The Bard’s Instruments

From The Witcher to Dungeons & Dragons, the bard plays an essential role in the medieval fantasy world. The fantasy bard stands before her audience with a grin, a lute and a charismatic voice. Singing tales of dramatic bravery or comedic misadventure she hopes to captivate (and fill her coin-purse too).

The 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. In the rest of Europe this role was performed by minstrels.

Seated Man with Lute vector
Abraham Bosse (1630-1631)

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. The number of strings continued to grow as you may see in the illustration above. Check out those shoes!

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.

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. There 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.

Musicians vector
Hans Sebald Beham (1537)

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). The 16th century characters above are playing bagpipes and a shawm.

Trumpeter on Horseback vector
Jacob de Gheyn II (1599)

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 the illustration above, the body of the trumpet curves around but there are no valves, limiting the device to produce a single note.

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

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