Rutland Organistrum
Rutland Organistrum
Rutland Organistrum

This is a conjectural reconstruction, commisioned by Sue Pope, of an instrument depicted in the Rutland Psalter, an illuminated book of psalms from around 1260, which was owned by the Earls of Rutland until it was acquired by the British Museum in 1983. A digitised version is now available online:

British Museum - Rutland Psalter

Illumination of man playing an organistrum
Organistrum from the Rutland Psalter
Rutland Psalter illustration of men playing an organ and organistrum. Another man works the
							bellows with his feet.
Organistrum, organ and bellows
Photo of the alternative simple crank handle
Alternative handle - simple crank

It would be very useful to discover an artist from this period who had the obsessive attention to detail of later painters such as Hans Memling. Alas, 13th century illuminators were rather more figurative, and many details are missing (such as the strings!). However, the overall size and shape of the instrument can be determined with a fair degree of accuracy.

It is clearly an organistrum (early hurdy-gurdy), with three pegs, therefore three strings. It has a single row of keys, so it is diatonic, which one would expect for this period. There is no wheel cover, but the wheel slot is decorated with a simple painted edging.

Eight keys are shown, but they're not in the right positions to create any meaningful scale. I have used eleven keys, which gives a useful range. After much experimentation, I arrived at a tuning and stringing schedule that sounds good, and makes the instrument sing, but also makes sense to people who already play hurdy-gurdies or keyboards.

The instrument has a single chanterelle tuned to g, giving a range of g to d'. There are two drones, in g and c'. The chanterelle is an octave lower than a g' hurdy-gurdy. This gives a clear melody, but it sits "inside" the drones, producing a thick, complex texture.

The open chanterelle sounds g, and the third key is c'. The scale is C major (or Ionian mode). However, I designed the keyboard so that some of the tangents can be turned to give alternative notes. B flat, E flat, F sharp and C sharp are available. This allows a lot of scope for tuning in various modes, even without altering the pitch of the drones, which provides even more options.

The simple crank, without a knob, is also shown in paintings by Jheronymus Bosch. It appears awkward, but in practice it works really well. For players who want something more familiar, I can substitute a conventional hurdy-gurdy handle, which makes the instrument more compact. It comes with two straps, so it can be played standing up if required.

It is finished in a distinctive blue wood stain, approximately matching the colour in the psalter illustration. That, of course, can be altered to suit your preference.

Sound Clips

La Septieme Estampie Real
French, 13th century



Rutland Organistrum, coloured stain or painted (pick your colour)
Rutland Organistrum, natural wood finish - maple, with walnut keys and pegs

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.