Alison Vardy   Solo Celtic Harpist  
  Image: Victoria BC Canada   Contact | Map | Search   
|||Home> Early Harp History> Medieval Harp History> Celtic Harp History

Medieval Harp History II
Harps from the
Middle Ages to
the Renaissance


  Medieval & Renaissance Harp History  

The harps played by the harpers of the old Gaelic orders were an aristocratic instrument, played in the courts of kings and before the chiefs of clans. Harp music had an important role in Gaelic culture, legend and folklore. About the 13th century, when Feudalism reached its height, the Troubadours began appearing. European harpers earned their living by moving from town to town, using small harps for self-accompanied singing, storytelling, news-telling and in instrumental groupings. Harpers were second only to the chieftain or king, often serving as advisors and leading armies into battle. Unarmed, they were recognized and respected by the enemy and were generally immune from harm.

The age of chivalry with its troubadours and minstrels began a new renaissance in harps. The Medieval harps during this time were small enough to be held on the player's lap, and had between 7 to 25 strings and they had narrow sound boxes often carved out of a solid log. Medieval harps were apparently wire strung although gut, hair and plant materials were used as well. By the 11th or 12th century, the upper neck begins to assume the contours of what we call the "harmonic curve" which attempted to more closely match the string's length with its frequency or pitch. Very little else is known about the instruments of this period.


Pictish harp
Pictish Carving - Circa 8TH Century



  Gothic Harps  

During the middle of the 14th to 16th century, larger harps known as Gothic harps appeared. This harp had around 24 gut strings, a relatively tall instrument compared to earlier harps and is the ancestor of the later Renaissance harp. The Renaissance harp evolved into the Italian Double-Row Harp, the Italian Arpa Doppia, the Spanish Renaissance harp and the Chromatic harp. These versions of the Renaissance harp eventually developed into the modern the folk harps of Latin America, the "Orchestral, Pedal or Concert" harp of Central Europe and possibly the modern "Irish" or "Celtic" harp from the "Isles".

Still small and light by modern standards, the Gothic style Harp was the standard harp throughout Europe into the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance period in music history. They were strung with gut strings at a much lower tension than we are accustomed to today. Earlier models had 19 to 22 strings, later harps known as early Renaissance harps were larger and had 26 to 30 strings. They were tuned diatonically with the soundbox generally hollowed from a plank of hardwood, giving the harp a distinctive plucked sound to complement the lute, an instrument the gothic harp often played with in consort.

The Wartburg Single-Row Gothic Harp (circa 1350-1450) was acquired during the middle of the 19th century for the art collection of the Wartburg Museum, Eisenach, Germany. It purportedly belonged to Oswald von Wolkenstein, who lived in Tyrol from 1377-1445. It is beautifully inlayed with Certosinia-workand has 26 gut strings and a full set of brays at the string base to sharpen the strings by a semi-tone. It is a 'carved-body' type and made of maple. It stands at 109 cm high. (See Image below)


  The Renaissance Harp  

By the late Renaissance a number of variations on the Gothic / Renaissance harp theme were in use. The single-course Renaissance harp remained only capable of playing seven notes per octave or the diatonic scale (the white notes on a piano). The major composers of the 16th to 18th centuries demanded all 12 chromatic notes of the scale (white and black notes on the piano). One solution was a chromatic harp, a harp with 12 strings per octave . Chromatic harps were built in Spain in the 16th and 17th century. A double harp with two rows of strings was built in 1581. Soon afterwards, the triple harp appeared where the player would reach between two diatonic scaled rows of outer strings to play the chromatic notes in between. The double and triple harps continue today in the Welsh tradition.

The Italian Double-Row Renaissance Harp (circa 1675) had 2 parallel rows or courses of strings and was chromatic (having both the black notes and the white notes like a piano). It had a carved soundboard of maple and a five-staved back made of walnut with 52 chromatic notes with all gut strings. (See Image above)

"Bolognia Doppia"
with 2 rows of strings
Reproduction from the doppia in the
Museo Medival, Bolognia, 1600.
Eric Early Harps

"Barberini" Italian Baroque Harp
with 3 rows of strings.
Reproduction from the original built for
Cardinal Antonio Barberini, Rome 1635.
Eric Early Harps

The Eric Harps website has some beautiful
contemporary copies of medieval harps
made by a German mastercraftsman.
English version coming soon.


The Italian Arpa Doppia was a three-course harp of the late Renaissance or early Baroque period had 26 chromatic strings in the central row, with 24 trebles on the right, and 25 basses on the left. The soundbox was constructed of hardwood staves, and the soundboard is maple.

  Spanish Harps  

Early Spanish Harps were single-course or cross-strung harps generally with 29 strings. The single course- harp could be fretted against the neck for semi-tones. The cross-strung harps had chromatic strings (the black piano notes) intersecting, or passing between the diatonic strings (the white piano strings), forming an X. In this way, all chromatic and diatonic strings were playable by both hands at any point on the harp. The soundboard is very much like the guitar with spruce and cross braced for reinforcement, creating a wonderful sound.


 Wire Strung Harps  

Wire strung harps or ancient Irish harps may be the predecessors of our current lever harps in folklore but not in technical development. These instruments were wire strung (brass, iron, silver, or gold) often with the soundboxes carved from a single piece of willow (bog wood). Technical innovations garnered from many geographical centers of the late Renaissance Europe plus the invention of the modern lever mechanism in Japan in composite have eventuated in the modern Celtic harp.


  The Paraguayan Harp  

In the 1600s, the later Spanish or Renaissance harp was taken to the new world by Jesuit missionaries and developed in a completely different way. The indigenous peoples were fascinated with the instrument, made some changes to it and adopted it as part of their own culture. There are many kinds of harps in Latin America, including the Venezuelan harp, Mexican harp and arpa llanera - harp of the plain. Almost all South American Countries have their own versions of harps. In construction and playing techniques, these harps are quite different from the traditional European harps. They were made of thin wood (cedar and pine) and were much lighter than the European harp. The strings were routed up the centre of the neck and the instruments were bi-symmetrical resulting in few structural stresses. Eventually tacitos were used to sharpen notes to change key. The playing style and techniques were vibrant and dynamic in contrast to the softer European tone. Modern Paraguayan harps usually have 36 nylon strings tuned to the diatonic scale and are played with the fingernails. The sound is bright with a shorter sustain period after the plucking of each note.



Go to….. The Celtic Harp


Alison Vardy - Solo Celtic Harpist
         |Contact Alison Vardy

For a
Detailed Quote




Listen to

Broadband Only - Listen to harp tunes on your MP3 player

Stop Play


Watch the

Broadband Only - Watch the video on your MPG player

6.9 Mb File


Opt-In for

Receive Alison's Newsletter up to 6x Annually
Six Times

>>> |Home> Early Harp History> Medieval Harps> The Celts> Contact Alison
Copyright ©
Alison Vardy, Solo Celtic Harpist
View Source for Copyright & Credits