Etymology & literary references

Outside England, there was no single word to unequivocally differentiate the recorder from other kinds of internal-duct flutes or the equally popular transverse flute.

It seems that the anonymous Italian fourteenth-century poem L’Intelligenza which enumerates the instruments housed in a palace room set aside for music fails to mention the recorder (Brown 1995)

The Sienese poet, Folgore da San Gimignano (fl. 1309-1317) included among the joys of April in the Sienese countryside:

"…e gente costumata a la francesca
cantar, danzar a la provenzalesca
con istrumenti novi d’Alemagna"
…the people dressed in French mode
singing and dancing in the Provençal style
with new instruments from Germany

D’Accone (1996) comments: “The poet was referring to newly developed forms of woodwind instruments – shawms, recorders, bombard and others – that had rarely been seen or heard in Italy before his time and were now being played by musicians freshly arrived from the north and by others emulating them”. It is true that Folgore also wrote about “the sound of trumpeters, fifes, flutes and shawms” rallying the victors at a joust (“e sonara a raccolata i trombatori, e sufoli e flauti e ciramelle, e toccar a le schiere i feritori”). But were the flauti recorders or still only generic duct flutes?

The German wind musicians did stay in Siena, where the deeds – and misdeeds – of their descendants are recorded in the city archives into the early 17th century. The earliest records of the city’s pifferi menton only shawms and trombones, the first documentation of the recorder being a group of visiting Florentine piferi in 1468 who played in the “soft” combination of lute, rebec, and recorder (“1 di leiuto, 1 di ribechino e 1 di fliuto”). A case of recorders used by the pifferi is first mentioned in 1547 (“una cassa di flauti all’italiana”). In 1556 the five pifferi with their “recorders, trombones and cornetts” were ordered to be “in constant readiness to play for the captain of the people and the lord priors”. The 1573 inventory of the Palace lists among the items “on loan to the musicians” a case with six recorders (“una cassa co’ sei flauti dritti”). In 1602, when the celebrated wind player Sirmone Nodi died, the instruments his heirs returned to the Palace included two cases of recorders, one black the other yellowish (“Due casse di flauti dritti, una neara e l’altra gialliccia”).

In Florence, three fifteenth-century inventories employ the term zufoli. The inventory of the possessions of Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici “Il Gottoso”, (1463) differentiates between “Quattro zufoli fiaminghi” (four Flemish zufoli) and “Tre zufoli nostrali” (three of our zufoli), and also mentions “Tre zufoli forniti d’ariento” (three zufoli decorated with silver). The inventory of the possessions of Lorenzo de’ Medici, known as “Il Magnifico”, made upon his death in 1492 contains entries for “Uno giuocho di zufoli grossi in una guaina” [a set of large zufoli in a case], “Uno giuocho di zufoli a uso di pifferi cholle ghiere nere e bianche, sono zufoli cinque” [a set of zufoli for the use of the pifferi, with black and white ferrules: there are five zufoli], and “Tre zufoli chon ghiere d’argento in una guaina guernita d’argento” [three zufoli with silver ferrules in a case garnished with silver] (Castellani 1997). The word giuocho implies a set of objects of the same size, still in use for knitting needles and playing cards. The word zufolo is derived from the verb zufolare or sufolare, meaning to whistle with the lips or a musical instrument and may thus refer to recorders or flutes in general. The pifferi in question may well have been the court or municipal wind players (Lasocki 2000). Castellani (loc. cit.) argues that the instruments in the second set are recorders, presumably because flutes tended to be played by military musicians, originally Swiss. The three separate zufoli, on the other hand, are likely to have been flutes of different sizes (soprano, tenor, bass). As for large instruments in the first set, they could be either flutes or recorders.

