A generic term for any chordophone played with a bow. It includes all such instruments, whether of art or popular music, and hybrid types which do not conform to any more standardized pattern. Colloquially, ‘fiddle’ is often used for a member of the violin family (seeViolin, §II, 1(i)) or for the Kit (‘dancing-master’s fiddle’). During the Middle Ages and early Renaissance the medieval versions of the word were used not only for bowed instruments in general, but also for one particular type, itself admitting much variety, which is known today as the ‘medieval fiddle’. It is with this type that the present article is mainly concerned, other types being discussed under their own specific names or countries of origin (seeRebec; Crwth; Viol).
Few bowed instruments have survived from the Middle Ages, so our knowledge of them must to a great extent be gained from visual and literary sources. Inevitably these are not always accurate, the artist or writer often exhibiting considerable artistic licence, ignorance, or humour, perhaps substituting a garden rake for a bow; the most usual skit, from the 13th century onwards, was to show bellows held at the shoulder and ‘bowed’ with a pair of tongs. A picture of an instrument can be regarded as completely trustworthy only if that instrument would work and the picture is free from careless ‘restoration’. Literary sources are also problematic. The writer of a treatise might describe one type of instrument but omit to mention its variants; compilers of general dictionaries were no more expertly knowledgeable on the subject of instruments than they are today. Chroniclers and poets, particularly when describing past events, would frequently mention instruments that they themselves knew even though the event concerned was several hundred years earlier: Robert Manning of Brunne, for instance, writing The Story of England in the 14th century, gave a vivid picture of minstrelsy at the court of King Arthur, but the ‘ffytheles, citoles, sautreours’ and other instruments were of his own day; King Arthur would have recognized few of them.
4. The bow.
5. Playing positions.
6. Historical development.
7. Professional fiddlers.
8. Use in liturgy and drama.
9. Feasts and dancing.
Among the distinct categories of instrument covered by the generic term fiddle are the rebec, usually with a pear-shaped or otherwise tapering outline and a vaulted back, and the crowd, a bowed lyre which was played mainly in northern Europe and which developed into the later Welsh crwth and Scandinavian jouhikantele or Stråkharpa (see alsoRotte (ii)). Other types sometimes overlapped so much that a clear differentiation between them is impossible, the problem made worse by the fact that some of these instruments could be either plucked or bowed.
One distinctive form, for which no independent medieval name seems to have survived, is known today by variants of ‘figure-of-eight fiddle’ or ‘medieval viol’ (Fr. vièle-de-gambe; Ger. Achtformfidel; It. viella-da-gamba; Sp. fidula en ocho), due to its shape being frequently (but not always) like a figure-of-eight, and to the instrument being played downwards in the lap with the bow gripped from below, in the manner of the much later viol of the Renaissance. It had no frets, often no fingerboard, and approximately three strings. This instrument was played in northern Europe from the early 12th century to about 1300, but also earlier and sometimes later in the south. It went out of fashion mainly because of the greater convenience of the instrument known in the more particular sense as the ‘medieval fiddle’, which could be played up at the shoulder while the performer was walking around or riding on horseback. This was widespread in Europe by the 13th century (see §§2 and 5 below).
Just as it is sometimes difficult to classify visual representations of the fiddle families, so it is often difficult to know which kind of instrument a writer had in mind, particularly during the 13th century when the ‘medieval viol’ and ‘medieval fiddle’ were both being played, and were both covered by the words ‘fithele’, ‘viella’, ‘vielle’, ‘fidel’, ‘viula’ etc., according to the language involved. Increasingly, though, after about 1300 it is most likely to be the fiddle that was intended by the writer. In the late Middle Ages the French word ‘vielle’ was also applied to instruments of the Hurdy-gurdy family. To decide which instrument was meant requires an awareness of the date, the instruments applicable, and the context. The English term ‘rybybe’, equated with ‘fidula’ in certain 15th-century dictionaries, seems to have been applied mostly to the rebec, to judge by descriptions of its performance and sound.
The outline of the medieval fiddle varied considerably, the most usual shapes being oval, elliptical or approximately rectangular, while a spade-like fiddle (fig.1) was common in southern Europe during the Romanesque and early Gothic periods. Many fiddles had incurved sides allowing for more versatility of bowing, although such indentations had already been known before the invention of the bow itself.
