The early history of the lute in a nutshell
The lute plays an important part in European music history from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. An enormous repertoire for the instrument has come down to us, particularly from the period between 1500 and 1760. Nobody knows exactly how many works there once were, but a rough estimate would suggest approximately 48,000, mostly for solo lute. This is the total number of published and hand-written compositions; there are, however, a large number of copies of identical compositions, so the number of individual works is a great deal lower. On the other hand, a large part of the repertoire has been lost. In addition, the lute was often used in ensembles, more specifically as an accompanying instrument for one or more singers.
The European lute has its origins in the Middle East. In the Arabic world, the lute, al-’ud (literally: ‘the wood’), was apparently adopted in the seventh century from the Persians, who in turn owed it to the Indian culture of the region that is now known as Afghanistan. The lute rapidly rose to high esteem in Arabic culture. In writings from the 10th century onwards it is described as ‘the most perfect instrument’ and ‘the Sultan of instruments’. When Arabic culture spread to areas conquered by Muslims, such as Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula, Europeans, too, became acquainted with the lute.
The first European references to lutes in writing and pictures date from the middle of the 13th century, for instance in the famous manuscript with the Cantigas de Santa Maria, made for King Alfonso the Wise (1221-1284) of Castile (Plate 1). The lute spread quickly. It became particularly popular in Italy, but even in the remote parish church of Steeple Aston in England, we find pictures of lutes dating from shortly after 1300 (Plate 2). Incidentally, these clearly show that the instrument was played with a plectrum.
From the last quarter of the 13th century onwards, lutenists appear in royal and noble households, also north of the Alps and Pyrenees. During the 14th century, the instrument spread further, now also appearing in urban culture.