Medieval, about AD 1280-1330

Music for a royal love?

A citole is the medieval equivalent of a guitar. This example is both a unique survival of its type and an outstanding example of medieval secular art. It was highly prized in its day and highly regarded throughout its history.

Alterations have been made to the citole at several points in the past, including attempts to convert it to a violin. Among the changes is the insertion of a silver plate above the peg box, engraved with the arms of Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1558-1603) and her favourite and lover, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. One of the most likely uses for the citole in medieval times would be as accompaniment to love ballads. The amorous associations clearly persisted into the Elizabethan age.

The back, sides and neck are all carved from a single piece of wood and date from the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century. At this time the soundboard would have been flat and without the f-shaped sound holes.

The richly carved decoration reveals a close observance of nature and a fascination with the forest. A variety of creatures emerge from the dense foliage of oak, vine, hawthorn and mulberry leaves. Some are hybrid monsters, such as the archer with the head and torso of a youth but the hindquarters of an animal. Others are huntsmen, animals of the chase and a swineherd who knocks down acorns to feed his pigs - the traditional 'labour of the month' for October or November. The whole culminates in the head and wings of a green-eyed dragon.

P. Kevin et al, A musical instrument fit for a queen: the metamorphosis of a Medieval citole, The British Museum Technical Research Bulletin, Volume 2, 2008, pp13-28, (Archetype Press in association with the British Museum)

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More information


M. Remnant and R. Marks, 'A medieval gittern', British Museum Yearbook-1, No. 4: Music and Civilisation (1980), pp. pp.83-134

J. Cherry, Medieval decorative art (London, The British Museum Press, 1991)

J. Robinson, Masterpieces: Medieval Art (London, British Museum Press, 2008)


Length: 61.000 cm
Width: 18.600 cm
Depth: 14.700 cm

Museum number

M&ME 1963,10-2,1



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