In early examples the design was first drawn around a template onto a slab of hard wood such as sycamore or maple and then hollowed out and cut around the edges in such a way that the back, sides and neck were all in one piece; this was varnished as required. A soundboard of soft wood such as pine, fir or spruce was then stuck on top, and soundholes were carved at appropriate places. These ranged from small perforations grouped in patterns, to round holes, semicircles, squares, rectangles or any appropriate design that occurred to the maker. The most usual type in northern Europe was a pair of C-shaped holes, one on each side of the strings (fig.2), though roses were frequently carved during the later Middle Ages. The f-shaped holes associated with the later violin family were already becoming known during this time. Some fiddles were elaborately decorated by carving, inlaid wood or jewels on the body of the instrument, while on others this decoration was restricted to the tailpiece and fingerboard, where it did not affect the sound. In south-eastern Europe the fiddle often had a skin belly, a characteristic which remains in the modern gusle.
Strings in Europe were generally made of gut, as described in the Secretum philosophorum of which several 14th- and 15th-century copies survive. The author described how the intestines of sheep are washed, soaked in red wine, dried, and three or four lengths twisted together to make the required thickness. The 13th-century Franciscan Bartholomeus Anglicus in his De proprietatibus rerum (trans. by John of Trevisa, 1398–9, in GB-Lbl Add.27944, f.142v) described the uses and dangers of the gut of wolves:
Strengis made of guttes of wolves destroyeth and fretith and corrumpith strengis made of guttis of schiepe, if it so be that they beth so sette among them as in fethele or in harpe.
Silk strings, which had long been known in Asia and the Arab countries, were referred to in the 13th-century treatise Summa musice and the 14th-century poem Busant, both of Germanic origin, while strings of horsehair were mentioned in the In psalmos, a commentary by the 14th-century English Franciscan, Henry of Cossey. At the upper end of the instrument the strings were wound upon pegs inserted either from above or below (sagittal pegs) into a flat or cup-shaped pegholder, or from the sides (lateral pegs) into one shaped as a sickle or scroll or deflected back at a sharp angle. At the lower end they were attached to a frontal stringholder, tailpiece, endpin or endpins. Up to the 13th century lateral pegs and a frontal stringholder tended to appear together in sources of southern influence, while in northern Europe sagittal pegs were accompanied by an endpin or tailpiece or both. However, this was not always the case, and particularly from the 14th century onwards most types of string fixing could be found in combination.
For the strings to be pressed down by the fingers, they needed to be raised above the level of the soundboard and neck of the instrument. A frontal stringholder fulfilled this function in itself, but with a tailpiece or its alternatives there was need for a bridge to support the strings. Throughout the Middle Ages bridges were often flat, thus enabling the performer to play on all strings at once for drone effects. To play a melody without drones some means of holding the strings at different levels was required. This could be a curved bridge, a flat one with grooves cut down to different depths, studs built to different heights (seeRebec, fig.2) or other devices to create the same effect. To trace the history of curved bridges is a difficult problem, as early medieval artists often showed the full front view of an instrument, in such a position that the bridge would appear as a straight line even if in fact it was meant to be curved. There is some indication, however, that curved bridges were already known from the Romanesque era onwards. In many pictures and carvings there is no bridge visible at all, and this occurs far too often for it to have been an omission on the part of the artist. On such an instrument the tailpiece had feet (or some other means of support), thus combining its function with that of a bridge (fig.3). When seen from straight ahead these feet would not be visible, giving the illusion that the artist had left out a support for the strings. In other cases the tailpiece rested on a bridge wider than itself, as can be seen in the Cantígas de Santa María (E-E b-I-2, f.46v) of Alfonso X of Castile, and in paintings by Sano di Pietro, Stefan Lochner and many others. Such a device allowed for a longer sounding length of string than if the bridge were separate, and consequently for a lower pitch.
The presence of a fingerboard was not universal. In earlier fiddles it was often absent, as it was in later ones with a frontal stringholder (which would not raise the strings high enough for a fingerboard to be necessary). A fingerboard is generally found on fiddles with a tailpiece and bridge (or a device combining both in one); it was occasionally tilted up from the neck by a wedge (fig.5), as was the fingerboard of early violins. Frets are to be seen in certain pictures of fiddles from about 1300 onwards (see fig.3 above), and their wide spacing in some examples suggests that a change of hand position may have been necessary for reaching the higher notes. As position-changing seems to have been known on some contemporary citoles, it cannot be ruled out in the case of certain fretted fiddles. (However, it is always possible that the widely spaced frets may have been due to artistic error).
