Citole

Vielle Gittern

Housed in the British Museum is one of the most extraordinary extant medieval instruments. Dating from the early fourteenth century, this is the only surviving citole, a type of plucked instrument. Its edges are covered with intricate carvings depicting woodland scenes with real and imaginary creatures. This particular instrument was modified in the sixteenth century, and turned into a violin for Queen Elizabeth I. Thus the soundboard, fingerboard, and other fittings all postdate the Middle Ages. The body, however, is original and remarkably unscathed.

My citole is copied from the original, which I have been able to study in detail. In making this reproduction, I sought to approximate the body shape as nearly as I could, restoring obvious alterations. There are still many unknowns, such as the thickness of the walls, which hopefully will be illuminated by further scientific study. The original fittings and set-up have been lost, of course, so my reproduction represents my best understanding of these at this time.

What is a citole?

The citole is a little understood latecomer to the early music revival. Part of its difficulty comes from a lack of a clear idea of what a citole is. Fortunately, with the survival of the British Museum Citole, we have an example of one thing which a citole might be. However, judging from surviving iconography, instruments of many shapes and characteristics were all called citoles. Thus any problem that we have identifying them is not merely something of the twentieth century, but is a result of an ambiguous definition in the middle ages. However, a good working definition would be that a citole is a plucked stringed instrument, popular in Europe roughly 1200-1400 (with numerous regional fluctuations in popularity), which has a short neck and which does not have a rounded body. Rounded body instruments fall into the category of lutes and gitterns. Anything else (?!) may be called a citole.

One difficulty we have to deal with is that for much of the twentieth century the nomenclature of citoles and gitterns has been confused. In a 1977 article in the Galpin Society Journal, Laurence Wright matched the correct instrument back with its correct name. Essentially, a gittern has a rounded back and body, like a small lute, while a citole can have a variety of shapes. It is only within the past year that the citole in the British Museum has been displayed as a citole rather than a gittern.

Nomenclature aside, part of the legitimate confusion about the citole is that medieval citoles had a wide variety of characteristics in iconography. Defining the citole as a plucked instrument with a distinct neck and body, as opposed to the rounded shape of the gittern, includes a wide array of instruments. Body shape varies from a pointy holly leaf shape to a rounded guitar shape, with countless variations between them. The unusual tapered body with a thumbhole that the surviving instrument has can be seen distinctly in some carvings and drawings, but so can a simpler 'fiddle' construction, with a flat back and simple neck. Most iconographic sources do not have enough detail to tell much about their construction. The majority of citole reconstructions made in the past 30 years have been fiddle-type citoles rather than thumbhole-type citoles.

Aspects such as tuning and repertoire, even string material, plectra, and fretting, are still largely unanswered questions, awaiting the concerted efforts of modern scholars, builders, and players to find what works in practice.

Iconographic Sources

The citole appears frequently in medieval artwork. It can be found adorning cathedral doorways and margins of manuscripts. These samples of iconography show the variety of features.


Tickhill Psalter, c. 1303-1313; Guitar shaped citole with thumbhole


Lincoln Cathedral, c. 1275, Fiddle-type citole with neck and peg disk


A Peterborough Psalter in Oxford, early 14th c; small dragon-headed citole


Peterborough Psalter c. 1299-1315; Holly leaf citole with dragon head on long neck


Robert De Lisle Psalter, 1330s; Citole with thumbhole and dragon head.

My reconstruction

The Body

The British Museum citole was made from a giant piece of boxwood. Unfortunately, box trees do not grow that large anymore, so I used maple instead. The entire body — back, sides, and neck — is made from one piece of wood. It has a keel-shaped back, with a central ridge extending towards the pegbox. The opposite end has a trefoil-shaped extension, which provides a convenient rest on your arm.


Soundboard and Rose

The British Museum citole currently bears an anachronistic violin top. While the violin soundboard is important for many reasons, it bears no resemblance to the soundboard which the citole originally had. The violin soundboard is carved into a vaulted shape; were it to be taken off, it would sit flat on a table and arch away from the table in the center. However, I believe that the original soundboard was a flat piece of wood bent to shape. It is apparent upon examining the ribline on the surviving boxwood body that it originally accommodated such a bent top, and parts of it have been lowered to accept the current arched top.


