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. …