The best type of fiddle seems to have combined a clear demarcation between the body and the neck (even when they were made in one piece) and a flat or almost flat back; most fiddles displayed at least one of these characteristics. It often had five strings, one of which could be a lateral drone or bordunus, to be plucked by the left thumb or touched by the bow as required (fig.6). The pegbox was of an inverted cup shape. Although this fiddle continued in Italy until it was merged into the lira da braccio in the 15th century, the bordunus went out of fashion in England before 1400. (Research is needed in other countries to find out whether they lost the bordunus, not only for the knowledge itself, but also for the more authentic performance of medieval music). Another type of fiddle had no drone string but five strings over the fingerboard. From the writings of Albertus Magnus, Hieronymus de Moravia and others, it seems clear that a five-string fiddle was considered the best. Visual sources indicate, however, that any number of strings from two to six was quite usual, and even more than six may occasionally be found. Sometimes four strings appear to be arranged in two courses, or six in three; the following groupings can regularly be seen (‘+1’ referring to a lateral drone): 2; 3; 3+1; 4; 4+1; 5; 6; 2+2; 2+2+1; 2+2+2. It used to be assumed that the medieval fiddle had a soundpost to support the belly and transmit vibrations to the back of the instrument but later there was a reaction against this theory. If the soundpost did exist before the 16th century, definite evidence of it has yet to appear.
A fiddle of hybrid construction, which belonged to St Caterina de’ Vigri (1413–63), survives in the Corpus Domini monastery at Bologna, of which she became the abbess after its foundation in 1456. Its body and neck are made from one piece of maple, and part of the soundboard is supported below by a bar, but there is no soundpost. It had four strings. A very similar fiddle, although proportionately larger, can be seen on a 15th-century corbel at the church of All Saints, Broad Chalke, Wiltshire.
In 1981–2 the remains of two fiddles were discovered on Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose, which sank in the Solent in 1545 (fig.7). In each case the soundboard and back survive separately, but in one example the extant side is carved in one piece with the back. There is no indentation of the sides, a characteristic found in many contemporary representations of fiddles, such at that at Altarnun in Cornwall (see fig.8 below). (Other items such as pegs, bridges and tailpieces were not found.)
The variety shown above indicates that the fiddle had no universal tuning. The frequent grouping of strings in pairs suggests that each course would be tuned to one note, or to a note and its octave, and this is confirmed in surviving descriptions of fiddle tuning by two writers. Hieronymus de Moravia (d after 1271) gave three different tunings for the ‘viella’, the first one having a bordunus which could be touched by the bow or left thumb as required: d/G–g–d'–d', d–G–g–d'–g' and G–G–d–c'–c'. The pitch was not absolute. Hieronymus showed that in the first tuning the fingers could stop all the strings placed over the fingerboard, but that a complete scale could not be played from the bottom G upwards. This situation is remedied in the second tuning, which caters for lais and other ‘greatly irregular melodies’ that need to be played all over the fingerboard. The third tuning again cannot produce an unbroken scale from the bottom note to the top and a later annotation by Pierre de Limoges says that the first G should be a bordunus.
Johannes Tinctoris, a Fleming working in Naples in about 1487, wrote that the bow could play on one string at a time and that the ‘viola’ had three strings tuned in 5ths or five strings tuned in 5ths and unisons. He did not give any specific pitch.
From these different tunings and string arrangements it seems clear that the fiddler, who may often have made his own instrument, decided on the tuning and pitch according to the music he was to play. One vital factor was the shape of the bridge or its equivalent. If the strings could be played separately there would be great freedom in the choice of tuning, within the conventions of the time. If, however, they sounded all together, the strings would have to be tuned in such a way that those which were unstopped at any given moment would produce a suitable accompaniment, as drones, to the fingered melody.