The number, shape, and size of soundholes vary in iconographic representations. For this instrument, I chose to copy, among others, the De Lisle citole, which has a large central rose. I took the pattern for the rose from the carvings on the Winchester choir stalls, which were made by a Norwich mason in 1308.


Pegs and strings

One alteration which has been made to the original citole in the British Museum is the reconfiguring of the pegs. When it was converted into a violin, it was given lateral pegs and a pegbox, like a violin. However, traces remain of two plugged holes directly in front of the dragon's mouth, which lead me to believe that originally the citole had frontal pegs. The existing holes and remaining space indicated that the citole originally had six strings. Since the neck is too narrow to accommodate six individual strings, I paired them into three courses. I currently have the instrument tuned in fifths, D-A-E, although tunings of a fifth and a fourth, or all fourths, work equally well to meet the needs of the performer.


BM citole head showing plugged holes for frontal citole pegs


My reconstruction with frontal pegs

Fingerboard, Bridge, and Frets

The neck of the BM Citole rises above the top rib line by about 1.0 cm (although this area shows signs of being tampered with, I believe that there was always a significant rise above the soundboard). The rise indicates that the fingerboard was higher than the soundboard, and that the bridge was also higher than we normally consider plucked-stringed instrument bridges to be. However, some carvings, most noticeably the citole in Lincoln Cathedral, have high bridges. I placed the bridge at the point of the body where the outline curve changes from convex to concave. This point is also 1/3 of the total length.


Some iconographic citoles have tailpieces, while on others the strings attach directly in the trefoil area. The British Museum citole had some kind of large, tapered hole at the base of the trefoil, as does the DeLisle Psalter citole. A peg could have stuck through this hole, and the strings wrapped around it, or somehow the strings were secured within the hole. On my reproduction, I took the simple method of using a tailpiece and looping tailgut around the base of the trefoil, as is done in the Peterborough Psalter.

Nearly all reliable pictures of citoles show frets. With the neck/thumbhole configuration, tying frets would be impossible, so I made wooden frets. The number of frets varies on iconography, but I put on seven chromatic frets, to fill in the fifth between strings. I tuned them to 1/3 comma meantone. (A compromise, admittedly)

Further Developments and Citole News

Overall, I am quite happy with how my citole has turned out. It has a wonderful, bright timbre which carries well. The shape of the body and neck, so intimidatingly strange, fits comfortably in ones arms. However, there are aspects to it which I am curious about experimenting with. Some of these are setup issues, such as bridge placement, frets, tuning, and fingerboard height. Another issue is one of size: while this is the size of the surviving instrument, iconographic sources depict citoles of this size and larger.

The British Museum citole was the subject of a Masters Thesis which I wrote at the University of Minnesota. Treating that particular instrument as the subject, the thesis considers its origins (East Anglia in the early fourteenth century) using art historical and social evidence. It then continues to trace as closely as possible what has happened to the instrument over its 700 year life. The thesis, "Retelling the Story of the English Gittern in the British Museum: An Organological Study, ca. 1300 - Present," by Kathryn E Buehler, 2002, is available through Interlibrary Loan.

My article "The British Museum Citole: An Organological Study," can be found in the 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society. The article considers the British Museum citole as having been a functional musical instrument, and attempts to reconstruct its original configuration by studying its structure and the changes that have been made to it.

The British Museum Citole: New Perspectives

Stevenson Theatre, British Museum, November 4-5, 2010

The British Museum will host a citole symposium in November, 2010.  The two day symposium will bring together scientists, scholars, and musicians, to present their exciting new work regarding this instrument.  Adjacent events include one or more citole concerts, a study day at the Institute of Musical Research about the techonology of medieval stringed instruments, a study day at the British Library to view citoles in their manuscripts, and a visit to Blythe House to see the electrotype copy of the citole made in 1869.  Click here for more information.


A woodcut of my citole, done by Paul Schumann
Prints (9"x18") are available for $75.

 

Pricing

The price of a citole based on the BM citole is $4500.  This includes a custom-made Kingham case and an extra set of strings.  My standard decoration is a dragon head, a ribbon around the trefoil, and a small scene on the back of the shoulders inspired by decoration on the original.  Further decoration is available by commission.  Larger sized citoles are also possible, please inquire.

For more information, see Ordering Instruments.