The Jew's Harp in Western Europe: Trade, Communication, and Innovation, 1150-1500

By Kolltveit, Gjermund | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Jew's Harp in Western Europe: Trade, Communication, and Innovation, 1150-1500


Kolltveit, Gjermund, Yearbook for Traditional Music


In 1999 archaeologists excavated a section of the Hellweg, a medieval road near the present city of Paderborn in northern Germany.1 In the rubble of the road, which was an important east-west trade route, the excavators found a jew's harp,2 deposited in an archaeological context dating it to the late thirteenth century. The iron instrument was well preserved, except for the broken and partly missing lamella (figure 1). It had a distinct mark punched into its forged frame. Where did this musical instrument originate and how did it arrive at this site? Was it brought here by someone who played the jew's harp or by a pedlar carrying this instrument among other goods for sale? Who had made it and where?

Although this find was among the unusual artefacts of this excavation, jew's harps are quite frequently found in excavations of medieval sites in Europe. This particular specimen represents the most typical type found. Its punch mark indicates that it was made by a professional artisan, presumably a member of a guild. However, it probably did not build on a long tradition of manufacturing jew's harps in Europe. No reliable finds at all pre-date 1200, while from the thirteenth century onward the quantity of excavated objects suggests an expansion of an almost explosive character.

This article discusses how this tiny musical instrument was circulated in its early period in Europe, exploring how large-scale production occurred, followed by a rapid expansion throughout the continent. Understanding of this geographical and indeed commercial expansion must be seen against a backdrop of significant European developments in travel, trade, and urbanization, especially in the period from about 1150 to 1300. Moreover, the reason for the fast expansion in the geographical distribution of the jew's harp is not only to be found in patterns of trade and communication, but also in innovation. The establishment of the instrument in Europe with efficient, professional systems of production and distribution demanded technology and organization linked to innovative activities.

There may also have been some long-distance trade and communication involved in this story, assuming that the jew's harp was introduced to Europe from Asia. Although we lack substantial data concerning the origin and earliest development of this instrument, archaeology unambiguously confirms that Asian jew's harps made of various materials and with varying construction principles far pre-date the finds from Europe. The most reliable theory is accordingly that the jew's harp travelled from Asia to Europe, and that it arrived fully developed in the common metal form: open-framed with two parallel arms. If this theory is right, the instrument arrived in Europe some time before 1200. In the course of a relatively short period of time after that, it became immensely popular in Europe.

Looking at musical, technological, and commercial developments in medieval Europe, this study takes archaeology as a point of departure and demonstrates the significance of music archaeology. The period in question is by no means devoid of written sources, making this study different from music archaeological research in purely pre-historical settings. However, there is not much written or mentioned about the jew's harp in medieval literary sources. Archaeology, on the other hand, gives evidence of a large quantity of instruments, as well as technological and typological variation and patterns of distribution, forms of communication, etc. Quite often, medieval archaeology has the role of being a secondary and supplementary source to written or iconographic data, but in this case the primary source material consists of archaeological finds, while other source categories play a supportive role. This primary emphasis on the finds and on material culture is different from most other non-archaeological approaches to music and musical instruments.

Trade and communication

In the course of the thirteenth century, the jew's harp became well established in Europe. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Jew's Harp in Western Europe: Trade, Communication, and Innovation, 1150-1500
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.