During the course of his 30-year career in Italy between the early 1470s and the first years of the sixteenth century, the Flemish-born composer and musical theorist Johannes Tinctoris published in Naples a fragmentary thesis entitled De inventione et usu musice  (Tinctorius 1481) in which he mentions fistula (a pipe or tube), as a particular type of woodwind instrument (tibia) with “septem ante ac unum aliud retro instar fistule” [seven holes in front and one behind]. Tinctoris also remarks on the doubling of the seventh finger hole, so that it could be reached with the little finger and so that the instrument could be held with either hand lowermost:

"Si tamen Varroni credendum sit: antique tibie quaterna habebant foramina. Alii dicunt (ut Acro refert) non plus quam tria. Discursu vero temporis eo ventum est: ut tibia que vulgo celimela nuncupatur: nunc septem foraminum sit. Quibus quidem arte recta proportionatis ad omnem cantum proferendum: ipsa tibia effecta est perfectissima. Illa tamen quam dulcinam a dulcedine sua nominant: licet totidem habeat foramina: hoc est septem ante ac unum aliud retro instar fistule: quia cantus omnis editioni non suppetit: imperfecta censetur. Sciendumque est: ubi foramen septimum cujusvis tibie in unum latus declinaverit: octavumque in alterum fuerit appositum: vocem eandem ab utroque emitti. hoc enim invenerunt propter minimi digitorum brevitatem: qui (si foramen septimum alia sex ordine recto sequeretur) illud (quando opus esset) claudere non posset."Note that when the seventh hole of any tibia is set to one side and has an eighth hole set opposite to it, each of these holes gives the same note. This arrangement was adopted to accommodate the little finger, which is normally not long enough to close the seventh hole if it is aligned with the other six. In consequence some players prefer to place the right hand uppermost and use the hole on the left side, while others prefer the opposite.

The thirteenth-century French Lai du Chèvrefeuille [Lay of the Honeysuckle] by Gerbert de Montreuil, is associated with the legend of Tristan, who played it himself on ‘un flagueil’:

"En sa main a pris un flagueil
Molr doucement en flajola
Et par dedans le flaguel a
Noté le 'Lai del Chievrefueil'
Et puis a mis jus le flagueil.
Li rois et li barons l'Oïrent
A merveille s'en esjoïrent.
Yseut l'ot, molt fu esmaire:
'Ha, fet-ele, Sainte Marie,
Je quit c'est Tristans, mes ami!"
He took in his hand a flageolet,
most gently piped upon it,
and from within the pipe
did play the 'Lay of the Honeysuckle',
then set aside the flageolet;
the kings and the barons heard it
and enjoyed it most wondrously.
Isolde, too, was most glad:
'O, Holy Mary,
I think it is Tristan my beloved!'

In his famous lists of musical instruments in La Prise d’Alexandrie (c. 1370) and Remède de Fortune (c. 1340s, before 1357), Guillaume Machaut (c. 1300-1377) notes fretiau, flauste, flaios (or flajos), fistule, flajos de Scens, flaustes dont droit joues quand tu flaustes, pipeflahute brehaingne, and flauste traversienne. The last is obviously a transverse flute, as may be the second-last ‘Bohemian flute’. The remainder have been taken to represent internal-duct flutes of various kinds, including recorders  (Godwin 1977, Brown 1995), notably the flaustes dont droit joues quand tu flaustes — ‘flutes held vertically when played’ (Braggard, de Hen and Hopkins 1967: 57).

In his translation of  the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics, Nicole Oresme (1357) replaces the Latin word fistula with the French  flageol.

Boragno (1998) notes that three principal terms recur throughout French literature from the 12th century, namely flaüte, flageol and frestel. That they sometimes appear together would seem to indicate that they represented different instruments:

"Devant le roi sonent frestel
Et flahutes et chalemel,
Et de flajoz et des vieles
I sunt les melodies beles."
Before the king are played frestels
And flautes and shawms,
And the flageols and vielles
With their beautiful melodies
Li Romans de Durmart (early thirteenth century)

Boragno notes that frestel is invariably represented by lexicographers as a panpipe, the word and the object disappearing simultaneously in the fourteenth century. And he records that in medieval France, Pan himself played equally enthusiastically on the challemelle, flageol, flûte or frestel! The flaüte (pronounce the two vowels, because it seems that it was an illustration of the sound produced by the instrument) could represent either the 3-holed pipe (played with the tabor) or the transverse flute, but it could also be used as a generic term like flûte or flute in modern French or English. In many instance theflaüte is described as a forceful instrument found in the company of percussion:

“Cors et buisine est fresteals
Et fleütes et chalemeals
Sonnent si que les montaignes
En retintoent et les pleignes.”
— Guillaume de Saint-Pair Roman du Mont Saint Michel

