The principle of the psaltery is simple enough: it is a box with strings stretched across it. In the Middle Ages, and even
in the Cantigas, variety was the norm. There is a picture somewhere or other of a psaltery in almost any conceivable shape.
(And some a little hard to believe.) The most obvious shapes are, predictably, the most common: squares, trapezoids, and triangles.
Given the range of shapes it is likely that no two psalteries sounded alike unless they were made at the same time by the
same maker. Let's look at the examples from the Cantigas.
Cantiga 80, at the left, shows a very simple rectangular instrument with a large central soundhole. In each corner is either
a smaller soundhole or an elaborate inlay. Both instruments are identical and the players are holding their hands in the same
position, but notice the tuning crank on the far right and the strings that seem to be in courses of threes. The ordinariness
of the instruments is reflected in the unadorned background and frame and the simple costumes worn. In my not-very-satisfactory
color reproduction the artist seems to have settled for a basic substitution scheme in portraying the outfits. The figure
on the left wears a pink saya with gold yoke and a dark green manto, or cape, while the player on the right has a dark green
saya with gold yoke and pink manto. Even the frontal positions reinforce the rudimentary impression and their benches are
stylized. This is noticeably one of the blandest illuminations in the manuscript and looks to be from a different hand than
In the center, Cantiga 50 portrays psalteries of not much more interest, but in a more typically extravagant setting.
The instruments are semi-trapezoidal with central soundhole and three other holes (or inlays) but the players hands seem to
be in slightly differing positions. The player on the left is frontal but portrayed with much more detail: he wears a noble
capa (with fur collar and armhole) with gold embroidery along the margins. His companion is turned slightly toward him. He
wears an overcloak with gold embroidered edges and a caperón (a detachable hood, often worn as a head covering). These two
nobles are set against the characteristic coffered background of the Cantigas manuscripts.
Cantiga 70, at the right, lies somewhere between the others' style. The background is plain but the instruments and figures
are quite distinctive. The psalteries are unusual but not unique: a basic T-shape ("pig's snout") but with a semicircular
extension at the bottom. (A similar instrument is shown in manuscript T.j.1, which has the larger number of illustrations
of the stories of the miracles.) The figures themselves seem to be Jews but with distinctive capes fastened at the right shoulder
and exotic Phrygian-style hats with wing-like decorations. Their origins may have been obvious to the court of Alfonso but,
like so many of the unusual ethnic groups portrayed in these manuscripts, they no longer convey that information.
I have made two different psalteries for the group Alfonso X: one was in the characteristic "pig snout" form, similar
to the last above, but the other was patterned after one of the most important sources for 14th century instruments: the beautiful
tryptich from the Monastery of Piedra. In addition to a fine small lute, Romanesque harp, and rebab, there is an exciting
triangular psaltery which I copied in 1970. There are clearly shown pins at the stepped ends in courses of three. My inlays
were made from ivory, walnut, silver, and abalone. The rays were burned into the wood.
The strings are tuned by autoharp pins, readily available, while the other ends go through small holes to the far side.
I originally thought to wrap them around small sticks or to have pins or nails to which they would be attached but eventually
was converted by tradition. I had a Turkish kemence where the strings were wrapped around tiny rolled-up pieces of cloth to
act as the ball on the end to keep them from slipping through the tailpiece hole. I thought the cloth too unsubstantial and
decided on heavy sole leather: the steel strings slowly sliced through the leather. I went to the cloth and, thirty years
later, it is still holding. That's not the last time that I've been humbled by Tradition.
There was another type of instrument depicted in the Cantigas which for years I called a harp-psaltery. In "Voices &
Instruments of the Middle Ages," Christopher Page convincingly identifies it as the rota, another name for years in search
of an instrument. Cantiga 40 shows two rota players, tuning; it is tempting to see a master and a student. The instrument
seems to have had a central soundbox and strings on both sides! That might account for the musicians tuning here. In the center,
from a different Cantigas manuscript, a rota player joins others in accompanying a round dance presented by Alfonso personally,
for the Virgin Mary herself. And, on the right, angels in a heavenly oasis, guarded by an armiger, perform with rebab, lute,
psaltery, rota, and cymbals. Make a joyful noise, indeed!
Finally, there is a noble musician presented sitting in an elaborate chair, playing a unique instrument. It seems to
be a psaltery with strings arranged, if the illumination is to be believed literally, in courses of four strings but having
only four (perhaps standing for "a few") different notes. One is tempted to extrapolate from late 19th century zithers with
similar arrangements, but they had chords--and those did not exist in the Middle Ages. The instrument is beautiful in shape
and impressive in size but what music could it possibly have played with only four, or a few, notes? The only thing vaguely
like it in Europe is the Finnish kantele with 5 (pentatonic) strings, but it is a modest instrument and certainly not designed
for court display.