Hurdy-Gurdy, The Medieval Instrument You Might Have Never Heard About

The hurdy-gurdy is a medieval stringed instrument that produces sounds by manually rotating a hand crank that is connected to the wheel which stimulates the strings. Although quite obscure and unpopular nowadays, during the Middle Ages this instrument was an almost indispensable part of the medieval folk music in present-day France and much of the Iberian peninsula.

Hurdy-gurdy player. Image source:

In general, it is assumed that this instrument traces its roots from the early European fiddle prototypes prior to the beginning of the 11th century. In this particular respect, one of the first forms of the hurdy-gurdy was the organistrum, a guitar-like stringed instrument that could have been played by two musicians.

Subsequently, the organistrum was shrank so that it could be handled by a sole player. At about this time, the instrument grew more and more popular as the cultural influx of the Renaissance spread across Europe. Eventually, as the Modern Age progressed, there have been developed several varieties of hurdy-gurdies, most notably in France, Spain, and in other places from Central Europe.

In the passing of time, there have been identified more than twenty types of hurdy-gurdies. So it is that nowadays there’s no consensus for a standardised form of the instrument. In the 20th and 21st century, the hurdy-gurdy became an appealing instrument for several rock bands, including Blackmore’s Night, Eluveitie, or even Metallica.

Detailed scheme depicting the constituent elements of a hurdy-gurdy. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The constituent elements of the hurdy-gurdy can be listed as follows:

  • crank;
  • drone strings;
  • tirant;
  • tailpiece;
  • bridge;
  • buzzing bridge;
  • wheel;
  • wheel cover;
  • melody strings;
  • keys;
  • tangents;
  • pegbox;
  • tuning pegs;
  • keybox.

Below you can watch a short video highlighting the history of the instrument, its usages, as well as its technical particularities:

Documentation sources and external links:

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4 Responses to Hurdy-Gurdy, The Medieval Instrument You Might Have Never Heard About

  1. Michelle Simeunovich says:

    Most excellent article. Thank you!!

  2. Richard P. McArthur says:

    I remember hearing one of these at a medieval fair either at Sands Point, NY or Fort Tryon , NY, some years ago. The sound was pleasant.

    • Victor Rouă says:

      I first saw one when I was 13. It looked relatively simple to play on the outside but it takes years of practice to master it, believe me! All the best! 🙂

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