bout the Psaltery

The psaltery is a string instrument with a soundbox that is parallel to the strings. This differentiates it from the harp in which the strings are perpendicular to the soundbox. It does not have frets, which differentiates it from the zither. Unlike most instruments, psalteries have been produced in a wide variety of shapes. Writings from the ninth century A.D. state that psalteries were either shaped like the greek letter delta, and were thus triangular, or were in shape of a rectangle. Later European instruments were trapezoidal or wing shaped. Psalteries have also been played by various means. Early European instruments were plucked. These then developed into the dulcimer, which is a psaltery that is struck with a hammer. Psalteries were also bowed. Bowed instruments were popularized in the early twentieth century.

Unfortunately, early writings about the psaltery are not paired with iconographic evidence. Thus, the history of the instrument is not certain. It is known that the instrument was mentioned in Western writings since biblical times. The European psaltery of the Middle Ages had several influences. Two are evidenced in the text De universo by Rabanus Maurus. This was one of the ninth century texts describing the shape of the instrument. A second influence was the qanun, a psaltery from the Middle East. Its name is derived from the Greek term kanon. The instrument was brought into Spain during the Moorish conquest.

Early illustrations of European psalteries do not show soundholes on the soundboard. They were first depicted in the twelfth century, and become more common over time. Illustrations of psalteries that appear in the Cantigas de Santa Maria of Alfonso El Sabio demonstrate the variety of instruments that existed in the mid thirteenth century. Some took the form of a trapezoid and were strung in courses, with three or more strings per note. Others had a modified trapezoidal shape with curved sides. This type became common in northern Europe and was dubbed the hog nose psaltery because of its shape. Such instruments were usually single strung. Still others were stepped. Later sources show other instruments such as a combination of a harp and psaltery.

Psalteries were used throughout the Middle Ages to accompany song and as a solo instrument playing a melody. Like the harp they went out of favor in the Renaissance.

In 1925, Clemens Neuber, a instrument manufacturer in Germany, was granted a patent on a bowed psaltery. The instrument was popularized in the 1930s by Edgar Stahmer, a music teacher in Saarbrucken, and by Walter Mittman a primary school teacher in Westphalia. Ronald Roberts, a friend of Stahmer, brought the instrument to England after the world war II. In the 1980s the instrument was featured in Making Early String Instruments by Ronald Zachary Taylor.

The following are photographs of a bowed psaltery:

Bowed Psaltery

Bowed Psaltery

Bowed Psaltery

Thanks to D. Glenn Arthur Jr. for supplying us with the photographs of the bowed psalteries pictured on this page. Visit his home page at

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