A musical instrument fit for a queen: the metamorphosis of a Medieval citole

A musical instrument fit for a queen: the metamorphosis of a Medieval citole

By Philip Kevin, James Robinson, Susan La Niece, Caroline Cartwright and Chris Egerton

The British Museum Technical Research Bulletin, Vol.2 (2008)

Abstract: The British Museum’s citole is one of Britain’s earliest extant stringed instruments. Dating from around 1300–1330, its survival can be attributed to three factors: the quality of craftsmanship with its richly carved decorative elements, its association with Elizabeth I of England (1558–1603) and her favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and its modification to keep pace with changing musical fashion. Th e refurbishment of the Medieval galleries at the museum during 2007–2008 allowed an opportunity to re-evaluate past treatments of the instrument and investigate its present form scientifically. Throughout its history the instrument has undergone periodic repair, including the replacement of soundboards, fingerboards, strings and other fittings, but its magnificently carved boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) body, neck and headpiece remain virtually intact. Detailed examination of the citole components prior to and during conservation revealed previously suspected but unseen alterations. Radiography has been used to study features of the original construction as well as internal alterations which show that it could have been played with a bow. The metal elements have been identified by X-ray fluorescence analysis, while microscopic analysis enabled the identification of the wooden components. Interpreting past restorations and modifications allowed for informed judgements to be made about conservation treatments, while making more accessible important information about the instrument’s past.

The British Museum’s citole is an object of extreme rarity. A virtuoso example of the Medieval woodcarver’s craft , it is one of perhaps only four stringed instruments of comparable quality to have survived from the Medieval period. It is, however, a confusing hybrid. Part citole, part violin, it was described as a gittern by Francis Galpin in 1910, and the term stuck until 1977 when Laurence Wright extensively revised the terminology surrounding the gittern and related instruments. It was described as a ‘gittern’ (in inverted commas) by Mary Remnant and Richard Marks when they published their authoritative work on the instrument in 1980. The inverted commas reflected Remnant’s reluctance to accept Wright’s recent judgement, which she expressed in the following way: “While Wright’s reasons for changing the terminology certainly carry weight, and have been readily accepted by a good many organologists, there are others who feel the need for greater time in which to consider the matter before changing the long-accepted terminology”. After an extensive period for reflection, the British Museum co-hosted an informal seminar on the subject with the New Metropolitan University of London in 2003 and took the decision to adopt the term ‘citole’. The details of which characteristics precisely define the respective instruments remain subject to a degree of scholarly discussion.

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