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Five course Gittern or "Quintern" dated 1450, built by luthier Hans Oth
Classification String instrument (plucked)
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 321.322 (necked box lute)
Developed13th century
Related instruments

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, [1] as we can see clearly beginning in manuscript illuminations from the thirteenth century. It was also called the guiterna in Spain, guiterne or guiterre in France, the chitarra in Italy and Quintern in Germany. [2] A popular instrument with court musicians, minstrels, and amateurs, the gittern is considered an ancestor of the modern guitar and other instruments like the mandore, bandurria and gallichon. [3] [4]


From the early 16th century, a vihuela -shaped (flat-backed) guitarra began to appear in Spain, and later in France, existing alongside the gittern. Although the round-backed instrument appears to have lost ground to the new form which gradually developed into the guitar familiar today, the influence of the earlier style continued. Examples of lutes converted into guitars exist in several museums, while purpose-built instruments like the gallichon utilised the tuning and single string configuration of the modern guitar. A tradition of building round-backed guitars in Germany continued to the 20th century with names like Gittar-Laute and Wandervogellaute.

Up until 2002, there were only two known surviving medieval gitterns, [5] [6] 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. [6] [7]


Simone Martini 037.jpg
Gittern (right) depicted in a c. 1322 fresco scene from the life of St. Martin of Tours. The instrument on the left is a set of aulos.
Medieval musician playing gittern.jpg
Juan Oliver's c.1330 painting at Pamplona Cathedral, showing a musician playing a gittern.

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 resembles other bowed and plucked instruments, including the rebec, Calabrian and Byzantine lyra, gǎdulka, lijerica, klasic kemençe, gudok and cobza. These have similar shapes, 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

Section from Sebastian Virdung's 1511 book, Musica getuscht und angezogen. Virdung Lutes PluckBow 1511.jpg
Section from Sebastian Virdung's 1511 book, Musica getuscht und angezogen.

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. [8] and similar confusion with the citole. [8] 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. [ citation needed ] 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 (Portuguese alaúde, 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. [ citation needed ]

Etymology and identity

One of the three "gitterns" may not be
Mandora MET DP157123.jpg
Mandora MET DP157121.jpg
Mandora MET DP223575.jpg
Instrument in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts labeled a gittern in James Tyler's book, The Early Mandolin. The museum catalog, Medieval Art from Private Collections: A Special Exhibition at the Cloisters said that it probably wasn't a gittern but a bowed instrument, possibly a rebec, but one with five strings instead of the rebec's normal three. [9]

The gittern had faded so completely from memory in England that identifying the instrument proved problematic for 20th-century early music scholarship. It was assumed the ancestry of the modern guitar was only to be discovered through the study of flat-backed instruments. As a consequence, what is now believed to be the only known surviving medieval citole was until recently labelled a gittern.

In 1977, Lawrence Wright published his article The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity. in issue 30 of the Galpin Society Journal; with detailed references to primary historical source material revealing the gittern as a round-backed instrument - and the so-called 'Warwick Castle gittern' (a flat-backed instrument) as originally a citole.

Wright's research also corresponded with observations about the origins of the flat-backed guitarra made by 16th-century Spanish musicologist Juan Bermudo. With this theoretical approach, it became possible for scholars to untangle previously confusing and contradictory nomenclature. Because of the complex nature of the subject, the list and links below should assist in further reading.

Artwork from the Bayeux Cathedral in France, showing an angel playing a gittern. Angel playing a gittern.jpg
Artwork from the Bayeux Cathedral in France, showing an angel playing a gittern.

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.

While the English and Germans are considered to have borrowed their names from the French, [10] Spanish "guitarra", Italian "chitarra", and the French "guitarre" are believed ultimately to be derived from the Greek "kithara" [10] - 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.

Role in literature

Cantigas of Santa Maria

Gittern and rebec.jpg
Picture from the Cantigas of Santa Maria showing two musicians with gitterns
Gittern, Cathedral Saint Julien du Mans, France, c.1325.jpg
Gittern played by an angel, Cathedral Saint Julien du Mans, France, c. 1325

In Spanish literature, the 13th-century Cantigas de Santa Maria with its detailed colored miniature illustrations depicting musicians playing a wide variety of instruments is often used for modern interpretations - the pictures reproduced and captioned, accompanied by claims supporting various theories and commenting on the instruments.

