Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

The Jew's Harp in the Law, 1590-1825

Academic journal article Folk Music Journal

The Jew's Harp in the Law, 1590-1825

Article excerpt

Prior to the nineteenth century, written references to the Jew's harp are scarce and mention of named players is extremely rare. One source, however, that describes individuals and their circumstances can be found in criminal trial records. In fact, the first three players of the instrument whom we can definitely identify were tried, convicted, and executed for one crime or another. That the accused were associated with the Jew's harp was coincidental and it had nothing to do with their convictions, but it was considered sufficiently unusual to be noted at their trials. This article considers what we know about the trials and how confident we can be that the information contained in court records and contemporaneous written accounts is correct. It also looks at the historical context in which each of the accused lived and the circumstances of their arrest, and how and why the Jew's harp was mentioned at the trial. It explores what tunes might have been played, how much Jew's harps might have cost and where they could have been purchased, and describes archaeological finds that show the kinds of instruments available. The overall evidence suggests that the Jew's harp was a widely distributed musical instrument throughout the period, but that exceptional performance skills on it were sufficiently unusual to invite comment.


Amongst all the thousands of trial documents recorded in England and Scotland between 1590 and 1825, twenty-four trials have the distinction of mentioning the musical instrument known as the Jew's harp or Jew's trump (often simply 'trump', especially in modern Scottish usage) (Figure 1). Three specifically give the names of players on the instrument, the first players of the Jew's harp whom we can identify; in four the instrument itself provides evidence in the trial; and the remainder include references to locations in London which comprise either drinking establishments or thoroughfares called the Jew's Harp House, Jew's Harp Tavern, or Jew's Harp Court.


Finding information about popular musical instruments is challenging, since writers did not usually consider something as trivial as a Jew's harp worthy of serious comment. Indeed, there were (and still are) some who do not consider it a musical instrument at all. When, therefore, a source does come to light that describes a player, or players, of the instrument, it provides a fascinating insight not only into the background of the people concerned but also into the social context in which the instrument was played. The references to the Jew's harp discussed here are taken from several kinds of written documents, including original manuscripts, criminal trial records, and witchcraft histories. The kinds of instruments played can be surmised from the evidence of surviving specimens and iconographic representations, the latter coming mainly from contemporary woodcuts or engravings.

We can gain some idea of how much might have been paid for a Jew's harp by tracing the information sent by government officials to customs officers in the Rates of Customs and Rates of Merchandizes books. These provide evidence of the importation of Jew's harps from the Continent throughout the period. (1) There is also a remarkable Customs Account, dated 1481, that indicates that Jew's harps were imported in some quantity. (2) From the beginning of the seventeenth century, lists of pedlars' goods from Lothian in Scotland and from various parts of England give us a street value for the instrument. The association between Jew's harps and pedlars is supported by contemporary prints from the Continent, which, in conjunction with a number of incidental remarks in plays, offer clues as to where players might have purchased their instruments (Figure 2). Archaeological finds of Jew's harps from the period in question do exist, but, considering the vast numbers that were imported over the two hundred years under consideration, they are relatively few in number. …

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