Instrumental Music in Medieval Wales

Instrumental Music in Medieval Wales

By Sally Harper

North American Journal of Welsh Studies, Vol. 4:1 (2004)

Introduction: A late medieval manor house by the River Tamar on the Cornish border contains a remarkable testimony of a uniquely Welsh art-form. The early sixteenth-century Cothele “tester,” once a cupboard front, comprises a series of carved oak panels arranged around a central inscription bearing the name of one Harri ap Gr[uffudd]. The upper right panel depicts two musicians in courtly attire. The first holds in his left hand a rectangular crwth with a flat bridge (an instrument by then almost obsolete in England); his right hand, now missing, held the bow. His colleague has a small triangular harp with a curved neck.

The carving is damaged and its detail only approximate: the Welsh crwth at that period usually had six strings rather than five, and the harp between 25 and 30 rather than 15 strings. Nevertheless, it captures a quintessentially Welsh scene, a form of music-making known to the Welsh as cerdd dant, or the art of the string. This was music of high cultural status, a natural partner to the equally elevated poetic form of cerdd dafod (“the art of the tongue”) that it complemented and sometimes accompanied. Craftsmen within both areas were honored as gwŷr wrth gerdd, literally, “men at their art.”

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