The rebec is a type of medieval fiddle that is distinguishable by its shape: a round body that tapers into the neck and culminates in a peg box or disk. Related to the Arabic rabāb and Greek lyra, rebecs were introduced into Europe as early as the eleventh century. They were gradually phased out in the fiftheenth and sixteenth centuries as they were replaced by the violin.
Typically rebecs had three strings, though iconographical examples have from one to five or six. Rebecs are relatively small instruments, and function either as solo instruments or as treble instruments in a consort. They are particularly well suited for playing the surviving medieval dance music.
Rebecs are approachable by people of many skill levels. Violinists will enjoy their familiarity, while non-string players will appreciate their comparative simplicity: only three strings, and a more organic and relaxed playing position than the violin.
Rebec player in an early 12th century English manuscript, BL Arundel 91, f. 218. This has the typical pear shape, D shaped soundholes, and three strings. The tailpiece is very long, and close to the bridge. There is no visible fingerboard.
A fourteenth century gittern. This instrument was excavated in the medieval trade town of Elbing, Poland. Like a rebec, a gittern’s pear-shaped body is made from one piece of wood. (Photo courtesy of Richard Earle)
Jerome of Moravia (c. 1300) described how to tune a two-stringed “rubeba”: c and g.
Martin Agricola (1529, a very late source) decribed a consort of four rebecs, all with three strings tuned in fifths.
Eustache Deschamps, fourteenth century French poet, wrote that “at royal courts everyone wants to play the trumpet, gittern, and rebec.”
Side view of a large maple rebec
I have built many rebecs, and each one has its own aesthetic and tonal personality.
I carve the bodies of my rebecs from one piece of wood, shaping and hollowing them down to be as thin as 3 mm. I work with maple, pear, or cherry for the body. The differences in material are largely aesthetic, but maple tends to produce the brightest tone. I build large body (52 cm) and small body (46 cm) rebecs. Having more mass and space for resonance, the large body instruments tend to have a more robust tone. However, the small body instruments can be more comfortable for people with shorter arms. I choose a depth for the instrument in keeping with my overall goals for the rebec: deeper instruments tend to have a richer tone, the “artful” sound, while shallow instruments tend to project more with a strong fundamental, producing a louder “dance” sound.
Small rebec with flat top; large rebec with arched top
Most of my rebecs have a slightly arched soundboard, though I occasionally still build a flat topped instrument. As with the depth of the body, the amount of arching on the soundboard influences the tone, and flat and arched topped instruments have different soundhole possibilities.
The fingerboards are made of maple, and the neck is shaped to fit comfortably in the hand. The tailpiece matches the fingerboard, and the maple bridge is carefully fit to the soundboard.
Detail of bridge and tailpiece
My rebecs have either a pegbox or pegdisc. The choice is partially aesthetic and partially functional; pegboxes are more trouble-free in operation. I handmake pegs to compliment the aesthetic scheme of the instrument.
Diamond pegs in an arrow pegdisc
My rebecs are designed to work with gut strings. My standard tuning is middle C, g, and d, as this fits the range of dance repertoire very well. A variant of C-g-c provides good opportunites for drones in modal playing. Small body rebecs work particularly well as the high voice in a consort tuned up a fouth to f-c-g.
The price for a rebec is $1100. This includes a case and an extra set of strings. Bows cost an additional $275.
Custom decoration is available. See the library for examples of decoration.
For more information, see Ordering Instruments.
Extra strings are available from Gamut Strings.
Ross Duffin, ed. A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music (Indiana, 2000).
Timothy McGee. Medieval Instrumental Dances (Indiana, 1989).
Jeremy and Gwen Montagu. Minstrels & Angels: Carvings of Musicians in Medieval English Churches (Berkeley, 1998).
Christopher Page, ‘Jerome of Moravia on the rubeba and viella’, Galpin Society Journal (1979): 77–98.
Christopher Page. Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages: Instrumental Practice and Songs in France, 1100–1300 (Berkeley, 1986).
Mary Remnant. English Bowed Instruments from Anglo-Saxon to Tudor Times (Oxford, 1986).