The flageol, on the other hand, is more given to sweetness. Here is the flageol with
which Mercury puts Argus to sleep before decapitating him:

“Les le vacher a son flagel,
Et par son chant fist le vacher
De .ii de ces iex somiller,
Qui delés lui s’estoit assis,
Et puis de .iii et puis de .vi;
Si se penoit de chanter miex,
Tant que cil de tout ces. c.iex
Au chant dou flagol s’endormi.
Et quant il le vit enormi.
Le chef lui trencha ou s’espec.”
Le bestiaire d’amour rimé (mid-thirteenth century)

And a fifteenth-century saying had it that:

“…a peu de vent gros flaïos, accorde on.”
— Jean Molinet, L’arbre de Bourgogne (after 1486)

As Boragno notes, not only shepherds played the flajeol:

“Il advint ou tempz de son pere Conrat, que ce Henry estoir encore enffant et jeune; ainsi, comme il se juoit avecques ung lerjon qui avoit un flajoeul d’argent, si lui prmist qu’il lui douroit un eveschié, quant il seroit empereur mais qu’il donnast ce flajoeul. Et quant il fut empereur, lui demanda ce qu’il luiavoit promis, et l’empereur luie accomplist tantost.”
Renart le Contrefait (1328 & 1342).

Boragno also points out that the flagol d’argent is not an isolated occurence.

“Cil calimel i sonent et cil flagol d’argent,
Li Sarrasin carolent et cantent belement.”
Graindor de Douai, La chanson d’Antioche (late 12th century)

And Adam de la Halle’s Marion sings:

“J’oi Robin flajoler au flajol d’argent,
Au flajol d’argent
Biau sire car vous en alés!”
— Adam de la Halle, Le jeu de Robin et Marion (before 1288)

In Le séjour d’honneur, Octavien de Saint-Gelais (1490) speaks of flütes argentines. And flutes made of ivory or decorated with precious metals and jewels are mentioned in a number of French medieval sources.

In Le Lay de franchise, a letter in verse form written on 23 February 1378 by the poet Eustace Deschamps on behalf of Pierre de Navarre, the latter says:

“Je n’ay mie si mal en l’ongle
Que je n’aie aprins a jouer
A l’eschequier et flaioler.”

Rowland-Jones (2006: 20) has translated this as:

My nail(s) haven’t been so bad
As to prevent me from learning to play
the checker and the flageol.

One hardly needs nails to play a keyboard instrument or the six-holed pipe. A recorder, however, does require the use of a thumb-nail in order play the upper-octave notes effectively. Thus Rowland-Jones concludes that the use of the word ongle here in the singular, can surely only refer to the recorder, which makes this letter the earliest-yet known reference to the recorder. Lasocki (2011: 72-73), footnote 198)  questions the translation of the word l’ongle as ‘nail’ noting that in the fourteenth century it had the further meanings of a “Kind of sickness of the eye: the layer which is thick, large, and strongly attached to the conjunctiva is difficult to cure”; and an “Ache of the fingers ends in extremity of cold weather; also, a painful slipping of the flesh, or swelling of it over, the nail.” Lasocki considers that problems with the eyes or the fingers in general are a much more likely explanation of Deschamps’ statement than anything to do with the thumb-nail specifically and that his flaioler refers simply to playing on duct flutes of any kind.

By a most curious process of exclusion, (Brown 1995) has argued that the flustes listed in the fifteenth-century French romance Cleriadus et Meliadice most likely refers to recorders rather than transverse flutes, tabor-pipes, double pipes or some other kind of duct flute.

Wright (1964) has argued that there are a number of mid-late fifteenth-century French references to recorders. Amongst the musical items listed in Mathieu d’Escouchy’s account of the Banquet du Voeu, a feast held at Lille in 1454 by the Duke of Burgundy, we read:

“…aprez, ou pasté, jouèent quatre menestreux de fleutres.”

And four years later, at the marriage of the Duke of Burgundy with Margaret of York, there were four recorder players dressed as wolves:

“Et la se comparurent quatre loups ayant fluctes en leurs pattes; et commencèrent les dictz loups à jouer une chanson.”

