Psaltery

Psaltery Alto Bowed-Maple body, 24 strings G’ to G”’. With bow, bag and tuning key. The Bowed Psaltery is a triangular instrument with tuning pins on the short end and strings running from there to posts at intervals along each side. The strings are played between the posts with a short arched bow. It is generally tuned in a chromatic 2 octave scale with black notes on the left and the white on the right as seen from the blunt end.

Historians have suggested that the psaltery, like the lute, came to the courts of Europe with Crusaders returning from the Holy Land. A comparison between European Psalteries and Persian Santirs or Arabian Kanums reveals a likely connection. Although this explanation seems to be well founded and the most widely accepted, two other possibilities exist. The psaltery was well known in Classical Greece and could easily have been brought to Europe by the conquering Romans along with the many other items of Greek culture which they avidly acquired. Earlier still, the Phoenicians traded all over the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic and North Sea coastlines of Europe. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that psalteries were amongst the items traded by the Phoenicians for Cornish tin.

Psalteries declined in popularity as court instruments in the later Middle Ages in favour of virginals and spinets. Like many other medieval instruments, however, the psaltery did not die out, but continued as a folk instrument passed down, in some versions completely unaltered to the present time.

In the main we know from medieval paintings and sculptures that psalteries were originally played by plucking, either with the fingers or a plectrum. This does not necessarily mean, however, that in medieval or Elizabethan times the psaltery was never played with a bow. The exact origins of the bowed psaltery are shrouded in the mists of time. As a folk instrument, the use of the bow could have gone unrecorded.

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