Stringed instruments also come from the days of primitive man, with the earliest one possibly being the sound of an arrow being released from a bow. 2000 B.C. forms of the lyre and harp were used in ancient countries, and are frequently depicted on Greek pottery. Bowed strings seem to have originated in the near east.

Fiddle - Also called the vielle, in the 12th and 13th centuries the fiddle was frequently played by minstrels and jongleurs, and was considered one of the most popular medieval instruments. One string was used as a drone and was plucked by the thumb. The other strings were bowed. 

A viela or vihuela and a Lute. 
Francesco Rabolini detto il Francia (1450ca-1517), Angeli musicanti (Madonna della Cappella Bentivoglio), Chiesa di S.Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna.

Reproduction Medieval Fiddle based on a late 13th century carving from Lincoln Cathedral.


Violin - A descendant of the fiddle or vielle (a Near Eastern instrument - favoured by minstrels and troubadours of the middle ages) and the rebec (and Arabian instrument). During the 1500's Viols developed - one form was held between the legs or on the knee, called a viole da gamba (leg viols); the other was held in the arms viole da braccio (arm viols). The violin is a modern version of a soprano or treble arm viol. The violin's earliest job was to play for dancers or in theatres, and was used as early as 1581 in the orchestra that played for the first ballet. The earliest violin makers were Italian, and many were originally trained as lute makers. Antonio Stradivarius (c1644-1737), the famous violin maker, studied under the grandson of the man who created the first modern violin.

David, Bartolomeo Passerotti, 1529-1592, Italy

Fragment of Peitro Perugino,  1446-1524,


Extasy of St.Francisk, Giovanni Francesco Italy Barbieri detto il Guercino, 1620, Italy


Lute - It is speculated that the lute originated in the Fertile Crescent or the Caucasus. It traveled into Europe at the end of the 13th century through the returning crusaders and the Moors in Spain. By the 1400's the strings had doubled and it was plucked and strummed with fingers instead of a plectrum (a quill or birds claw); and it had become the lute we commonly think of. It quickly became a favoured instrument over the course of the Renaissance and was used throughout Europe.

Lutes and Recorders shown. The Triumph of Venus, by Francesco Cossa, 1470.

Attributed to an associate of Leonado da Vinci (c1500) National Gallery. London.


Guitar - The guitar was first played 5,000 years ago in Egypt. The Romans brought it to Spain, and by 1500 it had become the Spanish national instrument - called a vihuela. Louis Milan (1500-61) wrote a book of music and instructions for playing the guitar. From there many composers wrote music for the guitar and included it as part of their chamber ensembles. In 1526 the guitar made its was to Mexico along with the Spanish settlers.

16th century vihuela

Angels, one playing a guitar. Pre 1500.

Medieval 4- string Guitar

Renaissance guitar


Mandolin - This is the modern survivor of the Renaissance lute. This instrument is popular around Naples (Italy) and is commonly used to play love or folk songs. A painting by Agnelo Gaddi (1369-1396) depicts a mandora (a miniature lute). The miniature lute was probably created fill out the scale of 16th century lute ensembles. It was called a Pandura by the Assyrians, a Dambura by the Arabs, a Mandora by the Latins, and a mandola by the Italians. The smaller version of the traditional Italian mandola was called mandolina. Orville Gibson created the first modern mandolin, which has a flat back, in 1905.

Miniature Lute 

Modern Mandolin 

Agnolo Gaddi, The Coronation
of the Virgin, probably c. 1370 (instrument on the right, helb by the angel in blue).


Harp - This instrument is pictured on four to five thousand year old vases from Babylon, making it one of the oldest stringed instruments. There is a existing 2,500 year old Harp displayed in the Egyptian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC). It is the national instrument of Wales and Irelands, and was common thought Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The predecessors of sharping keys (originally introduced as pedals) were introduced in 1810. The modern concert harp has 47 strings and seven pedals.

Harp at Trinity College, Dublin. 15th or 16th century

Reciter and harper performing before a chief. John Derricke, Image of Ireland, 1581.