most heinous use of a musical instrument–so far

I know very well (that is, I think I know) that ‘harps’ in Hild’s time were essentially lyres, like this:

reproduction of Sutton Hoo lyre at the British Museum

However, story-wise my notions of ‘harp’ are so strong that I’ve taken the liberty of giving Anglo-Saxons gut-strung lyres, like the one above, and the British–especially the Irish–more traditional twelve-string beasties like this one from the Winchcombe Psalter:


11th c winchcombe harp (from The Winchcombe Psalter, c. 1030-1050 AD), photo from Simon’s Anglo-Saxon Harp page

In addition, I’ve strung the British harps with bronze rather than sheep gut. Their singers are better, too. (Some cliches one simply shouldn’t mess with: Celtic harps glittering in the firelight; supple, trained voices, etc.)

To make up for their not-great harps:


I’ve given the Angles pipes and whistles (though I haven’t bothered describing them–too many things to fret about: pan pipes? antler? bone? wood? how many holes? how tuned?) and drums. The Britons would have had these, too, of course, but it’s just simpler to divide the spoils. I often wonder whether they had some kind of idiophonic, glockenspiel/marimba-type instrument: bells, wooden blocks, chimes. But this isn’t a novel about music, as such, so I elected not to chase down those details in my research. (Naturally I’m eager to hear from those who might have the info at their fingertips.)

One thing I would really like to know more about is plainchant. I know James the Deacon accompanied Paulinus to the north and spent the rest of his life there. But I’m trying to imagine what it must have been like for Hild to hear that kind of music for the first time and fall in love with its cool clarity. Right now she thinks, It was the music stars might sing. Were it water, it would turn any bird who drank of it white. But I’m prepared to accept she might just think it sucked.

Then I run into the difficulties of resonance: plainchant only works in stone buildings. So immediately I have to make the basilica at York still standing, and I have to clear it of hangings and furniture and floor rushes. I have to cover the newly dug fire pits with hard board, which makes the place really, really cold… But it’s lovely to imagine Hild standing there wreathed in her own breath, lost in the music. Then, of course, I send her back to the firelit halls of Yeavering with much meatier, rowdier music, perhaps something like this:


and, in the end, I know where my heart lies. But the heart in question is Hild’s. Lots of decisions ahead…

4 thoughts on “most heinous use of a musical instrument–so far

  1. When I read “Hild,” I immediately thought “Hildegard of Bingen.” So, there was ANOTHER hooly wymmyn who was a musical genius, named Hild? How awesome 🙂 I can’t wait to read the book!

  2. Hild wasn’t a musical genius. At least not to my knowledge. In fact, the way I’ve imagined her, she has no musical gifts. But she has teaching gifts, and sees immediately how music can be used for that purpose. (She has already met Caedmon, son a cowherd…)

  3. I think there’s actually some basis for your Anglian/Celtic divide of musical instruments. I know what I know of this from Leslie Alcock’s <>Kings and Warriors, Craftsmen and Priests<> (< HREF="http://tenthmedieval.wordpress.com/2008/07/29/leslie-alcock-book-review/" REL="nofollow">which I reviewed here<> but there’s also < HREF="http://www.pictart.org/music.htm" REL="nofollow">this page by the Pictish Arts Society<> which has some stuff about the Pictish evidence, such as it be. Alcock's book is more usefully comparative, but that's basically what he came up with. If you can get hold of a loan I think it might help you: he has a plate showing all the different instruments depicted on the Pictish symbol stones, for a start. What he basically comes up with (pp. 409-412) is lyres, Germanic/Continental, harps, Celtic/Insular, with all the cross-bleeding those terms allow. Also brass trumpets, reeded pipes, triple pipes (like very basic pan-pipes but apparently with note holes—I wonder if the middle one was a drone note like a bagpipe? It'd be difficult to finger) and cymbals, these all on Pictish stones. Hope that's some help.Jonathan

  4. jonathan, that’s tremendously useful, thank you. (Useful review, too; I can’t think how I missed it.) I’ll see what the library can do for me.And, wow, those Pictish carnyces! Gotta put one in the book somewhere…

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