Making Musical Instruments
Opus 2 - Vithele (medieval viol)

Making Musical Instruments
Back  Next
Instruments and
Their Iconography

  • Opus 1
  • Opus 2
  • Opus 3
  • Opus 4
      Renaissance Instruments
      Substitute Materials
      The Jazz Ensemble
      The Publication
      The Author
      Making Musical Instruments
      Instrument Makers
      Video Excerpts
      Audio Excerpts
      Other Web Sites

    The vithele was one of the most common bow instruments during the Middle Ages. It was played by nobles, peasants and jugglers alike, and was the favourite instrument of minstrels. Appearing at all festivities, it accompanied songs, dances and epic poems, alone or with a harp, psaltery, lute or recorder.

      Vithele (medieval viol) - CMC 74-126/S93-314/CD95-707 Vithele (medieval viol)
    By Christopher Allworth
    Halifax, Nova Scotia
    Swiss pine, maple, birch, willow, English yew, gut
    Overall length: 83 cm;
    body: 53 x 27 cm;
    ribs: 8.2 cm
    Label: "Christopher Allworth, 1973, Auburn,
    Nova Scotia"

    The vithele was held on the shoulder in much the same way as a violin, although a number of paintings show musicians seated with the instrument on their knees. The vithele's shape, number of strings and bow can vary greatly. While the instrument's origins are hard to pinpoint, the bow appears to have been used in Spain and Italy in the tenth century, based on the practice in Arab and Byzantine countries. In the eleventh century, the practice spread throughout Europe, and the medieval vithele appeared around this time. The instrument remained in use until the late fifteenth century, when it was gradually supplanted by instruments related to the viola da gamba and the violin.

      Vithele (medieval viol) - CMC 74-126/S93-314/CD95-707

    The tailpiece depicts a wyvern. Christopher Allworth refers to Opus 2 as a  "medieval viol" to indicate that it has a lower tessitura and that it is held on the knees.

      Vièle (viole médiévale) - CMC 74-126/S93-314/CD95-707

    The instrument is based on an illumination in the twelfth-century York Psalter, which shows King David playing the harp surrounded by minstrels playing various stringed instruments (University of Glasgow, Ms. U.2.3).


    Vithele (medieval viol) - CMC 74-126/S93-314/CD95-707

    The entire instrument is painted with tempera. The back is bright red, and the ribs and peg box are covered with colourful Roman-style leaves. A wyvern, with a deer's head, bird's wings and serpent's tail, graces the tailpiece. Allworth reproduced these decorations from a thirteenth-century English manuscript in the British Museum.

    Opus 3 - Vithele

      Vièle (vithele) - CMC 74-1277/S99-03/CD98-169
    By Christopher Allworth
    Halifax, Nova Scotia
    Beech, pearwood, cherry,
    Swiss pine, English yew, gold leaf, gut
    Overall length: 73 cm;
    body: 42 x 19 cm;
    ribs: 5 cm
    Label: "Christopher Allworth, 1974, Auburn,
    Nova Scotia"

    Opus 3 is the smaller vithele. To build this tempera-painted replica, the luthier turned to an illumination in the thirteenth-century Bromholm Psalter and the books of the Trinity Apocalypse (Trinity College, Cambridge, Ms. R.16.2). The motifs on the tailpiece and the ribs are from two psalters preserved in the British Museum.

      Vièle (viole médiévale) - CMC 74-126/S93-314/CD95-707

    The tailpiece bears a winged lion whose head is surmounted by a halo, a symbol of St. Mark the Evangelist as he appears in the Westminster Abbey Psalter (circa 1340); and the blue and gold motifs on the ribs of the instrument are inspired by the Luttrell Psalter.