CHAPTER 3: History to 1800

2: Antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages

Since the striking technique has played an important part in the development of dulcimer design, it may be useful to mention the early examples of instruments with struck strings, though without suggesting that these are themselves dulcimers.

Galpin (1) describes African Bushmen tapping the strings of their hunting-bows, and even refers to an old rock-painting interpreted as portraying a similar scene(1); Sachs and Wachsman both give vivid pictures of primitive ground zithers, in which not only is a string struck with a stick, but is also divided into two playing parts (2,3), a feature even more characteristic of dulcimers, but shared also with the monochords of Greek and mediaeval times, and 'raft zithers' portrayed by Bucher (African) and mentioned by Marcuse (Indian).

Many authors produce evidence which is claimed to show dulcimers in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, but since only one of them seems convincing (possibly two, if one includes the Colmar carving), they are discussed under 'Controversies and Misunderstandings' in Chapter 7.

The one item which appears to show positive dulcimer characteristics is shown in figs 13-15. It represents King David seated beneath a canopy with his tour musicians, and the original is carved in ivory as one of six scenes from the story of David; the whole forms a book-cover (BM Egerton 1139), and was presumed by Dalton to have been made for Melissenda, daughter of Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem (1118-1131), and wife of Fulk (Foulques (15)), Count of Anjou and King of Jerusalem (1131-1134) (14).

fig 13

fig 14a

fig 14b

carved ivory book cover: possibly Byzantine 12thC, BM Egerton 1139; from Dalton

fig 15

a remarkable re-drawing
of the "dulcimer" detail
from the cover of Egerton 1139

The important points of this illustration are these: that the King can immediately be identified as hammering the strings; that the instrument is trapezoid; and even more important, perhaps, the instrument is facing him, presumably flat, on his lap or a table the latter an unusual position for psalteries. It has a single central soundhole and the apparent stringing, with ten courses, is eminently practical. The courses are shown as single strings, but it is possible that the model had multiple courses, since these could hardly have been rendered in detail upon ivory, when the longest dimension of the carved instrument is a mere 9mm. Another point is that the instrument is shown with no dividing bridge, and with strings all in one plane: strings in two planes would be hard to carve on this scale, but a central bridge would present few problems, so it seems likely that the model had none.

This example is often quoted as evidence of the dulcimer's Eastern origin and its migration to Europe from or via Byzantium; but because of the mobility of both artists and their artifices, such a conclusion is by no means inescapable. Dalton's remarks are relevant here:

"Ivory carvings are often very difficult to date with precision or assign to any particular locality ... such objects travelled in every direction as gifts or merchandise from a very early period. The migratory habits of the makers tend to increase the difficulty ... the styles of the same man might affect the art of places situated at considerable distances from each other.

"These ivory covers, with their mixture of oriental ornament and of Byzantine and Western costume, are probably the work of some Greek artist working for the Angevin court at Jerusalem. The MS itself shows similar combinations of Eastern and Western influences .... The scenes upon this bookcover diverge considerably from the usual Byzantine types, not only in the introduction of Western armour, but in arrangement and style". (14)

Dalton thus considers the illustration atypical artistically, and certainly it is atypical musically, for there is no other representation of a dulcimer - and remarkably few icons of a psaltery-player facing his instrument - for 300 years.