Evidence and Intuition: Making Medieval Instruments
Early Music America (Fall 2005)
The Atlakvida (The Lay of Attila), an 8th-or early 9th-century story from the Old Icelandic Edda, contains a description of music performed under the most difficult circumstances: “The living prince they placed in the pit – a crowd of men did it – which was crawling inside with snakes; and Gunnar, alone, furiously struck his harp with his hand. The strings resounded….” In one version of the story, Gunnar, being bound, plays the harp with his toes.
This brief passage contains a world of information about Medieval heroes, but it doesn’t tell us much about how Gunnar played the harp – with his fingers or his toes. And if you want to know how many strings the harp had or how they were fixed, the Atlakvida will not answer those questions for you.
Yet Ben Bagby plays (with his hands) a harp he believes is much like Gunnar’s. And across America, other performers are playing bone flutes, lyres, gitterns, vielles, cruits, hurdy-gurdys, ttun-ttuns, rotas, and citoles – instruments built by makers who have combined art history, archaeology, materials science, acoustics, etymology, history, anthropology, sociology, physics, and musicology to re-create Medieval instruments that no one has held in their hands for centuries.