Bowed Psaltery

But she's playing a lyra


One year, while visiting the Bristol Renaissance Faire, I happened into a small company selling folk instruments. 

"The psaltery is an ancient instrument, and the use of a bow to play it probably started in the Renaissance," they told me.

I tried playing the psaltery with a bow. It was very easy; the psaltery is primarily a melody instrument, ideal for someone like me--a person with a good ear but no skill at reading music. I was hooked. The money flowed forth from my fingers, and I went home with the psaltery and a determination to play it. 

However, I am not one to take the word of a merchant regarding history, so I started doing a bit of digging on my own. There is ample evidence for the existence of the psaltery in period; what is difficult to find is evidence for its being played with a bow rather than plucked with fingers or plectrum (pick) or struck with hammers.

The primary problem in looking for evidence of the bow-played psaltery (versus the plectrum-played psaltery) rests largely in the terminology used in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. That the psaltery is an instrument of the middle ages is undoubted; there is plenty of visual and written evidence for its existence as a period instrument. Period depictions in illuminated manuscripts show a variety of shapes and numbers of strings for the psaltery; modernly, the most commonly seen shape is what is generally referred to as "pig snout," however, square, trapezoidal, and triangular psalteries were not uncommon in period. In fact, the psaltery in these various shapes is the ancestor of such instruments as the hammered dulcimer and the zither.

The confusion regarding the name begins early. Lyre, in ancient Rome, referred to the ancient, small harp played with a plectrum. During the Middle Ages, this word came to apply to huge variety of bowed and plucked instruments. In fact, at some times, lyre (or lira, lyra) referred to any stringed instrument. The Italian Lyra was one of the earliest bowed instruments, had about 4-7 strings, and was played by resting the instrument on the arm--as is the bowed psaltery.

Now, add the confusion of names especially for the psaltery. The triangular-shaped psaltery might also be called a rote (rotta, rotte), which, in turn, might also be applied to the crwth (a box shaped instrument played by both plucking and bowing) or the harp. Then, consider that many instruments that were typically bowed might also be played with a plectrum or finger plucking--the viol, for instance.

It isn't difficult to imagine, given the variety of terminology and the flexibility of practice in the Middle Ages, that positive evidence for playing a psaltery with a bow might be a bit difficult to find. On the other hand, the same things that make a positive "yes, they did" nearly impossible also makes a definitive "no, they didn't" position difficult to support.

 So I popped over to DejaNews and searched the old messages for references to the bowed psaltery. Interestingly enough, I found that there are two camps over there, too. Some folks say "It was invented by a German musician around the 1920's to help children learn music." Others say "The psaltery is an ancient instrument, and it was bowed as early as the middle ages." One woman went so far to say that the German musician merely reintroduced the bowed psaltery.

 Who is right?

 I'm still researching. I don't have an answer. There must be a "first recorded use" someplace, and I'd like to find it. Too, it could be that the instrument I call "bowed psaltery" may have clearly existed in period but was called by something completely different, and may have been in use elsewhere in the world, but unknown to Western Europe. For now, I know that a triangular psaltery is period, and I know that playing it with a pick or hammers is appropriate, and I theorize that playing the psaltery with a bow is possibly period--one person may have tried it, as there is plenty of evidence for bowing things that were also plucked. Someone might have had a brainstorm. However, I think that until I find absolute proof positive of a bowed psaltery in period, I'm thinking that the bowed psaltery is probably a modern modification of period instruments--and merchants shouldn't be trusted to tell you the truth about it.

 That said, I still see the bowed psaltery as a viable instrument for SCA performances. Given a choice between a modern guitar--also a modern adaptation of a period instrument rather than something that was actually used in period--and the bowed psaltery, I'd take the psaltery. To my ear, it sounds more like a period bowed instrument than a guitar sounds like a period plucked/strummed instrument (such as the lute or the cittern). To my eye, it looks more like a period instrument than a modern guitar. And, if all else fails, I can whip out a feather and play the psaltery with a plectrum--an indisputably pre-1601 practice.


Here is what I've taught myself to stumble through so far:

Definitely pre-1601

Probably pre-1601


Tussar's Cannon


Ash Grove

Belle qui (Carolingian Pavane)


Scarborough Fair


Maybe some day I'll be able to smoothly play these--and more. I'm working on it.

 One way in which I am picking up period music is by trying to learn the music provided by The Internet Renaissance Band. Very helpful to ear-players like me.

Coming soon: demonstration of playing the psaltery with bow, hammer, and quill plectrum.



Oxford Companion to Music.

Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments.

Reese, Gustuve. Music in the Middle Ages.

Various discussions posted on,, and, obtained through a search at DejaNews.


The Psaltery: A single page containing a good picture of the modern Bowed Psaltery and the period Psaltery, with nice sound files in various formats. The page does claim that the bowed psaltery is a Renaissance instrument, but I must point out that what little serious literature I have been able to find on the bowed psaltery (Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments) clearly states that the chromatic psaltery played with a bow is a product of the 20th century.

There are many dealers of the bowed and picked psaltery. I am very happy with my purchase from Unicorn Strings, but you might also want to look at Omega Strings, Craggy Mountain Music, Lark in the Morning. These are the major internet dealers. There are also some smaller makers, but I have heard nothing about them as to their quality or reliability. Find smaller dealers by going to Dogpile and entering "bowed psaltery" for a search string. When you look at dealer prices, don't be thrown by the range in prices. Many of the less expensive instruments come without accessories. I purchased the psaltery, bow, case, instructional tape, instructional book, instructional video, music book, tuning fork, extra string, 2 sets note guides, and rosin for about US$250.

Musicmaker's Kits, Inc. has kits for both bowed and plucked psalteries, if you would like to try making your own--I must admit, I'm thinking of buying the pig-snout psaltery. There are also plenty of woodworking books that contain plans for both bowed and plucked psalteries. Here is an example of such plans.



Questions, comments, thoughts? I welcome correspondence at

{Elise Boucher} {Sept Pendray} {Merouda Pendray} {A&S Mania}