4. The bow.
The bow, or ‘fydylstyk’, was originally curved like its hunting prototype, thus answering to the Latin names ‘arcus’ and ‘arculus’. The rosined horsehairs were knotted through or wound round each end of the stick, or else fixed some way in from one end to leave a handle. Sometimes the bow was made from a cleft stick, one side having been broken off to leave a nut to which the hairs could be attached; by the end of the Middle Ages built-up nuts were made specially for this purpose. From the 13th century onwards there was an increased variety of bow shapes. While the arched type continued, experiments produced bows with a less pronounced curve, some which were quite straight, and others which were even slightly concave (like those of today). Yet another type expanded the breadth of its arc considerably in the upper half (see fig.2). The handle was often carefully fashioned, and several 15th-century paintings show a knob at the end, perhaps a device for securing the hairs. A bow would no doubt be selected to suit the instrument concerned (according to its shape and whether the strings could be played separately or not) or the music to be played, a long bow being more suitable for slow-moving music such as drones, and a short one for lively dances. Often there was no particular distinction between bows made for the fiddle, rebec, crwth or medieval viol (although for the latter they were sometimes more elaborate), and it seems that most of them were interchangeable.
5. Playing positions.
The manner of holding the instrument depended on the music involved and, to a certain extent, on local custom. For difficult music it would have been held up at the shoulder, while for simple parts, particularly drones, it could point downwards in varying degrees. In Germanic countries it was frequently held across the chest, supported by a strap, as is the surviving Wendish husla (seeMinnesang, fig.2). Any of these positions enabled the performer to play while walking. Some continental pictures, however, show the instrument being played down in the lap (such a position was suitable for stopping the strings from the side with the nails rather than the fingertips), but this was rare in England except in the case of the medieval viol.
The manner of holding the bow depended on its shape and the position in which the instrument was held. Sometimes the stick was gripped by the whole fist, while at other times it was held in a way very similar to the violin bow grip of today. Pictures frequently show two fingers on each side of the stick. Occasionally the thumb pressed on the bow-hairs, thereby regulating their tension.
6. Historical development.
The history of the fiddle is obscured, particularly in its early stages from which so little iconographical evidence survives, because the word was used to cover such varied instruments. At first the word ‘fiddle’ did not imply the use of a bow. An example being in the Evangelienbuch (c870 ce) of Otfried von Weissenburg where the ‘fidula’ was certainly plucked. At that time bowing was only beginning to spread outwards from Central Asia, where it is thought to have originated from the hunting bow. This new method of playing was known in Spain and southern Italy in the 10th century. It came via the Arabic lands and Byzantium, where the rabāb and lūrā respectively were known to be played with a bow (similar instruments are still being used in north Africa and the Balkans). By the mid-11th century bowing was known throughout the greater part of northern Europe on instruments of the rebec family, while in the south the medieval viol was making its appearance, together with large experimental fiddles also played downwards (see Bachmann, pl.1, for 10th-century examples).
The medieval fiddle in its specific sense is shown in Byzantine manuscripts such as the Theodore Psalter (GB-Lbl Add.19352, f.191; Bachmann, pl.11), which dates from 1066. Its use by the troubadours, some of whom passed through Byzantium on crusading routes, is confirmed by many French sources during the next 100 years. One of them is the seal of Bertrand II, Count of Forcalquier, dating from 1168; on one side he is seen on horseback, while on the other he is seated playing a large fiddle which points downwards from his shoulder (F-Pan, Collection de Sceaux, Supplement 4512 et bis; for facsimile see Page, 1986, p.7).
Only from the 13th century onwards does the fiddle appear regularly in the visual arts of England. Its chief structural alterations (apart from the variety in shape) after this time concerned the back and sides, which before the 14th century were generally carved from one piece of wood. After about 1300 they were increasingly built up from several pieces, often with overlapping edges, to produce lighter instruments than had been known hitherto. Among other developments around the same time were the introduction of frets on certain fiddles, and a more frequent use of curved bridges.
In late 15th-century Italy, important developments took place which did not spread much to other countries at that time: the fiddle with a lateral drone string developed into the lira da braccio, while the droneless type with indented sides led to the Renaissance viola da braccio and to the violin. (The term viola da braccio, like ‘fiddle’, has been used for different instruments at different times and in 16th-century Italy may also have included instruments of the violin family.) In northern Europe, however, the medieval fiddle continued longer in use, one of its late shapes having a more or less rectangular body. This is seen clearly on a bench-end of after 1523 in St Nonna’s church, Altarnun, Cornwall (fig.8), where the instrument is very similar to those found in the Mary Rose (fig.7), and is played at the shoulder.
