Determining exactly what instruments were played anywhere during the medieval period is never an easy task. One writer’s gittern is another writer’s cittern. And poetic imagery may be just that – a product of the imagination. But the earliest mention of guitar-like instruments in Scotland come from two of Scotland’s finest medieval poets, or makars, Thomas of Ercyldoune (1219-99) and Richard Holland (fl.1450).
Harpe and fethill both they fande,
Getterne and als so the sawtrye;
Lutte, and rybybe, both gangande,
And all manner of mynstralsye
Thomas of Ercyldoune (Thomas the Rhymer)
All thus our lady luvit with lyking and lyst,
Menstralis and musicianis mo than I mene may:
The psaltery, the sytholis, the soft sytharist,
The croud and the monychordis, the gittyrnis gay
Richard Holland, The Book of the Howlate
Taking each of these instruments in turn:
According to the ENCYCLOPÃ†DIA BRITANNICA, ”a gittern is either of two medieval stringed musical instruments, the guitarra latina and the guitarra morisca. The latter was also known as the guitarra saracenica. The guitarra latina, an ancestor of the modern guitar, usually had four strings and was plucked with a plectrum. Early drawings and the sole surviving example (c. 1300, Warwick Castle, Warwickshire, Eng.) suggest that the flat, waisted body and the neck and pegbox were carved from one solid block of wood. It was probably developed in Spain, spreading thence to France, England, and Germany, and was played as late as the mid-17th century. The guitarra morisca, a pear-shaped cousin of the lute, was popular in Spain from the 12th to the 18th century. However, not all scholars agree with this description, with some citing a surviving example by Hans Oth of Nuremberg, dated about 1450, which as more of a resemblance to a lute than a guitar”. Welcome to the world of medieval organology! There are far more opinions than there are players.
Although mentioned in the 13th century by Thomas the Rhymer, the gittern was still around in Scotland 300 years later:
And some on Lutis did play and sing,
Of instruments the onely king.
Viols and Virginals wer heir
With Githornis maist jucundious
Burel, The Queenis…Entry, 1590
‘Gittyrnis gay’ and ‘Githornis maist jucundious’, allowing for poetic alliteration, gives some sense of the role and style of music played on the gittern. It was most likely a treble instrument used for sprightly division-style runs around a singer or other melodic instrument.
Commonly spelt ‘citole’, the Scottish ‘sythole’, seems to have been equally popular in Scotland over a long period of time. Apart from Richard Holland’s mention of it (quoted above), we have the following:
Monychord, organe, tympane and cymbill,
Sytholl, psalterie, and voices sweet as bell;
Soft releschingis in dulce deliverning,
Fractionis divide, at rest, or clois compel.
Gawain Douglas (d.1522), Palice of Honour
Regarded as a medieval instrument, it appears to have developed quite considerably over the centuries into a wire-strung instrument as pictured in the Scottish Thomas Wode part-books of the mid to late 16th century: