The Jew’s Harp in Western Europe: Trade, Communication, and Innovation, 1150–1500

Yearbook for Traditional Music 41: 42–61 (2009)

The abundant material of jew’s harps from archaeological excavations and collections in Europe can be traced back to around 1200 AD, with no substantial datings from earlier times. The remarkable thing is the instrument’s rapid expansion on the continent, of an almost explosive character. Already after a century or so, several types are distributed and, judging by the archaeology, the instruments are produced by professional artisans to serve a market. What was the reason for this fast development in the jew’s harps geographical distribution? The situation with an abundance of finds combined with technological diversity among the objects suggests some kinds of innovative activities. Furthermore, what do the finds express in terms of trade and communication in the medieval society? Which communicative processes produced and spread these items of fashion? Communication is understood here in a wide sense, including trade and distribution of goods, people, technology and ideas. The article illustrates the significance of archaeology in the study of musical instruments in medieval Europe. The material basis is found in the author’s thesis from the University of Oslo Jew’s Harps in European Archaeology (Published 2006 by Archaeopress, BAR1500), which includes a catalogue with more than 800 specimens from archaeological contexts.