Spor etter middelalderens musikkliv: To strengestoler fra Gamlebyen, Oslo

Viking 60: 69–83 (1997)

Norwegian text. English summary: During the excavations in Gamlebyen, the site of medieval Oslo, two bridges for stringed instruments came to light. The first bridge, presumably with notches for seven strings, was excavated on Mindets tomt in 1971. The second, with notches for five strings, was excavated on the Oslogate 6 site in 1988. Both are made of pine and date to the 13th century. The first has been interpreted as a bridge for a seven stringed lyre and the second bowed instrument.

A number of lyre bridges and other lyre parts have been unearthed on excavations in Northern Europe. The bridges were found to be made of a variety of materials such as wood, antler, amber or bronze, and had notches for five, six or seven strings. The examples from Weste1n Europe, with the exception of Norway, date from around the 6th to the 11th centuries AD. Thus the lyre bridge from Oslo is of a significantly later date than its European counterparts. The author feels this should be understood in light of iconographic evidence from Norway which suggests that the lyre was in use longer here than in any other place in Europe. The word lyre was not used in medieval Scandinavia, the instrument was probably known under the term harpe. 

The bridge with notches for five strings is arched, and consequently has been a part of a bowed instrument. The number of strings and its markedly arched shape, indicates that it may have been the bridge of a fiddle. Little, however, is known about medieval b1idges, and another possible interpretation is that the bridge belonged to a bowed lyre, an instrument known to have existed in Scandinavia.

Only a small number of bridges from medieval bowed instruments have been found, and depictions of such instluments rarely pay attention to details like bridges. Some authors believe that in the Middle Ages bowed instruments had either flat bridges, or no bridges at all, and that musicians inevitably played all the strings simultaneously. The Oslo bridge contradicts this theory. The bridge was intentionally arched to enable the playing of single melody lines.

The bridges from Oslo were both found in houses occupied by ordinary citizens. Music historians have traditionally regarded stringed instluments, especially the harp, lyre and fiddle, as instruments associated exclusively with the noble classes. Early written sources, however, are scarce, and nearly always deal with p1ivileged people. Some of these instruments are deeply rooted in European folk music, no doubt in some cases going back to the Middle Ages.