These instruments have low status and usually only appear in medieval illustrations showing lowly scenes such as peasant dances, and the tormenting of Christ.

The pipe only requires one hand to produce all the notes, leaving the other free to play something else. So, the tabor drum that often accompanies the pipe is intended to be played at the same time by the same player! A drum was not the only thing that could be played by the other hand; a guitar-like instrument could be strummed, a harp plucked, or a hurdy-gurdy type instrument made to drone. A veritable medieval one-man-band!


Unlike our modern instrument, the medieval trumpet had no valves (keys which you press down to make different notes), as valves weren't generally used until the 19th century. Before this time, the notes available on the trumpet were limited to the harmonic series that the player could produce, and exactly how many would depend upon the quality of the mouthpiece and the skill of the player. For example, the trumpet in our band can easily produce a D, the A above it, and the D above the A. With practice, you can get a lower D, and a high F-sharp.

Trumpets were powerful instruments, and could even be heard over the noise of a battle. Moorish armies in Spain employed trumpets and drums almost as weapons of war to terrify their enemies and inspire their own soldiers. The instruments were also quickly established as high status, and would be produced on special occasions such as royal weddings, the arrival of visiting dignitaries and so on. There are interesting records from the late 13th and early 14th century showing which instruments were used for which occasions. From these records, we know that the trumpet was one of the three most important instruments in use (the other two were harp and fiddle). Bands of trumpeters were retained by wealthy masters such as kings or barons as a way of showing how important they were.


An organ is basically a series of tuned pipes that produce sound when air is channeled through them. This is normally done with a keyboard, like on organs today (though some earlier medieval organs used rather more awkward systems to open and stop the various pipes). The main difference between the modern organ and organs in medieval and Tudor times is that today we can use electricity to pump the air into the pipes. Organs came in many sizes ranging from tiny "portative" organs, that were small enough to be carried around, pumped and played by one musician, to the great organs that would require dozens of players - most of whom would be simply working the bellows that pumped the air. By the late 15th-century extra rows of pipes were added to allow the player a wide range of sounds. These extra rows were activated by moving sliders or stops in just the same way as a modern organ.


These instruments were imported into Europe from Africa and the near East throughtout the medieval period. They can have a powerful piercing sound and would be best employed outdoors or on ceremonial occasions. By the 15th-century, the shawm, like many other instruments, had developed into a family of instruments. City waites (musicians employed by city councils) would play instruments such as shawms, trumpets and sackbuts as part of their duty.

Like the crumhorn, the shawm had a double reed. In the case of the crumhorn, the reeds are protected inside a wooden chamber, but shawm players place the reeds inside their mouth with their lips against the bottom end of the reed, which allows the reed to vibrate freely. Modern oboe players place the reeds on their lips, which is another method again.


These instruments are similar in many ways to the shawm. They may well have been very rare as they are shown in only one illustration from the 16th century. However, there are also some surviving original instruments. Rauschpfeifes have a conical bore enabling them to be very loud indeed - in fact, ferociously loud! The name means something like 'noisy pipe'. They have a windcap (like the crumhorn). This means that you do not put the reed in your mouth.

Medieval and Tudor percussion instruments

There are of course many, many different types of percussion instrument. Listed below are the main percussion instruments played by Trouvere minstrels in shows, concerts and workshops.

Percussion instruments are instruments where the sound is produced by bashing or beating. This would include cymbals, kettle drums and the piano which may at first seem to bear very little resemblance.

The most familiar of the percussion instruments is the drum. Drums are shells made of wood, pot or metal with leather tightly fastened onto one or both ends. The leather must be carefully tightened and warmed up before use otherwise the drum skins would be to loose to produce a good tone (especially in wet weather). Rope-tensioned drums were introduced to reduce this problem. Modern drums skins are often made out of plastic and do not become loose.

Other percussion instruments include objects that can be struck and made to vibrate. There is no drum skin or shell (in which the air can vibrate). The object itself vibrates. Examples of this type of instrument include wood blocks, cymbals and bells.

An inventive type of percussion instrument include hybrid-types where strings are struck with beaters. This can be seen in dulcimer/psaltery type instruments that are clearly the ancestor of the modern piano.

Many of the instruments described here have attached sound-files, click on the image to hear these instruments in action.


These instruments are the ancestors of our modern kettle-drums and were originally introduced into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa. These drums were rope tensioned animal skins over a copper or stoneware bowl. The drums were often small enough to be worn on a belt around the waist resulting in a very portable and playabe drum kit.

One of the drums (as in our example to the right) has a snare. Simply an extra piece of rope over the skin to produce a rattling effect.


These instruments become increasingly popular through the 15th century and into Tudor times. Like the nakirs they are rope tensioned animal skins, but here on a curved wooden shell. Due to their size they produce a powerful deep sound and as a result were useful in later periods for organising and controlling soldiers on battlefields.

There are medieval records of drums such as these being used to terrify enemy armies. These drums when played in great number would certainly create a fearful sound.

Tuned Bells

A selection of tuned bells, gently struck with a hammer can lend a very sweet harmonious tone to music whether it be a church hymn or an instrumental dance. The bells are usually made from cast metals such as brass or iron.

Bells such as these were clearly thought of as a noble instrument. Here we have no less a personage than King David himself playing them. Tuned bells are still heard today, we hear them very often every time we hear church bells. These type of instruments are also very similar to the tuned percussion we see in music from around the world most notably the Indonesion gamelan orchestras.

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