The Jew`s Harp - A Simple Instrument for Everybody

A few words about the jaw’s harp, this little musical instrument no very difficult to play: one presses the frame of the instrument upon his jaw with one hand as a finger of the other hand plucks the single reed (vibrating lamella). Various notes can be obtained by modifying the shape of the mouth which plays the part of a sound box. Here's a musician-angel playing the jaw's harp represented on a Hans Memling painting. I found the picture on the excellent forum : http://forum.musiques-medievales.eu/


A jew's harp on one of Memling's paintings.

Christian Folini recently shared with me an excerpt of “Kolltveit, Gjermund. Jew’s harp in European Archaeology. Oxford 2006” which was sent to him by the german archaeologist Doris Fischer, where it is said that plenty of jaw’s harps were found in archaeological excavations carried out in mediaeval castles. In short: the author comes to the conclusion that jaw’s harps were popular instruments probably not played by nobles or minstrels, but by workers and soldiers during their free time, notably travelling soldiars who contributed a lot to the fact jaw’s harps were spread in Europe. The author also evokes a whole military garrison from Canton Schwyz the members of which became completely addicted to this small musical-toy!

Several jaw’s harps were found at Haut-Koenigsbourg before it was restored at the turn of the 20 th century. Their thin and fragile reeds have disappeared. Only their iron frames subsisted in part. We don't know accurately from which century they date. Here are 3 of them:


Three jew's harp found at haut-Koenigsbourg (Photos courtesy HKB).

In western Europe, jaw’s harps were mainly “hetroglot” (a separate reed fixed on a frame) and made of metal (forged frame). Rarely mentioned in mediaeval texts, the instrument was called “jew’s harp” (one does not know the origin of this name), as well as “trump”... A jaw’s harp is represented on the coat of arms of swiss “Trompii” family. This heraldic emblem would allude to their name (such coats of arms are called “armoiries parlantes” in french as they tell about the name of the family): Doris Fischer says that indian jaw’s harps of morchang type are very near to those which could be owned by soldiars of an end of the middle-ages garrison like the one reenacted by the Companye of St-George. Some can be bought www.danmoi.de.

 
A jew's harp suiteable for reenactment (Photo from danmoi.de)


Remark: a small 15th century jaw’s harp case made of boiled leather can be seen in the “Cluny Musée National du Moyen-âge” in Paris. It is not definite that the case was originally made for jaw’s harps, but the fact two jaw’s harps are engraved on the leather probably refers to the final use of the case.


A leather case for a Jew's harp (Musée de Cluny, Paris)

Here’s a link towards the best jaw's harp page I've found on internet. It was published by the jaw’s harp virtuoso Michael Wright: www.silk-road.com

 

By Denis Louchart, Veteran Company member

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