None of the surviving four manuscripts contain captions (or text in the poems) to support observations other than the gittern appears to have had equal status with other instruments. Although social attitudes towards instruments like the lute, rebec, and gittern may have changed in Spain much later with the cultural impact of the Reconquista - what is recorded in the Cantigas indicates the opposite during this period of history.

Far from being considered an example of Islamic culture, the instrument was used for one occasion to illustrate principles of Christian religious doctrine. French theologian Jean Gerson compared the four cardinal virtues to "la guiterne de quatre cordes" (the gittern of four strings). Italian statesman and poet Dante Alighieri, referring to the qualities (and possibly the structure) of the gittern, said, "...just as it would be a blameworthy operation to make a spade of a fine sword or a goblet of a fine chitarra."

Guillaume de Machaut

However, 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut in his poem Prise d'Alexandrie: 1150 "Lutes, moraches and guiterne / were played in taverns", notes a secular role away from religious references or royal and ducal courts.

Geoffrey Chaucer

A reconstruction of a medieval gittern Dusepo gittern.jpg
A reconstruction of a medieval gittern

Chaucer also mentions the gittern in the Canterbury Tales (late 14th century) being played by people who frequent taverns. In The Miller's Tale, Absalom serenades a woman outside her window: [11]

 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]. [12]

And his The Cooks Tale ., [11] Al konne he pleye on gyterne or ribible (all can he play on gittern or rebab). [13]

Other written records

Praetorius, commenting on a dual-purpose social role, " 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."

The gittern often appeared during the 14th to early 15th century in the inventories 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.


Early Music Muse - Gittern

Early Music Instrument Database - Gittern

Related Research Articles

Classical guitar member of the guitar family used in classical music

The classical guitar is a member of the guitar family used in classical music. An acoustic wooden string instrument with strings made of gut or nylon, it is a precursor of the modern acoustic and electric guitars, both of which use metal strings. Classical guitars are derived from the Spanish vihuela and gittern in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, which later evolved into the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Baroque guitar and later the modern classical guitar in the mid-nineteenth century.

Lute Plucked string musical instrument

A lute is any plucked string instrument with a neck and a deep round back enclosing a hollow cavity, usually with a sound hole or opening in the body. It may be either fretted or unfretted.

Viol Bowed, fretted and stringed instrument

The viol, viola da gamba, or informally gamba, is any one of a family of bowed, fretted and stringed instruments with hollow wooden bodies and pegboxes where the tension on the strings can be increased or decreased to adjust the pitch of each of the strings. Frets on the viol are usually made of gut, tied on the fingerboard around the instrument's neck, to enable the performer to stop the strings more cleanly. Frets improve consistency of intonation and lend the stopped notes a tone that better matches the open strings. Viols first appeared in Spain in the mid to late 15th century and were most popular in the Renaissance and Baroque (1600–1750) periods. Early ancestors include the Arabic rebab and the medieval European vielle, but later, more direct possible ancestors include the Venetian viole and the 15th- and 16th-century Spanish vihuela, a 6-course plucked instrument tuned like a lute that looked like but was quite distinct from the 4-course guitar.


The cittern or cithren is a stringed instrument dating from the Renaissance. Modern scholars debate its exact history, but it is generally accepted that it is descended from the Medieval citole. It looks much like the modern-day flat-back mandolin and the modern Irish bouzouki, and is descended from the English guitar. Its flat-back design was simpler and cheaper to construct than the lute. It was also easier to play, smaller, less delicate and more portable. Played by all classes, the cittern was a premier instrument of casual music-making much as is the guitar today.


The vihuela is a 15th-century fretted plucked Spanish string instrument, shaped like a guitar but tuned like a lute. It was used in 15th- and 16th-century Spain as the equivalent of the lute in Italy and has a large resultant repertory. There were usually five or six doubled strings.


