Serendipity once again ruled the day when, trolling the web for something entirely different, I recently stumbled upon the new, comprehensive online scan of the most profusely-illustrated of all Carolingian manuscripts: the so-called Stuttgart Psalter (Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Cod.bibl.fol.23. Accessible via DFG-Viewer under “Stuttgarter Psalter”). The delightful, childishly realistic pictures on nearly every page, which would probably be called “outsider art” nowadays, were the work of two or three monks, toiling around the year 820 in the scriptorium of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the great monastic establishment that the Merovingian kings of an embryonic France could view from their primitive palace on what would later be called the Île de la Cité. The dynasty had its burials in the church in the fields on the left bank of the Seine. The old buildings and their tombs are gone now, but an extensive record of the abbey’s holdings (called, as I was surprised to learn, a “polyptych”) compiled at the same time still survives.

The only near-contemporary psalter of comparably exuberant illumination is the Utrecht Psalter, named after its present university location, but compiled at a monastery near Reims, possibly for the archbishop Hincmar. The average of varying scholarly datings comes out slightly later than Stuttgart, but the style of lettering and illumination is so reminiscent of antiquity that it is thought to be at least partly a copy of a much older manuscript (Alexandria, 5th century?). It was impressive enough to be replicated at third hand several times, whereas the more “primitive” St. Germain work had little or no later influence, and remains relatively neglected. Best recent opinion calls the latter’s pictorial style unique, but finds subject models in northern Italy. Be that as it may, the ornate initial letters of each psalm reminded me of nothing so much as the “Book of Kells”. It would hardly be surprising to find a latter-day disciple of Boniface or Willibrord at work at Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 820, given the role of Irish/Scottish and later Anglo-Saxon missionaries in the religious consolidation of the Frankish conquests in the East. (This subject is something of an obsession, being as I am an adoptive Frank [= Dutchman] and resident of the old capital of Franconia Orientalis, Würzburg.)

The psalter’s text follows the Gallican version of St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Psalms, his second to have been based on the koiné Greek of the Alexandrian Septuagint (the first is lost). The divergences between it and the papal secretary’s final version, which he took directly from Hebrew sources, have given rise to considerable confusion. For our present purposes, one variant is of particular interest. Musical instruments and/or singers appear on 15 pages of the Stuttgart Psalter. Verse 2 of Psalm 136/137 (“By the waters of Babylon”, p. 311 on the website) reads, “We hanged our harps upon the willows” in the King James version – one of the most heart-wrenching lines in the entire Bible. It inspired an anonymous monk to one of his finest efforts. “For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song” – and we see at the right an armed Babylonian officer (Nebuchadnezzar?) with followers, pointing at two dejected exiles from Jerusalem, one of whom we can almost hear saying, “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?” To their left, a massive castle marked “babilon” stands; in front of them the blue Euphrates flows, with ducks and a black bird on its green banks. Behind them stands a willow with two small organs hanging on its branches.

The Septuagint has meaning any tool or instrument. Jerome’s earlier translation, the one available in Paris in the early 9th century, has “organa nostra”. The saint with the pet lion later amended that from the Biblical Hebrew “kinnor” (lyre) to “citharas”. The St. Germain artist understandably but mistakenly took “organa” to mean the new-fangled instrument that had recently appeared in northern Europe, hence the two organetti hanging in the willow. They look very much like the familiar portative.

By far the largest and most complex results of the same misnomer are two organs illustrating Psalm 150 and the apocryphal Psalm 151. Here the Biblical Hebrew word means “pipe” or “wind instrument”, but Jerome fell back on “laudate eum in chordis et organo” (150) and “manus meae fecerunt organum” (151) in both his versions, with the same outcome for the hard-working monk; but this time the artist outdid himself.

The 150th Psalm has always been a favorite with composers, since it demands praise of the LORD with, according to one translation: trumpet, harp, lyre, timbrel, dance, strings, pipes and cymbals – in short, pretty much the entire orchestra of the ancient Near East. (See the image at the end of this article, p.334 of the website.) Jerome’s penultimate “in organo” resulted in the first depiction of a bellows organ in Western art. (The antiquarian Utrecht Psalter shows the Greek hydraulis, with its complex mechanism for wind regulation.) It is a typical mixture for the time of accuracy, vague approximation and fantasy. A detailed description – or rather, a concatenation of equivocations – can be found in Peter Williams: “The Organ in Western Culture, 750-1250”. Two blowers stand ready to raise their bellows and trample on them. A third figure standing behind them is probably the organist, waiting for a sign to take his place behind the instrument. All this detail didn’t stop the German writer of a recent, nicely-produced book from a Catholic Verlag, purporting to explain the illustrations in the Stuttgart Psalter, from proclaiming the two big organs to be “standing lyres” for court music. The willow organs are normal lyres in this gentleman’s eyes. Here we have an interesting example of a reverse misunderstanding; the author has the correct translation, but can’t see the instruments for what they are.


