The Harp in the Middle Ages: The Symbolism of a Musical Instrument

The Harp in the Middle Ages: The Symbolism of a Musical Instrument

The Harp in the Middle Ages: The Symbolism of a Musical Instrument

The Harp in the Middle Ages: The Symbolism of a Musical Instrument


"In this study, Van Schaik successfully separates the real from the symbolic in a way that illuminates the meaning of the symbol." - Linda Simonson, in: Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 17
" contains a rich collection of materials and is sure to stimulate further discussion of musical symbolism in the Middle Ages." - Elizabeth Aubrey, in: Speculum - A Journal of Mediaeval Studies 69


Swer die schrift verstên kan eben,
Der vindet künic Davîdes harpfen klanc.

'He who can fully understand the Holy Scriptures,
will find the sound of King David's harp.'

The above quotation from the didactic poem Der Renner by the German author Hugh of Trimberg, which was probably written shortly before 1300, refers to the subject-matter under investigation in the present study, which can be defined as the question of the interpretation of the medieval harp as a Christian symbol. The biblical figure of King David has a special relevance in relation to the significance of the harp. He is pictured with a harp innumerable times and in many different guises. Contemporary researchers of musical iconography assume that the various modes of appearance of the medieval harp – modes of appearance that strike us, here in the twentieth one century, as stereotype – each had an individual meaning. These deeper meanings must be sought in the concepts represented by the various modes of appearance of the harp.

Although attributing symbolic significance to musical instruments in the Middle Ages was not in itself unusual, it was exceptional to treat a musical instrument then actually extant, as a symbol. In this respect the harp is unique among medieval musical instruments. The origin of the meanings which were attached to musical instruments in the Middle Ages was almost invariably religious with roots in the Bible exegesis of the Greek and Latin Church Fathers from the first centuries of our era. Their purpose was to endow the musical instruments mentioned in the Old and New Testaments with a higher significance. The immediate motive for this was the moral opposition of the Church Fathers to the use of musical instruments in daily life and in the worship of gods.

In view of the religious context in which the harp was depicted in the Middle Ages, it is easy to imagine that its significance also was influenced – either directly or indirectly – by the biblical exegesis of the Church Fathers. The opinions of those who have conducted studies into the symbolism of the harp diverge. It is unclear whether the harp in the Holy Scriptures is an interpretation of one particular instrument (for example the cithara, psalterium or lyra), or of a group of instruments (for example, stringed instruments). This gap in our knowledge complicates research on the significance of the harp. It makes it very difficult to draw a boundary-line between the harp as a symbol and as a real instrument in illustra-

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