Musical Instruments

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the September 1997, A.S. XXXII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

Wandering the camps at night, the thing that marks an SCA event is the sounds. Most camps are dark shadows studded by the pinpricks of light from candles and lanterns, anonymous in the darkness. But it is the sounds that give them life and individuality. And the sounds with the most character are those of musical instruments. From the drums of Rolling Thunder to the guitar of Eric Hlodowedssun there exudes a magic that can make an event memorable. What follows is a brief history of some of the more prominent instruments.

The first instrument most people first try is the recorder. Simple to learn yet capable of playing a wide range of tunes, this instrument is the most ubiquitous at any SCA event. The recorder first appeared in the fourteenth century, though similar instruments have existed since the beginning of history. The term recorder actually covers a family of instruments of various sizes. Praetorius reports around 1600 of eight different sizes ranging over the entire scale. The most common found is the alto recorder. During the period this instrument was commonly called a flute. The instrument we call the flute existed and was known as a fife or cross flute. Modern recorders were first constructed in 1919 based on Baroque designs.

The next most common instrument is the drum. Of all the variations, the two most common are the bodhrian and the dumbec, neither which were common in Europe during the Middle Ages. While something like the dumbec appeared just prior 10th century, and disappeared again couple centuries later. The bodhrian is shallower still as could easily be confused in appearance with the tabor or tambourine. But it is certainly true that the tightening system seen on current bodhrians was not invented till the late Renaissance. Period drums were tightened with ropes. The most common drum in the period was the naker, a small kettledrum used in pairs that were brought back from the Middle East during the Crusades.

Another common instrument is the guitar. The classical guitar of today is actually from the early 19th century, but a guitar-like instrument could be found throughout the period under a number of names. The principal difference between these early instruments and the modern guitar is that they were usually stringed with four double strings. The other central difference is the varying proportions of the sounding body. They could also come with or without frets.

A special case of the guitar is the lute which has a rounded back as opposed to the flat back of the guitar. The lute tended to be restricted to the upper class as it was of lighter construction, which made it more fragile. It thus also more likely to go out of tune. One satirical remark had it that an eighty year old lute player would have spent sixty years tuning his lute.

Draw a bow across one these guitar-like instruments and you now have a fiddle. Like the guitar, the fiddle had a number incarnations during the period, its final form did not occur till the 18th century. An interesting aspect of the fiddle is that period illustrations show the fiddle not only played under the chin, but across the body like a guitar, on the lap, or on the leg like a viola.

Other stringed instruments that can be heard at SCA events are the harp and the dulcimer. The harp is, of course, other ancient instrument and it did not change much during the course of the period. There did evolved two variants, principally one with wire strings which tended to be larger and more massive, and one with gut strings.

The dulcimer evolved out the psaltery around the 15th century, the former being struck while the latter was plucked. The dulcimer's popularly lasted for only a little over a century, while the psaltery was mechanized and became the harpsichord, which evolved into the piano.

One instrument frequently pictured but rarely heard at SCA events is the trumpet. The medieval trumpet is basically a brass tube with mouthpiece at one end and a bell horn at the other. The number of notes is limited by its length, the longer it is, the more notes that can be played. Thus its use tended to be limited to ceremonial fanfares. In the 15th century it was learned how to bend these tubes, thus allowing longer trumpets in a more compact form. However, it was not till the Baroque period that the trumpet came onto its own.

I would like to end this essay discussing two instruments that while almost never heard at SCA events, played an important part of medieval life: bells and the organ. These instruments were usually associated with the church, both because they were expansive and large and difficult to transport, though portable versions did exist. Bells rang out the canonical hours, time for Mass, and warnings. Organs were used to liven up the Mass, and thus were not at first easily accepted by church leaders, who eventually bowed to the inevitable. What is lesser known is that organ as basically Roman technology, though it was the Byzantines who made it practical. The Byzantine emperor gave Pepin an air driven organ in 757. From this seed the organ spread throughout Europe.

This short essay does not begin to exhaust the variety of instruments that existed in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance experienced an explosion of instruments. In some of these can be glimpsed our modern instruments, others are now obscure and forgotten. Yet they are all just as important to contributing to the atmosphere of the SCA. And while boomboxes were several centuries in the future, the medieval person was no less surrounded by music then we are today. Such was the importance of music that Castiglione in his influential book "The Book of the Courtier", declared that one had to be able to play an instrument before one could be considered a gentleman. May the night camps be filled with music.



Encyclopedia Britannica. ed. Chicago 1986.

Ford, Boris, ed. The Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain, Vol. 2: The Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lacroix, Paul. The Arts in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. London: Bracken Books, 1996.

Montagu, Jeremy. The World of Medieval and Renaissance Musical Instruments. London: David & Charles Ltd., 1980.

Roche, Jerome, and Elizabeth Roche. A Dictionary of Early Music: from the Troubadours to Monteverdi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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