The Renaissance viol developed in the late 15th century and the violin emerged around 1500, and they, together with the Italian instruments mentioned above, gradually supplanted the various types of medieval fiddle. Virdung, in his Musica Getutscht of 1511, described and illustrated viols and rebecs but made no mention of fiddles, which he must have known but considered old-fashioned. Martin Agricola did the same in the 1528 edition of his Musica instrumentalis deudsch, although in the 1545 edition he mentioned Polish fiddles with four strings tuned in fifths; these were touched by the fingernails and produced vibrato. Unfortunately Agricola did not illustrate them.
7. Professional fiddlers.
The fiddle was played in all strata of society from the nobility to the peasantry. Some professional fiddlers were unruly minstrels who would have been classified by Thomas de Chobham, in his Summa confessorum (c1216) as ‘damnabiles’, while others held worthy positions in noble households, sometimes combined with other duties such as those of a groom or footman. They wore, as did civic minstrels, special livery to denote their office. While some must have known how to read music, others relied on improvisation and learning from memory tunes which were passed from one musician to another. During Lent, when there was less entertaining to be done, they could go to special schools of minstrelsy to replenish their repertory, polish their technique and buy new instruments. Merlin, a ‘vidulator’ at the court of Edward III, was given leave to go to minstrel schools on the Continent in February 1334 and received a grant towards his expenses. (It is known that around this time there were celebrated schools for fiddlers at Mechelen, Ypres and Deventer.) Other occasions for going abroad came when minstrels travelled with their employers. Fiddlers were in the retinue of Princess Eleanor, the sister of Edward III, when she went to the Low Countries in 1332 to become the Countess of Guelders; and Snyth Fydeler was one of several minstrels who accompanied Henry V to Agincourt in 1415. In a similar manner foreign fiddlers visited England, either with their own masters or to serve English ones. Such were Bestrudus and Beruche, two ‘vidulatores’ from Geneva who spent some time at the court of Edward I in 1302. (It is possible that they were players of the medieval viol rather than the fiddle, the date being still within the time when a ‘vidulator’ could have played either instrument.)
As part of their duties, minstrels often dressed up as angels, animals, grotesques and even devils, and as such they gave pleasure to their audiences and inspiration to pictorial artists and sculptors.
8. Use in liturgy and drama.
The customary church instrument, where it could be afforded, was the organ. Other instruments were sometimes forbidden and sometimes welcomed by the church, just as the pendulum swung over the same matter during the 20th century. The 12th-century Codex Calixtinus (E-SC) at Santiago de Compostela tells how, during the night vigil for the feast of the Translation of St James the Great, minstrels of different countries played their string, wind and percussion instruments by the light of hundreds of candles in the cathedral; the bowed instruments that they played on were, in the ablative case, ‘violis’ (seeSantiago de Compostela). Somewhat later, Raoul d’Argences, Abbot of Fécamp from 1190 to 1220, drew up a charter allowing members of the local confrérie des jongleurs to play on their instruments in the abbey church, but we do not know if they took part in the actual liturgy. There are, however, many instances of fiddlers playing in church on completely non-liturgical occasions. The 13th-century Dit des Taboureurs tells how Petrus Iverni of Sigelar sang and played hymns on his fiddle in the church of Notre Dame at Rocamadour. Another occasion was when Princess Eleanor went to the Low Countries in 1332 (see §7 above). She stopped at St Paul’s Cathedral, and while she made an offering at the great Crux borealis in the North Chapel, music was played by several fiddlers.
From the liturgy there sprang liturgical drama. While the evidence of instrumental participation in this is slight (a notable exception being the Play of Daniel), it is more pronounced for mystery and miracle plays, although the frequent rubric ‘Minstrelles playe’ is frustratingly vague. When particular instruments are specified the fiddle is not included. A possible exception is in the Coventry Pageant of the Shearmen and Taylors, where Herod says:
And the whyle thatt I do resst,
Trompettis, viallis andother armone
Schall bles the wakying of my maieste,
but as the manuscript of the play was written c1535, ‘viallis’ could have meant the Renaissance viols, which were then superseding the old fiddles. In the Innsbruck Himmelfahrt play, however, the rubric instructs Jesus to be accompanied from the stage by two fiddlers (‘exit Ihesus cum suis angelis, procedit cum vialatoribus’). Further information can be gleaned from the visual arts, such as a stained glass window in the south aisle of York Minster, where a scene from Herod’s feast shows a fiddler who has just played for Salome’s dance. M.D. Anderson (Drama and Imagery in English Medieval Churches, Cambridge, 1963, pp.92–3) has pointed out that the picture could be based on actual drama.
