Harps Then and Now

I'll just write a quick piece on medieval harps, I said to myself.  Simple stringed instruments, not much to say.  Ha!  As with everything in life, the more you look into it, the more interesting the subject gets.  The world of the medieval harp explodes exponentially, the deeper you dig.  Are we talking medieval harps of the British Isles, or medieval harps of the European continent?  Are we talking about the small medieval harps only a couple of feet tall with ten or eleven strings, or are we talking about the taller, slenderer, more elegant Gothic harp of later medieval years?

Much of what we know about harps of so long ago comes from the few surviving pictures, so really, we know relatively little for sure, but in the years covered by the Blue Bells Trilogy, (1314 to 1318) Niall's harp would have been small enough to be held on the lap, with anywhere from seven to twenty-five strings.  It would have been strung, most likely, with wire, although gut, hair, and even plant material were also used.  About a century or two before Niall's birth, the upper neck of the harp had begun to take on the harmonic curve with which we are now familiar.  This is the shape that contours more carefully to the length of the strings.  The harp itself may have been carved from one solid log.

These pictures of something very like a medieval harp, or a Scottish clarsach, were taken in 2008 at the visitors' center of Urquhart Castle.  As we do today, you can see the decorations on the harp.  Of all instruments, I have found harps to often be as much a work of art as a musical instrument.

In addition to the standard tuning pins, some medieval harps were equipped with 'bray pins.'  These were pins, usually L-shaped, that not only attached the string to the soundboard of the instrument, but could be adjusted either to touch the strings lightly to create a loud buzzing, or moved away to allow what we today would consider a more normal sound.

Today's harpist typically has several instruments in varying sizes, while the troubadour and traveling minstrels of Niall's time would have had only one, relatively small and easy to carry, as they traveled either on foot or by horse, from town to town, earning a living with songs, news, and stories, often accompanied by their harp playing.

My own modern harps, by contrast, are much larger. Although only considered medium or medium large by today's standards, one stands 4' 8" and the other just over 5' 3". The larger one, a Camac Mademoiselle, has 40 strings and weighs in at 42 pounds. My 'small' harp has 33 strings, stands 4'8" and weighs 22 pounds. Clearly, even the small one would be a problem if I had to carry it on foot from one town to another.

The biggest harps, concert grand pedal harps, would be virtually impossible for a medieval troubadour.  They stand over 6' tall, have 47 strings, and weigh over 80 pounds.  I suppose a war horse wouldn't find that too much weight in comparison to the hundreds of pounds of knight, armor, and weapons they typically carried, but I suspect not too many troubadoursokay, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say, I bet no troubadourshad their own personal war horse.

The pictures of modern harps are from a demonstration I did recently for the third graders at a local school, in which I talked about some of these things, played a few pieces, and gave them a chance to come up and pluck the strings and see for themselves the difference between gut, nylon, and wire strings, and just how big the instruments are close up.  Contrary to appearances, I am not kicking my harp (I never have and never will, unless it kicks me first) but was telling them about the pedals around the base of a concert grand.

Just a side note, they were a great audience.  When they first came in and I had to ask for quiet so I could finish tuning the Camac, they sat like statues while I finished up.  For 90 3rd graders, that's amazing!  Kudos to their wonderful teachers.

Coming on Thursday, I'm excited to have found another novelist of time-travel stories set very close to 'my' time and place in the world.  Dr. Sarah Woodbury has written several books set in medieval Wales, shortly before and overlapping the events that gave rise to the Scottish Wars of Independence.  Her After Cilmeri series is the story of two American teenagers who travel back in time to save Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the Prince of Wales, rather than allow his ambush and murder by English soldiers. 


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