Let's look at some of the information we have about the medieval Middle Eastern harp, the jank. Above are examples from Central
Asia in the 6th century, Spain in the 13th, and Persia in the 18th. The details vary but the basic construction can be ascertained
by careful comparison with the present-day classical Burmese harp, the saung-gauk.
Though morphologically the saung-gauk is an arched harp and the jank was an angular harp, the essential structures of
the bodies are, conveniently, the same. Compare below the view of the Burmese body with the Central Asian version. I have
rotated the orientation of the Burmese harp to the left: the body would, in reality, be at the bottom. Imagine the Burmese
string holder sticking straight out at right angles, instead of curving away. The shape of the body would also be reversed:
pointed at the (top) free end and rounded at the bottom where the string holder is.
Look at the insides of the saung-gauk. The body is a long bowl with several crossbars and a transverse bar which is attached
to the skin face and to which the strings are tied. These elements are clearly visible in the Central Asian jank where the
transverse string bar is even threaded in and out of the face. It seems clear that anyone who could make a saung-gauk could,
with a little coaching, make a jank. That may seem like the long way 'round Robin Hood's barn but it beats a time machine.
Other Harps in Alfonso's Time
Harps, in general, seem to be fairly rare in peninsular music in the 13th century. But in addition to the jank, which appears
to be associated exclusively with Muslim circles, there are two other harps shown in manuscripts from Alfonso's ateliers.
The most well known is the single example of small Romanesque harps shown in the Cantigas manuscript. They are being played
by two richly-dressed Jews who, it seems to me, may be from Provence. (Their dress is somewhat different from the Cantigas
norm, there was an important Jewish community in southern France, the type of harp is much more characteristic of France,
and the conventionalized "European" architectural frame may imply they were from "out of town.") These
harps were ubiquitous in 12th and 13th century illuminations but were to die out in the succeeding century. [One of the harpers
has been described as playing left-handed, but it is more likely an example of artistic symmetry. And there would have been
no "correct" method which dictated "handedness."]
The last harp has only recently come to my attention and I'm not quite sure what to make of it. It's from Alfonso's Book of
Games (which is as rich as the Cantigas in depictions of costume, ethnic groups, and even instruments, but much less known)
and shows a very plain, almost stylized, frame harp. It may, indeed, be just a generic "harp" by someone who had
only heard about them but, given the level of detail in the other illustrations, that is unlikely. It may intend to show a
particular kind of harp which was not-jank and not-Romanesque but for which there was no established iconography. Or it may
intend to depict exactly what it shows: a very simple thin soundbox harp. Which is precisely what is usually called the Gothic
harp. The only problem is that it doesn't commonly show up in illuminations for another hundred years. Could this be the earliest
example? Or an early prototype? Or just a lucky prediction of the direction in harps? Once again the player is an elderly
Jew (judging by his gray beard and pointed solonbrero) performing for two young Jews (with shorter, blonder beards-though
they do seem to be trimmed), one wearing the most sumptuous clothes in the manuscript, and a servant (also with a point on
his cap) who is serving food and drink.