Primitive Flutes can be dated back 20,000 years ago to Palaeolithic man, and came just slightly before the invention of the trumpet. These earliest woodwinds were made from bone, reed, feathers, wood, shells, bamboo, or clay. 

Pan Pipes - These pipes are depicted on Greek and Roman pottery, and were still in use in Europe during the Middle Ages. They were mentioned as court instruments during Charlemagne's time reaching their height in the 10th and 11th centuries. By the 13th century they had almost completely faded from use in professional and courtly music, and the recorders and flutes started their rise in popularity.

Pan Pipes from a 10th century pit at Coppergate in York. 

Ancient Roman depiction of Pan Pipes.


Recorders - From the middle of the 12th century until the middle of the 18th century the recorder was commonly employed in courtly and professional music. They were considered the most useful member of orchestra's in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds. Recorders are usually one of the first instruments we are introduced to in school. They are easy to start learning on but very hard to master. They come in four ranges (and sizes): soprano, alto (the most common), tenor, and bass. There is also a sopranino - which is higher and smaller then the soprano recorder.

12th century Dordrecht, recovered from a French moat.

René II Copying the Psalms (ca 1442-1453), from the Breviary of King René II of Lorraine

Jesse Tree (1411), from a Bible, in French

14th century 'Göttingen Recorder'


Tin Whistles - 12th century bone whistles have been excavated in the Norman quarter of Dublin, but there are indications that whistles similar to what we call tin whistles existed in the 3rd century. These early Irish whistles were called feadan or cuisle and were made from bone, reed, elder, wood, cane, or other grasses. In Scotland the Tusculum whistle, made of bronze or brass, strongly resembles the tin whistle of today, was found with pottery dated from the 14th and 15th centuries. Although the tin whistle has become quite popular in modern Celtic music, it was not considered a serious instrument, and remained as a folk instrument in period. 


Modern Overton Whistle set


Flute - 9th century B.C. or earlier a form of transverse flute was used in China. The earliest pictures of flutes in Western society comes from 10th century pictures in Byzantium and are common in 10th and 11th century manuscript pictures. In the 11th and 12th centuries the flute made it's way across Europe and was called the flûte d'Allemagne or the 'German flute'. They rise in popularity until the early 1400's when they suddenly are mentioned rarely, but by the latter half of the 15th century they move into military use and their popularity rises again. In the 1500's the flute was used both in the military and in courtly music. Like recorders flutes of this time period came in various sizes and ranges, and were used in consort playing, like recorders. What later became the common concert flute, a Boehm flute, was developed in 1832.

Byzantine flutist from an ivory box (10. century) 

Illustration from Musica instrumentalis deudsch by Martin Agricola, Wittenberg, 1528

Typical renaissance flute

Boehm flute (1832)


Fife - The fife is a descendant of the transverse flute, its first appearance was as a Schwitzerpfeiffen (Swiss fife) in the 10th or 11th century. In the early 1500's the Swiss fife was used to control military movements in battle. 1534 the fife was in regulation use in France (two fifes, and two drums per company of 1000 men). During this time the fifes were also brought to England as part of the King's band. By 1539 British citizens were using them at Christmas festivals, and 1550's on the stage and in the British military.

Keyless cylindrical flute from 1550.

A woodcut from Leonhard Fronsperger's manual of military discipline.
(Frankfurt, 1555).

Modern Sweetheart replica military fifes.