Medieval Citole

Large image of Diabolus Medieval Citole

Diabolus Medieval Citole

This is a reconstruction, commissioned by Ian Pittaway, of the only surviving medieval citole, dated to the early 14th century, now in the British Museum. That instrument was unfortunately converted into a violin in the 16th century, so the original soundboard and fingerboard are lost, but the body survived virtually intact, probably due to the superb, intricate carvings which adorn almost every surface.

British Museum Citole and detail of carving

British Museum Citole and detail of carving

The citole was a popular instrument in the 13th and 14th centuries, but the documentary evidence is confusing. There are many names resembling "citole", applied to what appear to be several different instruments, and there are mulitple theories about its development. It may or may not be related to the vielle and/or the cetra. Fortunately, the surviving British Museum instrument gives us an actual example, which clearly corresponds to a number of illustrations. So, whatever the other illustrations show, this is definitely a citole.

De Lisle Psalter, c. 1330

De Lisle Psalter, c. 1330

The soundboard, fingerboard, bridge and tailpiece of the Diabolus citole are necessarily conjectural, but they are derived from the clearest iconographic sources. I didn't attempt to copy the original carvings, apart from the prominent dragon on the head. An exact reproduction would occupy a master carver for many months, and cost a fortune. Instead, I tried to retain the spirit of the original in a simpler and less costly form, featuring decorative borders, dense leaf motifs, knights, snails, rabbits, and fantastic beasts, all drawn from the lunatic world that lurks in the marginalia of medieval documents.

The British Museum instrument had six strings, probably arranged in three courses. Ian wanted a single-strung, four course instrument, which is typical of many citoles depicted in illustrations and carvings. It also corresponds to tuning information in the 14th century Berkeley Theory Manuscript. It is tuned

c' d' g' c''

But, of course, tuning can be modified to your specification.

String material is NylGut, or natural gut if you prefer. The erroneous idea that citoles were strung in wire probably arose from confusion with the Cetra.

The surprisingly small thumb hole is a distinctive feature of the citole. Contrary to one's first impressions, it doesn't make the instrument difficult to play. Five minutes experimentation demonstates that all the frets on the fingerboard are comfortably within reach, even with the thumb anchored firmly within the confines of the hole.

Why would medieval luthiers create an instrument with such a peculiar shape, requiring a huge and very expensive block of prime carving wood? The answer lies in the sound, which is unique. The gittern, also popular in this period, is a similar size, with similar stringing, but the citole sounds nothing like a gittern - or anything else, for that matter. It produces a clear melody, ideal for solo work, but within a complex landscape of resonances. See sound clips below.


Click images to enlarge.

Sound Clip

"La Manfredina" (Italian, c. 1400)
Played by Ian Pittaway

Video Clip

Played by Ian Pittaway


Medieval Citole, fully carved as above
(your choice of medieval beasties)
Medieval Citole, plain other than a carved head
Four or six strings, tuning - your choice.

To order or enquire, pleasecontact me


Cases - Excellent cases can be ordered from specialist manufacturers such as Kingham MTM, but they're pricy. I can supply an attractive, custom-built plywood case, black with chrome fittings, for £220 when ordered with an instrument.

Delivery - the price depends on where you live. Please enquire.

I hate it when websites say "Phone for a quote", so to give you some idea - getting a baroque guitar in its case to America, including insurance, is currently about £170. Getting one to Kent is about half that.

Waiting time, from placing an order to clutching your new baby, is currently about 16 months. It's very approximate, because the schedule often contains items that are somewhat experimental, and they may take more or less time to complete than anticipated. Usually more.

Deposit- I usually ask for £150 (non-returnable unless I'm dead, insane, incapacitated or incarcerated) to secure an order and cover materials. Once that's paid, your order is entered into my Magic Book. Nothing happens for several months, then you receive an email to tell you I've started construction. A few weeks later, a big parcel arrives, and you squeal with delight.

Anote on HUMIDITY - delicate wooden instruments are remarkably resilient, but they can have major problems with both high and low atmospheric humidity levels. I keep my workshop at the recommended humidity level, between 45% and 50%, and I strongly recommend that instruments are kept as close to that range as possible. Electronic humidity meters are available cheaply on the Internet. They're small enough to keep in your instrument's case.
Low humidity can shrink wood, resulting in cracks and distortion. Case humidifiers, again available quite cheaply, should prevent this.
High humidity can swell the wood enough to cause cracking and warping, but the main risk is the formation of water droplets, either from condensation or perspiration while playing. These can damage varnish and slowly dissolve glue joints. A silica gel sachet can be kept in the case, but use a humidity meter as well. Take care it doesn't reduce the case humidity too far.