The citole was a string musical instrument, closely associated with the medieval fiddles and commonly used from 1200–1350. It was known by other names in various languages: cedra, cetera, cetola, cetula, cistola, citola, citula, citera, chytara, cistole, cithar, cuitole, cythera, cythol, cytiole, cytolys, gytolle, sitole, sytholle, sytole, and zitol. Like the modern guitar, it was manipulated at the neck to get different notes, and picked or strummed with a plectrum. Although it was largely out of use by the late 14th century, the Italians "re-introduced it in modified form" in the 16th century as the cetra, and it may have influenced the development of the guitar as well. It was also a pioneering instrument in England, introducing the populace to necked, plucked instruments, giving people the concepts needed to quickly switch to the newly arriving lutes and gitterns. Two possible descendant instrument are the Portuguese guitar and the Corsican Cetera, both types of cittern.

Course (music)

A course, on a stringed musical instrument, is either one string or two or more adjacent strings that are closely spaced relative to the other strings, and typically played as a single string. The strings in each multiple-string course are typically tuned in unison or an octave.


The mandora or gallichon is a type of 18th- and early 19th-century lute, with six to nine courses of strings. The terms were interchangeable, with mandora more commonly used from the mid-18th century onwards.

Baroque guitar

The Baroque guitar is a string instrument with five courses of gut strings and moveable gut frets. The first course sometimes used only a single string.

The evolution of classical guitars began with the influences of the vihuela and gittern in the sixteenth century and ended with the modern classical guitar in the mid nineteenth century.

Plucked string instrument

Plucked string instruments are a subcategory of string instruments that are played by plucking the strings. Plucking is a way of pulling and releasing the string in such a way as to give it an impulse that causes the string to vibrate. Plucking can be done with either a finger or a plectrum.

Acoustic guitar

An acoustic guitar is a musical instrument in the guitar family. Its strings vibrate a sound board on a resonant body to project a sound wave through the air. The original, general term for this stringed instrument is guitar, and the retronym 'acoustic guitar' distinguishes it from an electric guitar, which relies on electronic amplification. Typically, a guitar's body is a sound box, of which the top side serves as a sound board that enhances the vibration sounds of the strings. In standard tuning the guitar's six strings are tuned (low to high) E2 A2 D3 G3 B3 E4.

Chitarra Italiana

Chitarra Italiana is a lute-shaped plucked instrument with four or five single strings, in a tuning similar to that of the guitar. It was common in Italy during the Renaissance era.


The cythara is a wide group of stringed instruments of medieval and Renaissance Europe, including not only the lyre and harp but also necked, string instruments. In fact, unless a medieval document gives an indication that it meant a necked instrument, then it likely was referring to a lyre. It was also spelled cithara or kithara and was Latin for the Greek lyre. However, lacking names for some stringed instruments from the medieval period, these have been referred to as fiddles and citharas/cytharas, both by medieval people and by modern researchers. The instruments are important as being ancestors to or influential in the development of a wide variety of European instruments, including fiddles, vielles, violas, citoles and guitars. Although not proven to be completely separate from the line of lute-family instruments that dominated Europe, arguments have been made that they represent a European-based tradition of instrument building, which was for a time separate from the lute-family instruments.

Mandore (instrument)

The mandore is a musical instrument, a small member of the lute family, teardrop shaped, with four to six courses of gut strings and pitched in the treble range. Considered a French instrument, with much of the surviving music coming from France, it was used across "Northern Europe" including Germany and Scotland. Although it went out of style, the French instrument has been revived for use in classical music. The instrument's most commonly played relatives today are members of the mandolin family and the bandurria.


Concheras or conchas are Mexican stringed-instruments, plucked by concheros dancers. The instruments were important to help preserve elements of native culture from Eurocentric-Catholic suppression. The instruments are used by Concheros dancers for singing at "velaciones" and for dancing at "obligaciones".

