English Medieval Harp Research Project

Jan 2016

Sarah Deere-Jones has over the past 15 years, collected up around 190 records of harp iconography that originated in Medieval England, from carvings in wood and stone to stained glass and illuminated manuscripts. In january 2016 she analysed these images to try and identify any patterns in the development of the instrument. These are her observations made in stages by century - Please read the notes at the bottom of the page.

 

Here is a map of England with the locations of harp iconography plotted,

(I have also provided maps from across each separate century below)

If you click on the map, this links to an inter-active google map where you can click on individual examples to find out more details of each harp.

(I have included the original locations of some manuscripts in this map- please bear in mind that

most of the mansucripts are no longer in their original locations!)

Key for information on map:- ST = Stone W = Wood SG = Stained glass MS = Manuscript FT = Floor tile

 

10th & 11th century

Left: Corpus Christi manuscript 11th century, Worcester.

8 examples were analysed.

This harp is typical of examples from the 10th/11th century - On 100% of samples the neck is dominant (stretching beyond the top of the pillar) and the soundboards were flat. Only two of the harps appeared to show plugs or brays. Three of the harps had soundholes, and two had zoomorphic decoration.

80% of the harpers from this period were seated, mostly with harps wedged between the knees, and in 60% the harps were leaning against the right shoulder. Finger positions were fairly evenly distributed between up, down or level, with 20% showing both as in this sample. In most examples 4 fingers appear to be being used for playing.

There were no tuning keys, bags or straps, or any tuning taking place.

These harpers when in an ensemble were shown with other harps, acrobats, pipes, rebecs, horns and a juggler.

MAP of 10th & 11th century harps-

If you click on the map, it links to an inter-active map where you can click on

individual examples to find out more details of each harp.

It's interesting to see that the earliest harps in England were concentrated

in the South East and Gloucestershire areas.

(You DO need to click on the links to understand the exact locations as many are very close together and can't be seen here.)

12th century

Left: Ely Cathedral 'sleeper' 12th century

22 examples were analysed.

This harp is typical of examples from the 12th century - On 55% of samples the neck is dominant (stretching beyond the top of the pillar) but 16% had dominant pillars (stretching beyond the neck) and the soundboards were predominantly flat. Only one of the harps appeared to show plugs or brays. Seven of the harps had soundholes, and three had zoomorphic decoration.

50% of the harpers from this period were seated,with 33% standing, and in 27% the harps were leaning against the right shoulder with 16% against the left. Finger positions were mostly up at 38% , level at 11%, and down at 5%. In most examples 4 fingers appear to be being used for playing.

There were 4 examples of tuning keys and tuning, but no bags or straps.

These harpers when in an ensemble were shown with other harps, viols, rebecs, citoles, psaltery, percussion, pipes, horns and a juggler.

MAP of 12th century harps-

If you click on the map, this links to an inter-active map where you can click on individual examples to find out more details of each harp.

It's interesting to see that harps seem to be spreading northwards and westwards

when compare with the previous century.

 

13th century

Left: Nackington Church Kent, stained glass, 13th century

27 examples were analysed.

This harp is typical of examples from the 13th century - On 66% of samples the neck and the pillar are joined equally (as in this example) and 66% of the soundboards were predominantly flat, with 29% appearing to bulge. Only three of the harps appeared to show plugs or brays. 55% of the harps had soundholes, and only one had zoomorphic decoration.

88% of the harpers from this period were seated,with only one standing, and in 51% the harps were leaning against the left shoulder, with 18% against the right. Finger positions were mostly up at 48% , down at 1 and level at 11%. In most examples 4 fingers appear to be being used for playing.

There were 14% examples of tuning keys and tuning, with 8 bags or straps.

These harpers when in an ensemble were shown with other harps Bells, fiddel, rebecs, citoles, psaltery, portative organ, pipes, horns and brass.

MAP of 13th century harps-

If you click on the map, this links to an inter-active map where you can click on individual examples to find out more details of each harp.

14th Century

The 14th and 15th centuries were the peak of the popularity of the harp in England.

Left: Chichester Cathedral Miserichord 14th century

59 examples were analysed.

This harp is typical of examples from the 14th century - On 62% of samples the neck and the pillar are joined equally (as in this example) with 19 dominant pillars and only 2 dominant necks. 77% of the soundboards were flat, with 20% appearing to bulge. Nine of the harps appeared to show plugs or brays. 33% of the harps had soundholes, and five had zoomorphic decoration.

57% of the harpers from this period were seated, with 25% standing, and in 50% the harps were leaning against the left shoulder with 30% against the Right. Finger positions were mostly up at 57% , level at 16%, and down at 6.7%. In most examples 4 fingers appear to be being used for playing.

There were 22% examples of tuning keys and tuning, with 19 bags.

These harpers when in an ensemble were shown with a dancer, recorder, 3 bagpipes, 4 fiddels, 3 citoles, 3 psalteries, 4 percussion, cittern, lute, bells, brass and portative organ.

MAP of 14th century harps-

If you click on the map, this links to an inter-active map where you can click on individual examples to find out more details of each harp.

It's interesting to see that there is a flourishing of harps in East Anglia

and in the Cheshire areas at this time.

