A reconstruction from the 13th Century

A manuscript known as the 'Rutland Psalter' was written in London between 1250 and 1260, and the document is currently in the archives of the British Library. The 'Rutland Psalter' is full of detailled illustrations, including one showing King David playing an organ. In this same illustration another musician is sitting next to the king and playing an early form of hurdy-gurdy. As the organ and King David suggest that this is religious music, the hurdy-gurdy may well be a small 'organistrum'; an instrument used by the church prior to the organ. However, the 'organistrum' required two musicians; one to turn the crank and the other to play the keyboard.


This instrument with it's relatively modern form and blue colour struck me as an interesting design for a project and consequently I have produced some drawings based on the proportions of the instrument shown in the illustration and two hurdy-gurdies have been completed.

The instrument has only three strings, but one can only speculate on the function of these strings. The 'organistrum' may well have had all three strings tuned in harmony and played parallel organum to accompany plainsong. Perhaps two strings gave the melody and the third was used as a drone for accompaniment; there is no certain answer. In my first prototype I used one chanterelle (melody string) and two drones, but the melody was not really loud enough when both drones were played together. The second solution was to use two chanterelles tuned in unison to give a strong melody, but this limited the drone to one string.

This restriction was overcome by adding capodastres to the drone and allowing it to be readily tuned to different pitches. There is still only one drone string but several tones are now possible to offer a choice of accompaniment to the melody.

The instrument is tuned with an open string D with a drone in D an octave lower. The capodastres give the possibility of raising the drone to E or to G. The string length is 436mm which is considerably longer than a regular 'soprano' hurdy-gurdy; an octave and a fifth range is available on the keyboard.

There is of course no 'trompette/chien' arrangement installed on this early type of instrument.

The original medieval keyboard was diatonic, but the reconstructed instrument has a chromatic keyboard. I know this isn't authentic but it is very practical. Most musicians demand chromatic instruments and it has been designed for this reason. Also, the medieval tuning pegs have been replaced with mechanical tuners. Again, this isn't in keeping with the period but it does keep the instrument in tune; the traditional pegs don't have anywhere near the same accuracy.

The medieval hurdy-gurdy has been constructed completely out of maple; soundboard, back, sides, neck and keybox. A blue stain was added and the white decoration was hand painted; the white frame around the keybox lid is inlayed. The sliders are made from boxwood with bone keys.
There's also a sturdy wooden lined case to protect the instrument.