It seems that the performance of vocal music on recorders was particularly popular in early renaissance France. Nicole de la Chesnaye in the Condamnacion des Banquets (1507) wrote:

“Sus Galland qui avez l’usaige
De harper ou instrumenter,
Trop Longuement faictes d’usaige,
Une chanson convient fleuter:
Savez vous oint: J’ay mis mon cuer;
Ou Non pas, ou Quand ce viendra;
D’ung autre aymer, Le serviteur…”

Chesnaye lists many more chanson titles. Indeed a later collection published by Pierre Attaignant in 1533 has the title:

“Vingt et sept chanson musicales à quatre parties desqauelles le plus convenables à la feuste d’allemant … et à la fleuste à neuf trous … et pour les deux …”

The fleuste a neuf trous are unmistakably recorders, referring to the characteristic paired offset little finger holes of early recorders which allow for both left-hand down and right-hand down playing, the unused hole being sealed with wax. Indeed the entry ‘Recorder a pype fleute a ix neufte trous’ appears in Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la langue Francoyse (1530), an English-French vocabulary. And it occurs again in Philbert Jambe de Fer’s instruction manual Epitome musical de tons, sons et accordz, es voix humains, fleuste d’Alleman, fleustes à neuf trous, violes, & violins. (1556).

Wright (loc. cit.) notes that about 1530, a new metaphor was adopted into the French Language, ‘accordez vos flûtes’, meaning ‘agree among yourselves’. The problem of tuning recorders is nothing new. It occurs in Molière’s L’Etourdi, ou les contretemps (1653):

“Et vous, filous, fieffés … Mettez, pour me tromper, vos flûtes mieux d’accord!”

And its use continues as late as 1732. However, it enjoyed its greatest popularity in the sixteenth century.

Renaissance recorders were made in sets of four, six, or more, which were kept in a case so that they could be played together. In the accounts of the Court of Burgundy for 10 May 1426 we read:

“A Loys Willay demourant a Bruges, al somme de 31 livres 4 solz du prix de 40 gros monnoie de Flanders la livre, a lui deue pour quatre grans instruments de menestrelz, quatre douchaines, et quatre feutes, tous garniz d’estuiz de cuir et de coffres, que Mgr., part Latin de Conninglant son escuier d’escuierie, a fait prendre et acheter de lui pour lez envoyer a M. le Marquis de Ferrare.”

According to Page (1982), the descriptions of flatilla, the Latin version of the German floite or floet, by Konrad of Megenberg (1309-1374) in his des Yconomica (1348-1352) probably covered transverse as well as internal-duct flutes. However, Konrad divided wind players into into two types, namely macrofistulus and microfistullus. The latter

“…is the one who makes music on a smaller pipe (fistula): and I call those smaller pipes – named flattilas in the vernacular – because they give sound with little blowing of the breath of the mouth, but their sound is weak and feeble. Whence they sometimes play together with fiddles.”

Later Konrad writes that flattile

“…arouse or exasperate amorous spirits, and to an extent move them to the sweetness of [religious] devotion. Organs, therefore, on account of their variety and multitude [of flute pipes], are fittingly allotted a place in churches where divine services are celebrated.”

Arnt von Aich’s songbook, published around 1519 has in the title:

“… lustick zu syngen. Auch etlich zu fleiten, scwegelen, und anderen Musicalisch Instrumentet zu gebrauchen”

in which the fleiten must be recorders, not flutes, for both Virdung and Agricola use the world flöte to mean recorder. Confirmation of this exists in the memoirs of the Duc de la Viellevile who suggests that the Germans did not play flutes in consort at this time:

“Il y avait une espinette, une joeur de luth, dessus les violes, et une fleuste traverse, qaue l’on apelle à grand tort, sleuste d’Allemand: car les Franç s’en aydent mieulx et plus musicalement qaue toute aultre nations, et jamais en Allemaigne n’en fut joué à quatre parties, comme il se fait orndinairement en France.”

