Name: Citole.
Type: Chordophone > Lutes.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.321.5
Period: 1200–1350
Country: Great Britain.
Region: Western Europe.

Description: The citole was a stringed musical instrument, closely associated with medieval fiddles [viols, vielle & gigue] it was commonly used from 1200–1350. The citole was known by numerous other names in a wide variety of languages including: cedra, cetera, cetola, cetula, cistola, citola, citula, citera, chytara, cistole, cithar, cuitole, cythera, cythol, cytiole, cytolys, gytolle, sitole, sytholle, sytole and zitol.

Origins: Additionally, scholars have translated passages in such a way that literature itself cannot always be trusted. One example cited by the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica: a specific reference to the citole may be found in Wycliffe’s Bible [1360] in 2 Samuel vi. 5: “Harpis and sitols and tympane”. However, the Authorized Version has psalteries and the Vulgate Lyrae.

The Britannica also supposed that the citole has been supposed to be another name for the psaltery, a box-shaped instrument often seen in the illuminated missals of the Middle Ages, also liable to confusion with the gittern. Controversy surrounds the issue of the  overlapped in medieval usage of the names citole and gittern. The controversy of “citole versus gittern” was largely resolved in a 1977 article by Lawrence Wright, called The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity.

History: Analogous to the modern guitar the citole had wooden or tied friends on the neck to achieve different notes arranged to a scale from nut to bridge. The citole was picked by a plectrum likely made from ivory or wood. Although it was largely out of use by the late 14th century, the Italians “re-introduced it in modified form” in the 16th century as the cetra [cittern in English] and it may have influenced the development of the guitar as well.

It was also a pioneering stringed instrument in England, introducing the populace to necked, plucked instruments, giving people the concepts needed to quickly switch to the newly arriving lutes and gitterns. Two possible descendants of the citole are the Portuguese guitar and the Corsican Cetera. Today the citole is mainly from art and literary sources.

Early examples include Provençal poetry [there called the citola] from the 12th Century; however it was more widely displayed in medieval artwork during the 13th and 14th Centuries in manuscript miniatures and in sculpture. The art did not show uniformly shaped instrument, but instead an instrument with numerous variations.

The variety shown in art has led the instrument to be called “ambiguous”. From the artwork, scholars know that it was generally a four-string instrument, and could have anything from a “holly-leaf” to a rounded guitar shaped body [that can be called a “T-shaped” body]. While paintings and sculpture exist, only one instrument has survived the centuries.

Tunings: Documents contemporary to the Middle Ages haven’t been discovered that site the citole by name when they mention the tuning. To resolve this issue; researchers have had reference towards other instruments to infer as to how the citole would have been tuned.

One document cited is The Berkeley Manuscript. University of California Music Library, MS. 744 – Professor Ephraim Segerman made a case that the entry in the document for a lute-like instrument labeled “cithara” applied to the citola. Starting with a note, the strings were separated by a 2nd, 4th and a 4th such as C / D / G / C. He thought that more appropriate than other tunings, because the separation using a second also occurred in tunings used by descendant instruments, the cetra and cittern.

The tuning suggested would be useful for particular modes in music. The second string would allow the use of an alternating drone, where as a drone tone was produced on one string with melody on another; then the two would switch roles. This would be useful when mixing songs of the Lydian mode [the citole’s natural tuning] and the Mixolydian mode.

Another researcher, Christopher Page, is reported to have said in his 1986 work Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages: Instrumental Practice and Songs in France 1100–1300 that evidence points to the strings being tuned in 4ths and 5ths and octaves.

Citations: Bibliography: Galpin, Francis William 1911 – Old English Instruments of Music. p. 23 ; Berkeley Manuscript, University of California Music Library, MS. 744 ; [image of] Angels with a citole and a vielle with frets – From the Prümer Missale, Ms. theol. lat. fol. 271, folio 33r ; Wright, Laurence [May 1977] – The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity. The Galpin Society Journal. 30: 8–42 ; Laurence Wright “Citole”. Stanley Sadie [ed.]. New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. New York: Grove’s Dictionaries of Music Inc. 1985 – ISBN 978-0943818054 ; Websites:

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