Possibly following Moeck (1967), Hunt (1980) has argued that the recorder originated among the Italian peasantry in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. In support of this hypothesis Hunt notes that the earliest known recorder tutor is that of an Italian, Silvestro Ganassi (1535), and that most surviving renaissance instruments belonged to northern Italian noblemen. Neither of these observations seems especially relevant, even if they were true!
In fact, there are eight surviving medieval fragments, and these come from Dordrecht in Holland (dated 1335-1418), Göttingen (mid-fourteenth century) in Germany, Esslingen (fourteenth century) in Germany, Tartu (mid-late fourteenth century) in Estonia, Nysa (fourteenth century) in Poland, Elblag (mid-fifteenth century) in Poland, Rhodes (fourteenth to fifteenth century) and Würtzberg (dated 1200-1300) in Germany respectively. The first six are recorders in all essentials; the last two are ambiguous fragments.
As we have seen, two of the three recorder makers marks depicted by Ganassi in his fingering tables to illustrate tuning differences between recorders by various makers appear to be those of German craftsmen (the Schnitzer family of Nuremberg, and Rauch von Schrattenbach); the first, a simple ‘B’, is as yet unassigned, but is likely to represent another Nuremberg maker. However, the earliest books which contain instructions for playing the recorder are actually not Italian but of Swiss (Anonymous 1510, Virdung 1511) and German (Virdung 1511, Agricola 1529) provenance. Significantly, perhaps, the illustrations in these earlier accounts show near-cylindrical recorders quite like the Dordrecht instrument, but presumably of the slightly tapering wide-bore variety internally. As we have seen, amongst the earliest unequivocal illustrations of the recorder are those of the cylindrical (‘Dordrecht’) kind by Pere Serra (ca 1390), Anonymous (Exeter, fourteenth century), and Martin le Franc (1410-1461). Thus, as Zaniol (1984) has suggested, the instruments illustrated and discussed by Virdung and Agricola may represent the final development of the medieval recorder which may have overlapped with the emergence of the undoubtedly more sophisticated Renaissance-style (choke-bore) recorder. The latter appears to have been well-established as early as Francesco del Cossa’s delightful April, or The Triumph of Venus (1470).
The only evidence I can see to support Hunt’s hypothesis is that the presumed name Ricordo (1388) may be of Italian origin – a surmise (a mistaken one) which he overlooked in this context, strangely enough. But, as we have seen, the word Ricordo never existed and was simply a 20th-century mistranscription of the original Recordour. There are many English literary references to the recorder dating from the mid-fifteenth century onwards — see Lander (1998–2021) for a comprehensive enumeration of them.
Rowland-Jones (in Brown 1995: 22, footnote 8) has suggested, on the basis of a painting by Pere Serra (c. 1390, see above) which depicts a cylindrical duct flute in company with other soft instruments (lute, organetto, psaltery, gittern and harp), that the recorder may possibly have been invented in the sophisticated musical ambience of the papal court at Avignon in southern France. This hypothesis has since been explored further by Rowland-Jones (1966) who has argued convincingly that the instrument depicted is indeed a recorder (see above). Rowland-Jones (pers. com.) has since sought depictions of recorders in Avignon art of the time without success. He now suggests simply that recorders could have been in use in the Barcelona region from some time earlier during the last part of the fourteenth century. He has presented ample evidence to support this latter suggestion.
Amongst the ambiguous medieval illustrations of wind instruments, an even earlier candidate for the first depiction of what is possibly a recorder is the portrait of Meister Heinrich Frauenlob (c. 1340, see above). In view of this, and the existence of both more or less contemporaneous and much earlier, equally ambiguous illustrations of duct flutes from Sicily, England, France, Germany, and as far afield as Armenia; taking into account the existence of a more or less complete surviving recorder dating from 1335–1418 found in Holland, of two others found in Germany dated about mid-fourteenth century, of a fourth from the same period found in Estonia, and of two more from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Poland respectively; noting the existence of a seemingly unambiguous depiction of a recorder in The Mocking of Jesus (1315 or later) from the Church of Staro Nagoričane, near Kumanova in Macedonia, and of a fourteenth-century wood-carved misericord from Chichester, England, depicting what might be a recorder and harp, and considering the references to flaustes dont droit joues quand tu flaustes by Machaut (ca 1330), as well as a clear record of the purchase of ‘one flute by name of Recordour’ (1388) for use at the court of a future English king, the hypothesis advanced by Hunt (loc. cit.) is less than convincing.
Indeed, on the basis of the material presented here, the way may even be clear for arguing a northern (ie English, Dutch, northern French, Swiss, German, Estonian, Polish) or even eastern (ie Macedonian) rather than southern (ie southern French, Italian or Spanish) European origin for the recorder. However, no one of these hypotheses explains all of the facts available to us.
If we are to speculate, could it not be that the recorder family is polyphyletic rather than monophyletic, that it emerged at several different times, in a number of places, in a variety of forms each of which underwent subsequent development and modification? This conjecture would account for the disparate morphology of the surviving fragments (ie both open vs end-stopped, cylindrically vs obconically bored), for the various distinctive external forms depicted in illustrations of the medieval and early renaissance period (cylindrical, near-cylindrical, flared-bell), and for the variety of presumed internal bores associated with these forms (cylindrical, wide-bore, choke-bore, etc).
References cited on this page
- Brown, Howard Mayer. 1995. “The Recorder in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Recorder, edited by John Mansfield Thomson and Anthony Rowland-Jones, 1–25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Hunt, Edgar H. 1980. “Recorder.” In The New GROVE Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley J. Sadie. Vol. 15. London: Macmillan.
- Lander, Nicholas S. 1998–2021. “Literary References.” Recorder Home Page. https://www.recorderhomepage.net/literary-theatrical-references/
- Moeck, Hermann A. 1967. “Typen europäischer Blockflöten in Vorzeit; Geschichte und Volksüberlieferung [Types of European Recorders in Antiquity; History and Folklore].” Moeck Verlag und Instrumentenwerk.
- Rowland-Jones, Anthony. 1996. “La flauta de pico en el arte catalán [The Recorder in Catalan Art]. 1a Parte. Alrededor de 1400: la invención de la flauta de pico [Around 1400: The ‘Invention of the Recorder’]. 2a Parte. El siglo XV [The Fifteenth Century].” Revista de flauta de pico, 6: 15–20; 7: 9–15.
- Zaniol, Angelo. 1984. “The Recorders of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.” Continuo, 8 (1): 2–7; (2): 12–15; (3): 6–9.
Cite this article as: Lander, Nicholas S. 1996–2021. Recorder Home Page: A memento: the medieval recorder. Last accessed 31 July 2021. https://www.recorderhomepage.net/instruments/a-memento-the-medieval-recorder/