Braggard, de Hen and Hopkins (1967: 57) assert that a fistula anglica mentioned in a 12th-century manuscript at Glasgow University refers to the recorder. Lasocki (2011) has argued that this appears to be a garbled combined reference to an illustration in the so-called Hunterian Psalter showing King David tuning his harp and surrounded by musicians, including players of the triple pipe and bagpipe; and the Latin name for the recorder used by Marin Mersenne in L’Harmonie Universelle (1636: 230–232) in which he describes the English Flute as Fistula dulcis seu Anglica (fistula dulcis or fistula anglica). However, I note that a 15th-century manuscript in the British Museum, (MS. Reg 17, C XXVII, fol. 43, v°) gives a vocabulary relating to minstrelsy and games which includes “Hec fistula, Anglice pype” (quoted by Wright (1857: 216).

Braggard & Hen were  not the first to take up Mersenne’s assertion: in his well-known General History of the Science and Practice of Music Sir John Hawkins (1776) wrote:

The flute appears to be an instrument of great antiquity in this kingdom; it is frequently mentioned by Chaucer; and it seems by the description of it in Mersennus, that there was a species of it, which by himself and other foreigners was termed the English Flute, ‘Fistula dulcis seu Anglica’. The proper and most discriminating appellation for it is that of the Flute à bec, or beaked flute; nevertheless we meet with ancient books of instructions for the instrument, wherein it is termed, but very improperly, as it is conceived, the Recorder. Milton could never mean that they were one and the same instrument, when in the same line he mentions ‘Flutes and soft Recorders.’

Galpin (1911/1965: 149) includes fistula anglica amongst the synonyms of the recorder, stating that the latter “… was so practised and esteemed in this country that it was generally known as the Fistula Anglica, or English Flute, in contradistinction to the Fistula Germanica or Helvetica, the transverse flute …”, but he cites no evidence for his claim. Similarly, Sachs  (1913: 52, 141 & 386) equates fistula anglica, fistula vulgaris and tibia vulgaris simply to “Blockflöte”, which he takes to designate the recorder.

Although the Canterbury Tales of Geofrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400) makes no direct reference to the recorder, it is possible that his Squire, who was “syngynge … and floytynge, al the day”, played a recorder (Welch 1911, Hunt 2002; Rasmussen and Huene 1982: 34, footnote 5; Rowland-Jones 2004). And in his House of Fame (c. 1379-1380), Chaucer’s reference to woodwind musicians ‘That craftely begunne to pipe, Bothe in doucet and in rede’ has been taken by various authors to imply recorders and shawms respectively (Welch loc. cit., Galpin loc. cit., Hunt loc. cit.)

There is no reference to the recorder in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1370), despite the detailed accounts of Christmas and New-Year festivities, including music.

In his History of Irish Music the Irish author, composer, musicologist and historian William Henry Grattan Flood (1905: 27) notes:

The Buinne was a primitive oboe, or a flute, and it is glossed by Zeuss as equivalent to tibia. O’Curry equates it with “trumpet in the shape of a horn,” whilst Dr. O’Sullivan says that it is the Romance Buisine, or Bassoon, but I am more inclined to the view of the eighth-century Irish monks, which makes it a sort of pipe, or flute, or cambucus (crooked flute, as it is styled by Archbishop Kilwarby, in 1275). Moreover, we read that the Irish were wont to sing to the accompaniment of the cruit or the buinne, which renders it most probable that this latter was a delicate instrument of the flute genus. In a poem by William de Machault, a writer of the fourteenth century, there is a reference to our Irish buinne as “La flaute bretaigne,” which, in English, was given the name of “Recorder,” or “Flute a Bec.”

On closer inspection, Flood’s flaute bretaigne is a misquote or misunderstanding, for Machaut’s original phrase was la flahute brehaigne (Bohemian flute) which probably represents a transverse flute rather than an internal duct flute such as a recorder (Powell, 2002: 23).

