Medieval lute

Title: The Castle of Fair Welcome: Courtly Songs of the Later Fifteenth Century—Mi ut re ut, Anonymous; Christopher Wilson, Medieval lute. Label: Hyperion. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CDA 66194. Track: 10.

Contextual Associations

[Note: the term ‘lute’ is used on this website in two distinct ways: 1) as a classificatory label for a large sub-group of chordophones; and 2) as the name of a specific type of European chordophone (in this article).] The lute is a plucked bowl-lute chordophone of Medieval Europe. No lutes have survived from this period to copy; the lute pictured here was made by the American luthier Daniel Larson who used information and diagrams in a mid-15th century manuscript by Arnaut (also Arnault) of Zwolle (Netherlands) as a guide in building the instrument. The lute appears in many iconographic sources from throughout the Medieval period, often in the hands of angels when depicted in religious sources or on cathedral reliefs, or in the hands of male or female players in secular settings. It is known that by the end of the period lutenists are mentioned in association with royal courts throughout Europe, but just how widespread its use was amongst other social classes is less clear. It is depicted being played as both a solo instrument and in combination with one or a few other instruments. No repertoire specific to the lute survives from this period, and this suggests that well-known melodies were performed extemporaneously on the instrument often in support of singing. Since the middle of the 20th century the number of luthiers making replica instruments and the number of amateur and professional performers of the lute has increased as part of the early music movement.


This lute’s vaulted resonator body is made from nine slats or ribs of maple wood that are individually shaped and bent before being glued together. The resulting egg-shaped hollow body is covered with a flat soundboard of straight-grained softwood (spruce or pine) that, near its center, has a circular space (called a rose or rosette) with carved perforations in an Arabesque pattern serving as the resonator’s soundhole. A bridge is glued to the soundboard just above its bottom end. Running from side-to side on the bottom side of the soundboard are a number of wooden bars the ends of which are glued to the resonator’s top-most ribs, enhancing the sound quality of the instrument and strengthening its delicate soundboard. A neck made of hardwood, rounded on its backside but flat on its front side, is securely attached to the top of the resonator. Its front side has a thin veneer of ebony wood and serves as the instrument’s fingerboard. The top end of the fingerboard terminates in a nut. Twelve gut frets are securely tied around the neck between the resonator and the nut. Joined to the top of the neck and bent back nearly at a right angle is a slightly tapering pegbox with ten side-mounted wooden tuning pegs (five on each side). The instrument’s nine strings (historically from gut, but some nylon line and wire wound strings are used on this replica) are organized into five courses, the first single (though it could be double) and the remaining four double. One end of each string is tied to the bridge on the soundboard, passes over the resonator and above the frets on the fingerboard, makes contact with the nut as it passes over it, and is finally threaded through and wound around a tuning pegs. They all have the same vibrating length of 23.3 inches as measured from the bridge to the nut.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The Medieval lute is most often depicted being played by a standing musician who holds it horizontally or with the pegbox end slightly elevated and with the soundboard facing outwards. The strings are plucked with a quill plectrum held in the right hand and are stopped against the fretted fingerboard with all four fingers of the left hand (the left-hand thumb hooks around the neck and supports the weight of the neck and pegbox). However, it was in the early 15th century that a second playing technique became established that did not use a plectrum but the fingertips of the player’s right hand to sound the strings. Although tuning was not standardized during the Medieval times, it is known from treatises that the intervals between the five courses was either P4 - M3 - P4 - P4 or P4 - P4 - M3 - P4. The lute pictured here is tuned as follows: C3 - F3-F3 - A3-A3 - D4-D4 - G4-G4. Throughout most of the Medieval period the lute is believed to have been used as a monophonic melodic instrument, however this began to change towards the end of the period when the development of finger plucking made possible the performance of polyphonic music.


No lutes survive from Medieval Europe, but the instrument is depicted in numerous manuscript illustrations, paintings, drawings and sculptures from the period. The Medieval lute almost certainly developed from the Arabic ‘ūd, which was present in Moorish Spain as early as the 9th century. During subsequent centuries it spread to other parts of Medieval Europe including Germany where, by the early 15th century, it probably took on the form and features of the replica instrument seen here: frets were added to the fingerboard, the neck was shortened from earlier forms of the instrument, and the acute bend of the pegbox became common. This lute design continued to evolve during the Renaissance period, during which a greater number of strings were added, changes to the width of the neck to accommodate these additional courses were made, and the lute began to be constructed in a wider range of more standardized sizes (see Renaissance lute).

Bibliographic Citations

Harwood, Ian, and Diana Poulton. 1984. "Lute, 3-7," NGDMI v.2: 553-575.

Polk, Keith. 1992. German Instrumental Music of the Late Middle Ages: Players, patrons and Performance Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Douglas Alton. 2002. A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance. [Lexington, VA?]: Lute Society of America.

Young, Crawford. 2000. “Lute, Gittern, & Citole,” in Ross W. Duffin, ed., The Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.321 chordophone--necked bowl lute: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: bowl with wood soundboard

String courses: single, double at unison

Vibrational length: tension bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: friction peg

Method of sounding: plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


27.5 in. length 11.7 in. width

Primary Materials

string - gut
string - synthetic
string - wire-wound synthetic


Daniel Larson


Arnaut Model 5

Entry Author

Roger Vetter