Instruments | Bowed Instruments | Medieval Era | Classical
The early medieval bow looked not unlike the weapon: a convex, dramatically curved wooden structure with horsehair where the archer’s bowstring would have been. There was no attempt at standardization, and construction seems to have varied as different styles were tried out. Even by the late Middle Ages, the bow had only settled down in design terms to some degree. Length ranged between 50 and 80 cm (20 and 31 in). On some arched models there was a handle, held in the fist to allow for a vigorous application. Other bows were in the flat style with the hair and wood running in parallel; the player would grip both the wood and the bowhair, separating them in part with the fingers.
A number of new bowed instruments evolved during this period, some assembled out of shaped pieces of wood, some carved from single blocks. Normally three strings were fixed over a flat bridge, to be played with the bow sloping one way or the other, or held level. By the fifteenth century, the development of a curved fingerboard and bridge made it easier to play individual strings, and more were added.
Medieval bowed instruments were usually held against the chest or shoulder, unlike the modern violin, which is tucked under the chin. Although Arabs had already begun playing a kind of rebec placed upright on the lap, this position was not used in western music until some years later – when the viols and the bass members of the violin family began to emerge at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
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