It has long been suggested that the earliest reference to the recorder by name is provided by the household accounts of the Earl of Derby, Henry Bolingbroke  (later King Henry IV) for 1388 which mention i. fistula in nomine Ricordo, a flute called a Ricordo. Trowell (1957) remarks that ricordo is Italian for a “remembrance, souvenir, keepsake, memento, sign of friend-ship, token”, derived from the Latin recordari (to remember), and notes further that during the Middle Ages, the gift of a musical instrument was a recognised custom of civility and a means to obtaining a reward, and indeed an excellent ‘memento’ of favours received or expected. (Higbee, 1965, 128) supported Trowell’s derivation of ‘recorder’ from a form of the Latin recordari. Wright (1965: 341) suggested an origin from the English ‘to record’, meaning  to memorise, to recall, to practice and to recite, to sing or to play and that the Earl of Derby’s ricordo might represent no more than an attempt to render a pre-existing English word ‘recorder’ in a Latin document. And the Italian origin of ricordo itself has been questioned, e.g. by (Bornstein 1987: 45-56)

Rowland-Jones (2000)  has uncovered evidence that the future Henry IV really did have a new-fangled duct flute bought for him in London at a cost of around £500 in present day equivalence. An examination of the original accounts document (DL 28 1/2 of Hugh de Waterton) for the receipts and expenditure of the chamber and wardrobe of the Earl of Derby, 30th September, 1387-88 in the Public Record Office, London, shows that hitherto the entry in question has been completely mistranscribed: it in fact reads as follows:

“Et pro j fistula nomine Recordour empta London’ pro domino iij s iiij d”

The superscript ‘u-dash-slash’ following the ‘o’ is an abbreviation for ‘ur’ in English court hand. Thus, although the critical word looks like ‘Recordo’ it should really be rendered ‘Recordour’ and the entire entry be translated:

“And for one flute by name of Recordour bought in London for my lord, three shillings and four pence.”

Rowland-Jones (loc. cit) points out that whereas the word fistula (flute) is treated as a common noun, ‘Recordour’ is treated as if it were a proper noun like ‘London’, and that it is qualified by the word nomine. This would seem to indicate that the word (and probably the recorder itself) was new to the language or unfamiliar.

It is possible that the recorder purchased on behalf of the then 21- year-old Earl of Derby was for his own use. The future Henry IV was a keen amateur musician (Trowell loc. cit.) Indeed, a piece in the early fifteenth-century Old Hall manuscript is ascribed ‘Roy Henry’, though the latter might refer to his more famous son who became Henry V. It is tempting to think of the Earl of Derby playing music with his wife. Among the purchases ‘pro domina’ for the Countess of Derby are strings and pegs, presumably for her gittern.

The words ‘recorderis’, ‘recorders’, ‘recorde’, ‘recordour’, ‘recordres’, ‘recordys’ appear in a number of fifteenth and early sixteenth-century sources. The word’s English literary debut (in the form ‘recorderys’) seems to have been John Lydgate’s Temple of Glas: Allas for thought (c. 1430), where it appears in the hands of a shepherd in a pastoral setting:

… …
I myghte at leyser onys se,
And a-byde at lyberte,
Where as it doth so fayre sprede
A-geyn the su?me in euery mede,
On bankys hy a-mong the bromys,
Wher as these lytylle herdegromys
Floutyn ul the longe day,
Bothe in aprylle & in may,

In here smale recorderys,
In floutys & in rede sperys,
Aboute this flour, til it be nyght;
It makyth hem so glad & lyght,
The grete beute to be-holde
Of this flour & sone onfolde
Hyre goodly fayre white levis,
Swettere than in 3ynge grevis
Is cheuyrfoyl or hawethorn,
Whan plente with hire fulle horn
Hyre sote baume cloth out-shede
On hony-souklys in the mede,
Fletywge ful of sugre newe;
… …

Before this time Lydgate made reference only to to the ‘pipe’ and ‘floyte’ and their cognates, not to the recorder as such.

In Lydgate’s The Fall of Princes (1431-1438), the recorder appears again  in a pastoral setting but this time in the hands of a  supernatural being:

“Pan, god off Kynde, with his pipes seuene
Off recorderis fond first the melodies.
And Mercurie, that sit so hih in heuene,
First in his harpe fond sugred armonyes.
Holsum wynes thoruhfyned from ther lyes
Bachus fond first, of vynes heuy lade,
Licour off licours corages for to glade.”

The Fall of Princes is a translation in 36,000 lines of a French version of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum.

The anonymous poem The Squier of Lowe Degree (ca 1450) contains the following reference:

“There was myrth and melody
With harp, getron and sautry,
With rote, ribible and clokarde,
With pypes, organs and bumbade,
With other mynstrelles them amonge,
With sytolphe and with sautry songe,
With fydle, recorde, and dowcemere,
With trompette and with claryon clere,
With dulcet pipes of many cordes.”