Other directions within plays, both sacred and secular, often refer to music, but less frequently specify which instruments are to be used, perhaps to allow for the availability of different ones according to circumstances. Sometimes a fiddle is mentioned, however, as in Gammer Gurton’s Needle, an English play dating from the reign of Edward VI (although what type of fiddle was meant in this mid-16th-century source is again open to question):
In the meane time felowes, pype upp your fiddles,
I saie take them
And let your freyndes here such mirth as ye
can make them.
Thomas Preston’s play Cambises (printed in 1569) contains the lines
They be at hand sir with stick and fidle
The can play a new daunce called Hey didle didle.
and by 1587 there was an inn called the ‘Catte and Fidle’ at Old Chaunge. By that time the ‘fidle’ was probably the violin, but the instrument in John Skelton’s The Garlande of Laurelle (1523) is more likely to have been the old medieval one:
And what blunderar is yonder
that playth didil diddil?
He fyndith fals mesuris out of
his fonde fiddill.
The subject of the ‘cat and fiddle’ is represented in art numerous times from the 13th century onwards.
9. Feasts and dancing.
From the moment a guest arrived at a feast, there was music, as described in this extract from Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle (15th century):
Trompettis mette hem at the gate,
Clarions of siluer redy therate,
Serteyne wythoutyn lette;
Harpe, fedylle, and sawtry,
Lute, geteron, and menstracy,
Into the halle hem fett.
Inside the hall, minstrels would accompany the food-bearers to the high table. The Queen Mary Psalter (GB-Lbl Roy.II.B.VII, ff.184v–185) shows a single fiddler doing this, while on the 14th-century Braunche brass at St Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn, the instruments are a fiddle and gittern behind one dish, and a shawm and two trumpets behind another. They may have been played in alternate groups, being shown together here for the sake of the picture. Entertainment during a feast included the singing of epic songs accompanied generally by a harp or fiddle or both, performance by groups of instruments alone and elaborate interludes between courses. At the feast of Westminster, which took place on Whit Sunday 1306 in Westminster Hall (the occasion on which Edward I knighted his son, who was soon to become Edward II), over 160 minstrels were present, including at least 12 ‘vidulatores’. One of these was Tomasin, the prince’s own fiddler, while others had come in the retinues of the earls of Warwick, Arundel and Lancaster. Further prominent figures were Nicholas de Caumbray, ‘vidulator’ to the King of France, and ‘Le Roy Druet’, who was one of the most important fiddlers in England, being entitled ‘King of the Minstrels’. While we know from the payment list which instruments were played by most of the minstrels present, there is no known description of the actual musical events which took place. More substantial information of this nature comes from the Feast of the Pheasant, held by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, on 17 February 1454, at the Palais de la Salle, Lille. One of the many musical interludes which issued forth from the famous pie (if ‘pasté’ really meant a pie in this context) was a song sung by a lady called Pacquette, accompanied by a lute and two ‘vielles’ (a term applied both to fiddles and to members of the hurdy-gurdy family) played by Jehan de Cordoval and Jehan Fernandez, two blind musicians from Portugal who were in the service of the duchess.
After feasting came dancing, with instruments as described in Launfal (c1400):
They hadde menstrales of moch honours,
Fydelers, sytolyrs, and trompours,
And elles hyt were unryght;
Ther they playde, for sothe to say,
After mete the somerys day,
All what hyt was neygh nyght.
Dancing in other settings is also well documented. Moniot d’Arras, in his song Ce fut en mai, described how a knight and a lady danced outside in springtime to the music of a ‘viele’. In Sir Beves de Hamtoun (c1300), Iosian, a princess incognita, ‘had lerned … upon a fithele for to play Staumpes, notes, garibles gay’.
For general entertainment the fiddle was used to accompany singers, to provide music for acrobats and performing animals, and to enrich events. A good musician generally played several instruments: the troubadour Guiraut de Calanson named many which a good jongleur should be able to play, but added that he should also throw up apples and catch them on knives, imitate the songs of birds, and jump through four hoops. The wandering minstrels from Gascony were particularly adept at such arts.
