The Hurdy Gurdy Was Essential Medieval Entertainment Enjoyed by Merrymakers Across Europe
The hurdy gurdy is a musical instrument, or more precisely, a string instrument, that traces its origin to the Middle Ages of Europe. The hurdy gurdy was initially used to play sacred music, before being adapted to play popular and folk music. Later on, its status was elevated even further when it gained favor for a time at the French court. Eventually, the hurdy gurdy’s popularity declined, and it became a musical instrument that many would not have heard of. In recent times, however, the hurdy gurdy is enjoying a sort of revival, both in Europe, and in North America.
Why a ‘Hurdy Gurdy’?
It has been pointed out that no one actually knows the reason the hurdy gurdy is called as such in the English language. As a matter of fact, the English name of this musical instrument was only coined during the 18 th century. One speculation is that the hurdy gurdy is related to ‘hurly burly’, which is used to describe an uproar or tumult, hence a possible reference to the noise made by this musical instrument. The hurdy gurdy is known also in French as a vielle à roue , which may be translated as a ‘wheel fiddle’, undoubtedly a name that provides a better description of the instrument.
A hurdy gurdy player. Blind Musician by Georges de la tour, 17 th century. ( Public Domain )
How does it Work?
In essence, the hurdy gurdy is a string instrument, like a violin, or a guitar. Unlike such instruments, which produce sound (through the resonance of the vibrating strings) by having the strings rubbed by a bow or by being plucked with the finger or a plectrum, the hurdy gurdy produces sound by having its strings rubbed by a rosined wheel. In a modern hurdy gurdy, the musician would turn the wheel of the instrument, via a handle (the crank) with one hand (usually the right), whilst the other would be used to play the tune on the keys in a keybox.
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Illustration of the parts of a hurdy gurdy. ( Public Domain )
It has often been remarked that the sound produced by a hurdy gurdy is similar to that of a bagpipe. This is due to the presence of several drone strings outside the keybox, which sound the same note continuously. One of these drone strings is supported by a chien (French for dog), which is a small moveable bridge. By cranking the wheel harder, the chien may be made to vibrate rhythmically, which produces a buzzing accompaniment to the tune.
The origin of the hurdy gurdy is still a matter of debate. According to one speculation, it was the Moors of North Africa who introduced this musical instrument to Europe. When the Moors invaded Spain, they brought with them numerous string instruments, and one of these could have been a precursor to the hurdy gurdy. The earliest form of the hurdy gurdy that is known for sure is known as an organistrum, depictions of which have been dated to the 12 th century. This instrument was a larger version of the hurdy gurdy, and required two musicians to play it. The organistrum was mainly used in the church for sacred music, though the wooden keys could also be re-arranged in order to play secular music as well.
12th century relief indicating two players needed to play the organistrum. Church of Toro, Zamora, Spain. ( Public Domain )
In the following century, the size of the organistrum was reduced so that it could be played by one musician, hence the hurdy gurdy came into being. The key action of this musical instrument was also improved. Whereas the difficult key action of the organistrum restricted it to playing slow melodies and simple harmonies, its improvement made the hurdy gurdy suitable for playing dance music. As a result of this, the hurdy gurdy became used less for sacred music, and more for folk and popular music.
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The small hurdy gurdy is barely visible under the arm and cloak of the player in this 17 th Century painting. Gathering of Gamblers with Hurdy-Gurdy Player circa 1660. ( Public Domain )