The Bard’s Instruments

From The Witcher to Dungeons & Dragons, the bard is an essential part of the medieval fantasy world. She strides the stage with a lute and a grin and all eyes are fixed on the bard’s instruments…

Fantasy bard characters are based on actual musicians from Celtic cultures in the middle ages, who were in fact called bards. They were primarily employed to compose and play music that recounted their employer’s heroic deeds and family history. Likewise, in the rest of Europe this role was performed by minstrels.

a vector image of a seated man with a lute by abraham bosse 1630-1631 the bard's instruments
Seated Man with Lute vector
Abraham Bosse (1630-1631)

The Lute

Bards (and minstrels) often played the lute. The lute was a popular medieval and renaissance plucked string instrument. Medieval lutes generally had 4 or 5 strings and were plucked with a quill. During the Renaissance the lute had up to 10 strings, and was typically plucked with the fingers. Eventually the number of strings grew as you may see in the illustration. Check out those shoes!

an image of two beggars playing instruments by adriaen matham 1620-1660 the bard's instruments
Two Beggars
Adriaen Matham (1620-1660)
The man is cranking a Hurdy-Gurdy with his left hand to produce notes. His right hand is pressing the keyboard keys to change the pitch.

The Hurdy-Gurdy

There were plenty of other string instruments in the Medieval Period and Renaissance as well. Harps, fiddles and hurdy-gurdies were common. This amusingly named stringed instrument creates sound when a hand-cranked wheel rubs against the strings. Tthere is also a keyboard component with which the player can change of the pitch of the strings by pushing the keys. It was a popular instrument until the late 17th century, when musical tastes adapted toward sounds more sophisticated than the device could produce. At this time it became the choice instrument of beggars or street performers.

a vector image of two musicians playing instruments vector by hans sebald beham 1537 the bard's instruments
Musicians vector
Hans Sebald Beham (1537)

The Shawm

The shawm is a double-reed woodwind instrument that has been used in Europe since the 12th century. It is conical in shape with a bell-like base. It produces a piercing trumpet-like sound, and is used almost exclusively for outdoor performances. Other common wind instruments included flutes, pan pipes, bagpipes, and gemshorns (essentially hollow animal horn with holes like a recorder). These 16th century characters are playing bagpipes and a shawm.

a vector image of trumpeter on horseback vector jacob de gheyn ii 1599 the bard's instruments
Trumpeter on Horseback vector
Jacob de Gheyn II (1599)

The Trumpet and Buisine

The trumpet was also a popular choice for military processions or municipal events. The trumpet of the Middle Ages was the one or two meter long straight-bodied buisine (or herald’s trumpet). Eventually trumpets began to have more complicated structures resembling modern instruments. In this illustration, the body of the trumpet curves around but there are no valves. Consequently, the device was limited to produce a single note.

A Few More

Beggar with a Hurdy-Gurdy vector
Jacques Callot (1622-1623)
Masked Lute Player vector
Jacob de Gheyn II (1595-1596)
Masked Musician vector
Jacob de Gheyn II (1595-1596)

You may find these illustrations of musicians (and more!) background-free in People.

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