The Rebec from Haithabu

Among the wooden fragments from Haithabu, three pieces of musical instruments were found (Lawson 1984: 151–159; Westphal 2006: 83–84). These instruments, together with the bone flutes from Haithabu (Brade 1978), cast light on the music practiced in the town and in Scandinavia in general. In this article, we will describe one of the wooden instruments – a fragment, which is considered to be the oldest hard evidence of bowed string instruments of the European Middle Ages.

Three types of musical instruments found in Haithabu.
Taken from Brade 1978: 28 and Schietzel 2014: 289

The fragment, bearing the inventory number HbS.916.001, was discovered while strengthening a creek dam (Lawson 1984: 151–155; Westphal 2006: 83, Taf. 61: 1). It consists of a one-piece body that is 43 cm long and made of alder wood (Lawson 1984: 151). The preserved fragment represents the rounded bottom of the sound box, which is roughly shaped into a pear or bowl shape. A flat neck is connected to that part. The roughened surface indicates that the product has not been finished, and it is even possible that it was subsequently used for a non-musical purpose, for example as a bowl.

haithabu-hedeby-rebec-fiddleFragment HbS.916.001 and its schematic drawing.
Taken from Westphal 2006: Taf. 61: 1.

Possible reconstruction of the fragment HbS.916.001.
Taken from Schietzel 2014: 289.

Although the object is only partial, it can be compared with other archaeological finds, pictorial and written material. In the English and German literature, one may find that the Haithabu find is a fiddle (Lawson 1984; Westphal 2006), but the term is not very precise because it refers to a stringed instrument that is later and differently shaped. At the same time, it can be found that the instrument is associated with the Eastern European instrument called gusli (Lawson 1984), but again, gusli is more similar to lyres or psalteries (Povetkin 2001: 235–240). The association with the Eastern European instrument called gudok, proposed by Kurt Schietzel (2014: 289), is closer because it refers to similar instruments made in the same period (Povetkin 2001: 241–243). The oldest specimen, or a fragment thereof, is dated to the middle of the 11th century (Povetkin 1997: 180–184, Tabl. 107: 1). However, the inclusion of Haithabu find in the corpus of Eastern instruments would ignore the relatively extensive number of pictorial and linguistic material that we have available for northwestern Europe. Generally speaking, an instrument of this type is traditionally referred to as a rebec in Europe. This instrument, like the bow, came to the Continent from an Islamic area and was probably domesticated as early as the 10th century (Bachmann 1964; Panum 1971: 341–346). As early as the 11th century, this string instrument appeared in European iconography.

In the Germanic environment, instruments of this kind were given a peculiar designation, which roots in the Proto-Germanic gīgana, which denotes movement. Therefore, we can find a number of string instruments that are based on this root – such as German violin (Geige), Shetland gue or Old Norse gígja. I believe that it is gígja, which is also a nickname used in the 10th century in Iceland (Jónsson 1908: 247), that best describes the relevant musical instrument from Haithabu. It should be added that the Old Norse dictionary also knows the terms gígjari (gígja-player) and draga gígju (literally “dragging the gígja”, to play gígja with a bow) (Baetke 2006: 196). The Haithabu fragment can be dated to the 10th or 11th century, making it the oldest archaeological evidence of bowed string instruments in Europe.

novgorod-gudok-fiddleGudok instruments from Novgorod, 11th–14th century.
Taken from Povetkin 1997: Tabl. 107: 1–5.

rebec-early-medievalRebec instruments depicted in Anglo-Saxon and French iconography, 11th–12th century.
1. St John’s College, Cambridge (MS B 18 f. 1), 12th century.
2. Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Bodley 352 f. 6), 11th century.
3. University Library, Glasgow (MS Hunter 229 f. 21), 12th century.
4. Portal of St Mary’s Cathedral in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, 12th century.
5. British Library, London (MS Cotton Tiberius C VI f. 30), 11th century.

The top board of the instrument from Haithabu is not preserved. Although it can be assumed that it was made of wood, it is not certain how it could have been attached to the body. From comparative sources it can be concluded that these instruments could be two to four-stringed, but usually three-stringed. The strings could be made of intestines or horsehair, which could also be stretched on a bow. The tunning pegs and bridge can be assumed to be made of wood or bone / antler (Lawson 1984: 155). Iconography shows that the players used their right hands to drag the bow and their left hands to determine the pitch; the instrument rested either on the neck under the chin or on the knees. Kurt Schietzel (2014: 289) suggests the possibility of holding an instrument in arms, although this method – as far as I know – cannot be based on any source.

Bowed string instruments in iconography of 11th-12th century and possible reconstruction.
1. Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig (unknown manuscript), 11th century, Panum 1971: Fig. 276.
2. St John’s College, Cambridge (MS B 18 f. 1), 12th century.
3. British Library, London (MS Cotton Tiberius C VI f. 30), 11th century.
4. Church carving, church in Gamtofte, Fyn, 12th century, Panum 1971: Fig. 278.
5–6. University Library, Glasgow (MS Hunter 229 f. 21), 12th century.
7. Bibliothèque du Grand Séminaire de Strasbourg (Ms 37 f. 36), 12th century.
8. St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury (BL Arundel MS 91 f. 218v), 12th century.
9. Suggested reconstruction, Schietzel 2014: 289.


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Baetke, Walter (2006). Wörterbuch zur altnordischen Prosaliteratur [digitální verze], Greifswald.

Brade, Christine (1978). Knöcherne Kernspaltflöten aus Haithabu. In: Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 12, Neumünster: 24–35.

Jónsson, Finnur (1908). Tilnavne i den islandske oldlitteratur. In: Aarbøger for Nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie 1907, Kjøbenhavn: 161–381.

Lawson, Graeme H. (1984), Zwei Saiteninstrumente aus Haithabu. In: Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 19, Neumünster: 151–159.

Panum, Hortense (1971). The Stringed Instruments of the Middle Ages, London.

Povetkin, Vladimir I. (2001). „Lärmgefäße des Satans“. Musikinstrumente im mittelalterlichen Novgorod. In: Müller-Wille, Michael (Hrsg.). Novgorod. Das mittelalterliche Zentrum und sein Umland im Norden Rußlands, Neumünster: 225–244.

Povetkin 1997 = Поветкин, В.И. (1997). Музыкальные инструменты // Археология. Древняя Русь. Быт и культура / Ответст. редакторы тома Б.А.Колчин, Т.И.Макарова. М .: Наука. Глава 11. С. 179–185

Westphal, Florian. (2006), Die Holzfunde von Haithabu. Die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 11, Neumünster.

Schietzel, Kurt (2014). Spurensuche Haithabu, Neumünster – Hamburg.