English guitar

The English guitar or guittar, is a stringed instrument – a type of cittern – popular in many places in Europe from around 1750–1850. It is unknown when the identifier "English" became connected to the instrument: at the time of its introduction to Great Britain, and during its period of popularity, it was apparently simply known as guitar or guittar. The instrument was also known in Norway as a guitarre and France as cistre or guitarre allemande. There are many examples in Norwegian museums, like the Norsk Folkemuseum and in British ones, including the Victoria and Albert Museum. The English guitar has a pear-shaped body, a flat base, and a short neck. The instrument is also related to the Portuguese guitar and the German waldzither.

Guitarra morisca

The guitarra morisca or mandora medieval is a plucked string instrument. It is a lute that has a bulging belly and a headstock as sickle. Part of that characterization came from a c. 1330 poem, Libra de Buen Amor by Juan Ruiz, which described the "Moorish gittern" as "corpulent". The use of the adjective morisca tacked to guitarra may have been to differentiate it from the commonly seen Latin European variety, when the morisca was seen on a limited basis during the 14th century.

History of lute-family instruments

Lutes are stringed musical instruments that include a body and "a neck which serves both as a handle and as a means of stretching the strings beyond the body".

History of the mandolin The history of the mandolin.

The mandolin is a modern member of the lute family, dating back to Italy in the 18th century. The instrument was played across Europe but then disappeared after the Napoleonic Wars. Credit for creating the modern bowlback version of the instrument goes to the Vinaccia family of Naples. The deep bowled mandolin, especially the Neapolitan form, became common in the 19th century, following the appearance of an international hit, the Spanish Students. They toured Europe and America, and their performances created a stir that helped the mandolin to become widely popular.


  1. P. 118. The Encyclopedia of Music. New York: Hermes House, 2002.
  2. The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (2nd Edition). "Quinterne [quintern]" . Retrieved 2015-03-20.
  3. Tyler, James (January 1981). "The Mandore in the 16th and 17th Centuries" (PDF). Early Music. 9 (1): 22–31. doi:10.1093/earlyj/9.1.22 . Retrieved 10 April 2019. ...the small, lute-like instrument of the Middle Ages called, until recently, the 'mandora' by modern writers, was originally called the 'gittern'...generally used for the small, four-course, renaissance guitar, but it was still also occasionally used (until well into the 17th century) for the instrument which, during the 16th century, became known as the 'mandore'. ... it is to the Spaniard Juan Bermudo that we must turn... in his Declaration de instrumentos (1555), Bermudo speaks of the bandurria...
  4. Meucci, Renato (2001). "Da 'chitarra italiana' a 'chitarrone': una nuova interpretazione". Enrico Radesca da Foggia e il suo tempo: Atti del Convegno di studi, Foggia, 7–8 Aprile 2000. pp. 30–57. ISBN   978-887096347-2.
  5. Tyler, James; Sparks, Paul (1992). The Early Mandolin. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp.  1–7. ISBN   0-19-816302-9.
  6. 1 2 Martin Kirnbauer; Musikwissenschaftl. Institut; Uni Basel. "Mittelalterliche Musikzeugnisse". Archived from the original on 2004-12-25. Retrieved 2010-12-06.
  7. "Unprofitable Instruments" . Retrieved 2010-12-06.
  8. 1 2 The Groves Dictionary of Musical Instruments (2nd Edition). "Mandore [Mandorre]" . Retrieved 2015-03-21.
  9. Medieval Art from Private Collections: A Special Exhibition at the Cloisters, October 30, 1968, Through March 30, 1969 : Introduction and Catalogue. 1968. p. 216.
  10. 1 2 The Groves Dictionary of Musical Instruments (2nd Edition). "Gittern [gyterne]" . Retrieved 2015-03-21.
  11. 1 2 Music in the age of Chaucer By Nigel Wilkins. Page 114. Published by DS Brewer, 1999
  12. The Canterbury tales By Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Tyrwhit. Page 93-94. Published by D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1870.
  13. Robert Boenig and Andrewy Tayler, editors, The Canterbury Tales, Second Edition, Broadview Press, Broadview Editions 2nd Edition, page 118, line 4396, ISBN   9781554811069.