The development of flutes in middle ages

Byzantium

Byzantine finds show flutes made from ivory, on parchment and in frescoes. Those are the earliest medieval depictions. Here, too, the flutes were held to the left. In elevenths century one picture shows a musician with flutes held to the right, this is the illustration of a poem.

The Occident

Occidental finds are from 12th to 14th century. The oldest depiction is from a monastry hand writing Hortus deliciarium from Landsberg and shows a sirene playing the flute. More pictures are in other monastry hand writings. As only one of the picturs shows a flute played to the right, probably around this time still flute played to the left were dominant. As in Europe in early times the flute had been played to the right side and only Asian pictures show flutes played to the left, one might think, that the flute had been forgotten in Europe and came back from Byzantium around the second century.

The textes belonging to the pictures name the flute by swegel. This word stem ist still alive in Slovenian swégla) and Croatian (zvegla). Beside the instrument this word also names the shin bone. This relation of the words shows, that even in middle ages flutes were still build from bones. This idea is confirmed by finds, too.

Other common identifiers are: fistula, pipa (lat.) and pfife (Old High German). All this words stay for other woodwinds, too, and are thus unspecific.

In the 12th century there are the first forms of the word flûte in French (probably from the Latin flatus). This expression is absorpt by nearby languages. At the beginning the noun stands for recorders and flutes. The separation in the language happened only in 13th century.

In 14th century flutes in Germany were blown in about the middle of the tube. This is shown by a picture in the "Manesse hand writing" by the contemporary report about a German flutist.

There are only a few sources about medieval instrumental music. The only known information is, that the flute was a member of the so called "low ensemble", which was played for more private events.

The so called period of Ars nova had it's climax when the pope resided in France. From this epoch there are also pictures showing the use of transverse flutes.

Author: Claudia Haider; Last updated 13.04.2013