But the stylized instrument most often illustrated in the Stuttgart Psalter is always shown in the hands of King David: a longish, plucked-string instrument with a neck/fingerboard, straight sidewalls except for somewhat projecting points on the shoulders, a prominent tailpiece and, presumably, a flat back. The psalmist-king usually holds it horizontally in the crook of his right arm, and is plucking the strings with a worm-shaped plectrum. The left hand on the neck is wildly out of proportion, as are all significant hands in this psalter, giving an impression of a longer neck than the artist’s model actually had. Consultation with John Koster got me a cautionary message regarding the difficulty of the field, both in terms of the early era and the typology of instruments, along with the assessment that the pictures probably represent a “proto- or paleo-citole”.

An amateur like me would have to be the proverbial fool to rush in where a John Koster treads with caution, but the question is too intriguing – so here I go. Having nosed around the literature for a few days, I feel comfortable in saying: David is playing a citole, an instrument I had only a nodding acquaintance with until now, and these are its earliest pictorial representations. The Psalter uses it to illustrate what its text calls a “cythara”. Wycliffe’s Bible of 1360 has “Harpis and sitols and tympane” for II Samuel 5.5, where the King James version has “psalteries” and the Vulgate “lyrae” for the central instrument of the Samuel trio.

The citole is usually assigned to Spain, Italy and southern France in the High Middle Ages, centuries later than the Stuttgart Psalter, on the basis of textual references, manuscript illustrations and sculptures. The next earliest datable iconographic example is a sculpture by Antelami which I remember seeing inside the Parma Baptistery as one of King David’s four accompanists, without knowing what the instrument was. New Grove says it was “out of use by the 14th century”, but it is still named in the list of instruments found in Bishop Gavin Douglas’ Scots-language dream-poem of 1501, “The Palice of Honour”.

Only one citole survives, formerly in Warwick Castle and now in the British Museum, with a later violin-like soundboard and bridge (see image above). The citole was often used together with a fiddle, either to add drone chords or a more incisive melody, or both. Its tuning remains mostly speculative.

Aside from the exaggerated neck, the only minor problem with calling the Stuttgart Psalter instrument a citole are its straight sidewalls. Old illustrations show variations from figure-8 (with the ex-Warwick instrument as a manneristic interpretation) to straight. A case of the latter is found in a U. of C. Berkeley Latin MS, where it is called a “cythara”. This big, ancient Greek lyre-like instrument was the accompaniment for Homeric recitation, and its name lives on in countless descendant cognates, right down to the electric guitar. It lay comfortably enough on the performer’s lap to allow harmonics (and stops?) to be played with the left hand. At some point, someone probably located in one of Alexander the Great’s old kingdoms in Central Asia seems to have had the idea of stopping the strings directly by attaching a soundboard, bridge and fingerboard to the body. That artificer could have been inspired by the other great evolutionary strand of plucked strings, the half-pear-shaped instruments that came out of Africa, where they were originally built around split gourds. Elegantly bent wooden slats eventually replaced nature’s curves. The Arabs referred to later developments as al’oud. It had an illustrious future as the western lute.

Both these wide evolutionary channels – which, like that of human evolution, are more interbred and less linear than previously though – are found in the famous sculptures from Hellenistic/Mauryan/Indo-Sythian Bactria and Gandhara (now parts of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan), mostly dated around the first century CE. The flat-backed, “waisted” instrument on the “Airtam Frieze”, now in the St. Petersburg Hermitage (see image above), bears such a close resemblance to the citole, that direct ancestry can hardly be doubted.

The outward-pointing prongs at the ends of the cythara’s yoke lived on in the citole’s projecting shoulders; and they are still to be found, vestigially like the human tail-bone, in a further descendant (whether linear or parallel): the cittern, where small knobs are found where the neck is connected to the body. The similarly-named gittern (another cythara cognate), on the other hand, is one of many distant, pear-shaped cousins of the lute.

The number of regional and historical variants of these two basic types is so bewildering, and their literature so vast and ofttimes controversial, that I must beg to be excused for reducing them all to such simple terms, and for leaving aside all questions of stringing and tuning, length of neck, shape of pegbox and what have you. But the place of the citole in the greatest of Carolingian comic strips, the Stuttgart Psalter (can we change the name to “Saint-Germain-des Prés Psalter”, please?) led me ineluctably down this path. One final, presumptuous remark: as far as I can tell, the clear line of development “Airtam Frieze ? citole ? Baroque guitar ? Spanish guitar” remains under-explored.

November 21, 2021

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