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

Illustrations - 4 of 15

fig.18: Flemish ms, 1492,
BL Add. 18851, fo. 164r. (7235)
(reproduced by courtesy British Library Board)

A slightly more complex form than the oblong is the trapezoid, of which only two 15th century examples without bridges were discovered - type 0.2.(37).

fig.19: Wooden carving,
Manchester Cathderal c.1470
(photo DK)

These are not identical, for the angel in Manchester Cathedral, c.1460 (fig. 19) has saddles rising from the extreme edge of the body, so that the strings are mounted on the side; the Flemish example, however, from c.1490 (fig. 18), has saddles actually on the soundboard, even though the pins are again mounted on the side. Both are symbolic representations.

The Manchester angel is, apparently the earliest English representation of a dulcimer, and a sketch of it has appeared at least four times since Hudson first published it in 1924 (38). He dates the carvings to the time of Warden Langley, 1465-1481, whilst Galpin mentions the dates 1465-1468, but without giving his reasons. The carvings are, rather unusually perhaps, in wood, quite detailed and extremely well preserved; Hudson appears to regard them as typical of the main-stream of English carving of the 15th and 16th centuries. Thirteen strings are shown - a number which begins to seem a little more realistic - and a pair of hammers remarkably similar to those in use In East Anglia nowadays.

The Flemish example is no more intended to be an example of a 15th-century performing ensemble than that in the Manchester angel-choir, but one feels that the artist must have seen a dulcimer in use: his portrayal of a dulcimer-player merrily clopping away regardless. when all his colleagues have been arrested by the heavenly vision. must owe much to a life situation which is common enough still.

The miniature is an illustration of the text, psalm 97 in St. Jerome's Vulgate translation.

"1. cantate dominum canticum novum: quia mirabilia fecit ...
4. jubilate deo omnis terra: cantate et exultate et psallite
5. psallite domino in cithara. in cithara et voce psalmi
6. in tubis ductilibus et voce tubae torneac..."(172)

No 15th-century English translation is to hand, but 14iles Coverdale, 1535 (173), gives the instruments as 'cithara' = harp, 'tuba' = trumpet. 'tuba cornea' = shawm, all of which are to be seen illustrated; the organetto, lute, fiddle(?) and dulcimer are not mentioned by name in the psalm. but they seem to be explained by a deeper symbolism. The psalm begins with an exhortation to 'sing unto the Lord a new song', the implication perhaps being that an old song is therefore to be abandoned; the players, in the foreground at least, are identified by the label on the edge of the bench as 'canticum vetus testamenti', 'the old song of the testament', or, just conceivably, 'the song of the old testament'.

Other labels identify the harper as 'rex david', King David, pointing to the heavenly choir as 'canticum novum', the 'new song' to be sung unto the Lord. It is also conceivable that the image is intended to convey the idea that music to praise the Lord - symbolised by the angel choir - should only be sung, for the angels are shown without instruments; and that instruments, symbolising the 'old song', should be abandoned, at least in worship. This ethic is, of course, contrary to the letter of the psalm; but it is one which was voiced at frequent intervals throughout the life of the church from the earliest times, and such a conflict - as it might now seem to be - would be quite in the tradition of Mediaeval exigesis, of interpreting old-testament scripture according to later events and ideas, those of the Christian era. The 'old song' and the 'new' might similarly be interpreted as the old and new testaments, which might account for the phrase "canticum vetus testamenti".

An alternative explanation of the presence of the dulcimer concerns the verb "psallo", in vv.4,5; although its usual mediaeval meaning was 'to sing a hymn or Psalm', some sources give it as 'to play the cithara' (174): and even allowing for the presenee of the harp - particularly associated with David anyway - it is just possible that the dulcimer was intended as an illustration of cithara, about which little was known at the time. Such seems to have been the case in the illustration of psalm 80 in John Mallard's psalter for Henry VIII (fig.41), and certainly was in Peter Schenk's 'Cornelio Inamorato'. c.1700 (fig.76).

A further example of new-testament exigesis of an old-testament source is provided by the text which the heavenly choir has before it, "Gloria i[n] altissi..." The footnote, "luce 2°" ('the second of Luke'), provides a clue here; for the second chapter of Luke's gospel includes the phrase "gloria in altissimis deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis" (172; v.14), the pralse of the 'multitude of the heavenly hoste' following the annunciatlon to the shepherds of the birth of Jesus: as Wyclif has it,

"and sudeynli there was made with the aungel a multitude of heuenli kny3thod: heiynge god and seiynge/ glorie be in the hi3ist thingis to god: and in erthe pees to men of good wille." (176).