The Scottish Buke of the Howlate (ca 1450) notes the recorder in another of those lists of which the medieval mind was so fond:

“All thus our ladye they lofe, with liking and list
Menstralis and musicians mo than I mene may,
The psaltery, the citholis, the soft cytharist,
The croude, and the monycordis, the gythornis gay,
The rote, and the recordour, the ribup, and rist,
The trump, and the taburn, the tympane but tray;
The dulsate, and the dulsacordis, the schalm of assay;
The amyable organis usit full oft,
Clarions loude knelis,
Portativis and bellis,
Cymbaclanis in the cellis
That soundis so soft.”

In an anonymous translation (1422-1450)  of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon we are told that:

“Seynte Aldelme, bischop of Schirburn, diede in this tyme, whom Egwyne beriede, callede Aldelmus as olde holy, instructe nobly in Grewe and in Latyn, havynge in habite and in use instrumentes off the arte of musike, as in harpes, pipes, recordres.”

An anonymous Cornish miracle play, Ordinale de Origine Mundi (fifteenth-century) puts the following words into the mouth of King David:

"Wethong menstrels ha tabours
trey-hans harpes ha trompours
cythol crowd fylh ha savtry
psalmus gyttrens ha nakrys
organs in weth cymbalys
recordys ha symphony."
Blow minstrels and tabors
three hundred harps and trumpets
citole, crowd, fiddle, and psaltery
shawms, gitterns and nakers
organs, also cymbals
recorders and symphony.

The earliest extant English-Latin dictionary, Galfridus Anglicus’ Promptorium Parvulorum (compiled ca 1440, printed 1499), gives “Recorder litell pype. Canula … C. f. in coraula”. An earlier work, Campus Florum (ca 1359), as yet unlocated – not the book of the same title in the library of Peterhouse, Cambridge – is given as the authority for this translation. A work with this title known to have been authored by Thomas Gualensis (Walleys), a Dominican monk from Oxford, in 1359, seems not to have survived. Whilst it is possible that Campus Florum mentioned the recorder it is more likely that the work passed on earlier definitions of ‘choraules’ [Gk, the leader of the chorus who played either canulae or fistulae] and that the compiler of Promptorium simply added the up-to-date equation with recorder (Lasocki 2012: 53).

Welch (1911)  notes that an even earlier treatise compiled in Paris by Thomas de Hibernia, a collection of authoritative Latin quotations on a variety of moral and theological topics entitled Manipulus Florum (1280-1306) existing in a large number of early imprints (at least 26 editions between 1550 and 1600 alone), was said by Grattan Flood (1905, 1912:87) to mention the recorder by name. However, Chris L. Nighman (pers. comm., 2008) reports that the Manipulus Florum is really not a source for an early reference to the recorder after all. He notes that only the word ‘tybie’ (tibie/tibiae) which is from a biblical text (Ecclesiasticus 40:21) is cited by the compiler of the Manipulus. A check of the modern edition of the Vulgate Bible (Vatican, 1979) shows that the term ‘tibiae’ is indeed used in this line; in the Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha (1962) it is translated as ‘flute’.

Ballester (2000:10-12) notes that before he succeeded to the throne of Aragon the music-loving Infante (Crown Prince) Juan of Catalonia wrote a letter (in Catalan) from Saragossa dated 23 July 1378 to his chamberlain, Petro d’Artes, asking him to obtain a harp from Ponçz, an instrument-maker in Valencia, and also for lutes and “flahutes” to be sent to him as fast as possible. As we have seen, “flutes” in various spellings could refer to a variety of instruments including duct flutes of sundry kinds as well as transverse flutes. The reference in this context may have been to recorders, 10 years before the unequivocal account of the purchase of a ‘Recourdour’ in London for the heir to the throne of England, the future Henry IV. Furthermore, the French spelling flahute might indicate a French origin.

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Cite this article as: Lander, Nicholas S. 1996–2024. Recorder Home Page: A memento: the medieval recorder: Etymology & literary references. Last accessed 12 July 2024.