Very little medieval music was composed for specific instruments; the performer evidently played on whatever was available and suitable for the occasion. The only known medieval piece to imply by its title the use of a bowed instrument is the 13th-century textless motet In seculum viellatoris, and considering its date it could have involved the medieval viol or the fiddle. However, the wide range of the repertory is indicated by Johannes de Grocheio’s statement (c1300) that the ‘viella’ could play ‘every cantus and cantilena and every musical form’, which implicitly acknowledges the frequent use of curved bridges or their equivalent. The following suggestions as to what we may infer about the repertory of the medieval fiddle are based on descriptions by contemporary writers, known medieval performing practice, traditional heterophony as played on folk instruments today, and the author’s own experience with medieval-type fiddles.
The use of fiddles in plainsong is conjectural, but judging from pictures of them in Corpus Christi processions, it is likely that they may at least have doubled the singers in hymns such as the Pange lingua gloriosi. There was more scope for them in completely non-liturgical settings, such as when a king was making an offering in church, or in plays when ‘heavenly music’ was required. Antiphons such as the Salve regina could have been most suitably played on a fiddle on such occasions.
Monophonic songs are the earliest surviving examples of secular medieval music, but their performance was not restricted to the voice. A fiddle could take part either by playing a song as an instrumental solo (with or without ornamentation and drones, according to the nature of the piece) or as an accompaniment to the voice, by doubling it, playing parallel to it at a given interval (according to the conventions of the period and the country concerned), playing in heterophony around it, droning, or providing a prologue (an ‘inguoinge of the vithele’), interludes between verses, and an epilogue. Of course a fiddle might do these things in combination with other instruments instead of, or in addition to, the voice, and the fiddler often accompanied his own singing.
If a fiddler was involved in polyphony, whether sacred or secular, he might play any part in a completely instrumental performance (with no voices), or double the voices (with or without ornamentation), or else play one part (e.g. the tenor in a motet) in consort with singers and/or other instrumentalists.
Tinctoris left a first-hand account of fiddlers performing:
… a recent event, the performance of two Flemings, the brothers Charles and Jean Orbus, who are no less learned in letters than skilled in music. At Bruges, I heard Charles take the treble and Jean the tenor in many songs, playing [the] ‘viola’ so expertly and with such charm that the ‘viola’ has never pleased me so well.
Although the song ‘Kalenda maya’ by Raimbaut de Vaqeiras is based on a dance that he heard played by two Provençal fiddlers at the court of Monferrato (c1198), purely instrumental dances survive from the 13th century onwards; these include examples of the estampie, trotto, saltarello and basse danse. Numerous pictures show the fiddle being played for dancing, and the surviving dance music is, on the whole, most suitable for it, with or without other instruments. Some of the early dances can take drone accompaniment to good advantage, and could therefore be played on a fiddle with a flat bridge. Pictorial evidence suggests that in the 15th-century basse danse a fiddle with a curved bridge might have provided the cantus firmus while a pipe and tabor improvised above.
As the fiddle is a comparatively soft-toned (‘bas’) instrument, it was generally used in consort with others of a similar strength. Plucked instruments were its usual companions, the harp appearing with it throughout its history, and the psaltery for most of that time. The citole was a regular companion in the 13th century and the 14th, when its place was gradually taken by the gittern and the lute. Sources seldom show the rebec in duet with the fiddle, and reconstructed instruments show that the combination of their two sounds in the same register is often unpleasant. A fiddle could, however, play a useful drone below a rebec’s melody, and in larger groups of instruments any jarring between their sounds could be offset by different tone-colours. As the fiddle superseded the medieval viol, their appearance in duet form is rare, but two fiddles are often seen being played together. Among wind instruments the portative organ appears often with the fiddle from about 1300 onwards, and from somewhat earlier the pipe and tabor, or single pipe, which led to the recorder. A good many pictures, however, show the fiddle in company with loud instruments, such as the shawm, bagpipes or trumpet, and it should be borne in mind that a fiddler playing on five strings at once could make a loud enough noise to hold his own against these. Percussion instruments seen playing with the fiddle include the melodic chime bells, as well as the rhythmic tabor, timbrel, triangle and clappers, the last being the ancestors of the castanets. In large groups of musicians the fiddle could be found in company with any of the instruments of its time. Representations in the visual arts, however, must be treated with caution, regarding both the instruments themselves and their setting. While an apparently normal group of musicians is sometimes set in symbolic context, more unlikely minstrels such as angels and grotesques are frequently based on the professional entertainers who dressed up as part of their trade. Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that, although they are often symbolic, pictorial sources may often be taken at their face value, and that a cat playing a fiddle may, in certain circumstances, represent nothing more than a cat playing a fiddle.