[Note: the terms ‘vielle’ and ‘fiddle’ are used in the literature on early European music in two distinct ways: 1) as general names for all bowed chordophones; and 2) as names for a specific type of Medieval European chordophone (in this article).] The vielle or fiddle is a bowed lute chordophone of Medieval Europe. It appears in iconographic sources in many subtly varying designs, but there are no Medieval fiddles that survive. The replica instrument pictured here was constructed in the 20th century by American luthier Bernard E. Lehmann for use by early music performers. Any contemporary maker uses iconographic sources for inspiration in designing their replicas, and these sources are often lacking in details and in their accuracy of proportion. In addition to there being no extant instruments to copy, there exists no music that was composed specifically for this instrument. Yet scholars are confident in saying that the vielle was widely used in all strata of Medieval society for religious events, dance accompaniment, singing accompaniment (such as for epic songs), and in combination with other instruments of the time. In its current resurrection, which started in the mid-20th century with the advent of the early music movement, the vielle is worked into arrangements of Medieval and early Renaissance music at the discretion of the performers.
The resonator of this vielle is a nearly oval-shape with a slight waist, its flat back and curved sides made of thinly-shaven maple. Spruce is used for the flat soundboard, into which are cut two elongated soundholes. The neck and pegblock are made from a single piece of hardwood (possibly rosewood). The neck, which is securely joined to the resonator, is shaped so that its slightly arched fingerboard extends over the soundboard; the neck/fingerboard is angled back slightly from the plane of the soundboard. Six gut frets are securely tied around the neck, and a nut made of a separate piece of wood is glued into a groove cut into the neck at the top end of the fingerboard. Five wooden tuning pegs are back-mounted into the pegblock. One end of each of the instrument’s five strings (two wire wound ones and three gut) are tied around holes at one end of a tailpiece, the other end of which is connected with a thick gut string to an end-pin on the side at the bottom end of the resonator. The strings then pass over and make contact with a high and arched bridge the base of which rests on the soundboard. The strings then pass over the fretted neck and make contact with the nut before being connected to and wound around the tuning pegs. All the strings have the same active vibrating length of 13 inches, the distance between their contact points with the bridge and the nut. A wooden out-curved bow with horsehair is used to set the strings into vibration. The energy of the vibrating strings is transmitted to the resonator by the bridge on the soundboard (there is possibly a soundpost inside the resonator between the soundboard and the backboard to further aid in transmitting the vibrational energy to the resonator).
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
Iconographic sources show the instrument being played in two distinct ways: held horizontally in front of the player with the bottom end of the resonator resting on the player’s left shoulder; or held vertically with the base of the resonator resting on the player’s lap, the neck pointing up, and the soundboard facing out. In both positions the instrument is bowed with the right hand and the strings are stopped against the fretted neck with the fingers of the left hand. One written source from around 1300 CE gives three tuning for the vielle: D3 - G2 - G3 - D4 - D4; D3 - G2 - G3 - D4 - G4; and G2 - G2 - D3 - C4 - C4. Tindemans (2000) feels the middle tuning to be the most practical one, and it, like the other two, hold the potential for one or more strings to be used as drones while melody is played on another string. One or two strings can be bowed at the same time on the instrument pictured here, and if it were outfitted with a flat bridge even more strings could be sounded simultaneously for richer drone combinations.
Origins/History/EvolutionBowing was not present in Europe until probably the 10th century when it was introduced from the Middle East. This would mark the earliest probable date for the existence of Medieval fiddles/vielles. Around the end of the 15th century in Italy and a little later elsewhere in Europe the fiddle was being superseded by other bowed lutes such as the viola da braccio and the violin.
Gillespie, Wendy. 1994. "Bowed Instruments," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 109-124.
Polk, Keith. 1992. German Instrumental Music of the Late Middle Ages: Players, Patrons and Performance Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Remnant, Mary. 1984. "Fiddle [fedylle, fiele, ffidil, ffythele, phidil, vithele, etc.]," NGDMI v.1: 733-740.
Springfels, Mary. 2000. “The Vielle after 1300,” in Ross W. Duffin, ed., The Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 302-316.Tindemans, Margriet. 2000. “The Vielle before 1300,” in Ross W. Duffin, ed., The Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 293-301.