15th century

Left: Manchester cathedral, Roof Angel, 15th century

50 examples were analysed.

This harp is typical of examples from the 15th century - On 54% of samples the pillar is dominant, with 7 with equal joints and only 2 dominant necks. Harps first started to evolve into taller slimmer shapes typical of the Renaissence as early as the 14th century, but became more common as time progressed, as seen in this example. Nearly all of the soundboards were flat, and only five of the harps appeared to show plugs or brays. Only 2 of the harps had soundholes, and only one had zoomorphic decoration. Pillars became pointed at the top as seen here, in many instances. Scrolls at the top of the pillar, both forwards and backwards were also widespread and popular.

32% of the harpers from this period were standing, 28% were seated, and in 26% the harps were leaning against the right shoulder with 20% against the left. Finger positions were mostly level at 28%, up at 26% and down at 6% and . In most examples 4 fingers appear to be being used for playing.

There was only one example of a tuning keys and none tuning, with no bags.

These harpers when in an ensemble were shown with other harps, bagpipes, singers, 2 citterns, psaltery, 2 fiddels, bells, keyboard, horn, pipes, 3 portative organs and a lute.

MAP of 15th century harps-

 

If you click on the map, this links to an inter-active map where you can click on individual examples to find out more details of each harp.

There is are high numbers of very similar harps in the stained glass and roof angels of Norfolk

churches during this period.

 

16th Century

Left: Tiverton Waite, 16th century

6 examples were analysed.

This is an example of an English harp from the 16th century, I am awaiting further photographs of recorded 16thc harps that are across the country but that I have not yet seen, so currently there are not many examples in my database, but in the few that I have, neither pillars or necks appeared to be dominant, but several of the harps were developing into a more elongated shape typical of the Renaissence style. Nearly all of the soundboards were flat, and none of the harps appeared to show plugs or brays. None of the harps had soundholes or zoomorphic decoration.

2 of the harpers from this period were seated,with 2 standing, and one kneeling, and in 2 the harps were leaning against the right shoulder with 2 against the left. 2 had finger positions which were level, and 1 was up. In most examples 4 fingers appear to be being used for playing.

There were no examples with tuning keys and or tuning, and just one strap showing.

These harpers when in an ensemble were shown as Waites.

MAP of 16th century harps-

If you click on the map, this links to an inter-active map where you can click on individual examples to find out more details of each harp.

It is interesting that there are so few harps from this period and that half of them

are in the south west, because several of the few written references to harps

in the 16th century also originate from the south west.

 

 

Notes:-

There are many dangers in using iconography in research, books have been written on this subject so I won't elaborate here- suffice is to say that we need to bear in mind many factors when analysing such images, but at the same time in the case of the Medieval harp in England we have few other options but to reap what conclusions we can from this extant iconography.

I have researched the Medieval harp in England alone, for three reasons - 1) I live here and readily have access to England. 2) It is a small enough subject to be able to realistically cover in a part-time basis and within my own finances. 3) Compared to the 'Celtic' areas of Britain the heritage of the harp in England has been comparatively neglected. I would love to include the whole of Britain and or Europe but feel that will have to wait until I am retired - and be fully funded!

For brevity on this webpage I have only included a few of the results from my observations, for the complete picture I intend to write an article and hope that it may be published within a year or so.

If you notice any of the numbers or percentages not adding up, this is because of the 'not applicable' box in my spreadsheets - e.g. unfortunately it is not possible to see every single feature in every single example due to physical damage to the object, or limitations in available photographs, or some other factors. In the case of several manuscripts, their orginal locations are not known, they are described simply as 'English' and they are therefore not included on the maps.

I will elaborate further in my proposed article on the subject of the number of fingers appearing to be used, as this is complicated and needs visual examples to explain. I am aware of the popular 'three finger' theory of medieval harp technique, but just do not see reliable evidence of it in these images. Predominantly four fingers appear to be being used, even though there are undoubtedly examples of the third finger and thumb placed on strings at the same time in some images. This is very contentious in some circles and requires complete impartiality on the part of the researcher. It is very difficult either way to be absolutely certain what is going on in an image, where one cannot be sure if the artist was portraying a hand in the midst of performance, resting, or perhaps just posing for an artist. Because of this I never would attempt to make any claims ref. the practise of historical performance, but hope that these observations may at least open out and illuminate debate on the subject.

I have not been able to include photographs on the maps, this is because for many of them I have not yet obtained copyright permission to reproduce them. This is going to be a very time-consuming task, but I will nevertheless make a start on this soon.

All of this research is financed by me alone and done in what tiny amount of spare time I have, there WILL be mistakes! - please let me know about the mistakes if you find one before announcing it to the world, as I am very keen to hear about them myself first! I have tried extremely hard to be totally accurate, but I am only human and sometimes anyway, have relied on information from others, who may be even more human than I am.

And finally, if you know of any examples of medieval English harps please do let me know as I may not have them, and intend to carry on collecting and updating this research periodically to keep it as accurate as possible.

If you are interested in news, photos and regular updates on my research, lectures and performances, or would like to comment or contribute, please look up my Facebook page here -

Harp Anglica.

 

Sarah Deere-Jones LRAM LGSM ARAM January 2016.

 

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