CHAPTER 3: History to 1800 > Early Renaissance - 15th century

Literature: general indications of currency

The first written mention of a dulcimer anywhere comes in a MS dated about 1440, by Henry Arnold (c.1426-1454) of Zwolle in the Netherlands (referred to as 'Heinrich Arnaut van Zwolle' in Flemish (19) and 'Henri Arnaut (Arnoult) de Zwolle' in French (20)); writing in Latin, he describes three types of dulce melos:

"notadum pro composicione instrumenti vocati dulce melos quod instrumentum istud, prout pro presenti mihi occurit, potest tribus modis componi. Primo modo, vulgariter et grosso modo, que-mad-modum communiter fit de quo, quantum de presenti, parum curo, quia in ipso cum baculo fit contactus cordarum solum ruraliter"(21).

'It should be noted that, as far as I can see at present, the instrument called dulce melos can be made in three ways. In the first way - insofar as it is generally made, commonly and grossly - I am not concerned for the present, because this sort is only used in the country, and in it string-contact is made with a stick.'(22)

He also described a dulce melos in which the hammers were worked by a keyboard, nearly 300 years before Cristofori's gravicembalo; it is of interest here, partly because of the name, but particularly because it used a bridging system which was evidently the same as that used on a number of manual dulcimers later in the century, viz., having all the strings divided into three playing parts at the ratio of 4:2:1 (octaves) (23). It is remarkable that, unless earlier examples have been lost, this arrangement is recorded earlier than the simpler system using only a single treble bridge, although both were in use during the second half of the century.

Shortly afterwards, in 1447, the first Hackbrett was recorded in the books of Zurich Town Council:

"Es habe sich geftegt, das der Ackli .... nachts ... hab das Hackbrett geschlagen nieman ze lieb noch zelleid".

'It happened that Ackli played (struck) the Hackbrett in the night, neither pleasing nor disturbing anyone ... ' (24).

At various points during the 15th century, there occur references to tympanon in England (16) (idiophone?), cimbalom in a Hungarian bible (though in the sense of idiophone cymbals (25)), and doulcemelle in France (16, 26).

The Bohemian, Paulus Paulirinus, is quoted by Marcuse as writing that the dulcimer could be played ligniculo aut penna, with a small stick or with a quill (27).

The earliest references in England are from 1474, when an entertainment given at Coventry for Prince Edward included "the minstrelsie of harpe and dowsemeris" (28), and a little later, The Squyr of Lowe Degre:

"The squyr her hente in armes two
And kyssed her an hundred tymes and mo
Ther was myrth and melody
With harpe, getron and sawtry
With rote, ribible and clokarde,
With pypes, organs and bumbarde,
With other mynstrelles them amonge,
With sytolphe and with sawtry songe,
With fydle, recorde, and dowcemere,
With trumpette and with claryon clere,
With dulcet pipes of many cordes.
In chambre revelying.all the lordes
Unto morne, that it was daye". (29)

(lines 1067-1079)

The Squyr was "Imprented at London, by me Wyllyam Copland" some time later in fact, c.1560, and French & Hale consider that, from the dialect and spelling, it was written in the Midlands in the late 15th century: OED suggests c.1475. Perhaps the most revealing point about this poem, however, is the fact that the 'dowcemere' comes at the end of a line, rhymed with 'clere'; from this rhyme, and from Cawley's notes on pronunciation of Chaucer (though admittedly a century earlier), it appears that the name did not sound as as might be thought, but a much more relaxed and dignified sound than that common today. It thus appears that all the names with a skeletal form have very consistent sound, a fact which is not apparent from their spellings.

It is interesting to note here that where London regional speech has survived the efforts of school teachers and well-meaning parents to oust it, the form with the 'l' unsounded, may still often enough be heard, and presumably a language scholar would be able to show the extent and nature of the link between such speech and Middle English dialects.

c.f. however. the use of 'Wawton' as an alternative form of 'Walton ', in a transcript of evidence given at a Durham trial in 1575 (178).

Although nothing has yet been discovered to suggest that the dulcimer was ever played in Wales (30), the name at least was used for poetic imagery

(in the same way that Coleridge's line about a 'damsel with a dulcimer' is known to many people who have never come across the instrument itself)

"Llawer dwsmel a thelyn,
A llaver brwysg gar llaw'r Bryn..."

(1455- 1485 Lewis Glyn Cothi) (GPC)

'Many a dwsmel and harp,
And many a carousel near the Bryn...'(31)

In 1477, the Hackbrett was mentioned at Cleve (32), near the Dutch/German border, and in 1482 again in Zurich, this time concerning 'the schoolmaster from Gunzenhausen who was supposed to have had a Hackbrett stolen' (33).

Hartman gave a reference from the end of the century - though this is still earlier than Sarosi's first Hungarian source - from the diary of Tamas Villimen, Venetian Ambassador to the Court of Matyas I, at Ofen (Buda): it concerned a court musician named Marton, "who with consummate mastery and great love plays on that peculiar instrument which I have found only among the Hungarians and which they call Czimbalom" (34).

There are dulcimers in two contemporary Italian paintings, and in one from Ticino (the Italian-speaking Canton of what is now Switzerland), but it is quite feasible that the instrument might not have been generally known in Venice by this time.