Luit van der Tuuk is a Dutch author and independent researcher, specialized in the early middle ages. He is also the curator of Museum Dorestad in Wijk bij Duurstede.
In the early middle ages, musical instruments had a special meaning, with their own social function, symbolism and terminology.This was particularly true for the lyre, the most important stringed instrument for the Germanians. It was the instrument of choice for accompanying songs.
In many cultures, stringed instruments are associated with aristocratic music. We see this image also in the carea, where the elite had a musical tradition, involving lyre playing. So it is not a coincidence that the poet Beowulf named no other instruments than the lyre in his descriptions of joy in the hall.
The king buried in the Sutton Hoo ship must also have been a singer, or at least a patron of the vocal arts. The lyre was a royal instrument, the item of king Hrothgar in Beowulf ànd of the biblical king David. The image of the instrument’s high status is reinforced by early medieval depictions of David playing a lyre.
Due to the context of other luxury grave goods, lyres in sixth and seventh century graves can almost always be associated with the aristocratic elite, particularly armoured warriors. Sometimes the lyre was placed on the deceased, giving the suggestion the person played the instrument himself. In other graves the lyre was not placed against the body. A position that raises the suspicion that these were high status people – often indicated as kings – didn’t play the instrument themselves, but left this to musicians in their service. In these graves the lyre seems to have been more of a status symbol amongst the large amount of goods.
The use to give grave goods declined in the eighth century. From this moment onward we only know loose finds of (mostly) bridges, found in a domestic context, especially associated with centers of trade and crafts. Finds like these are unknown from the earliest period, when there were few trade settlements like that.
Amber bridges were especially found in centers where this material was worked, aside from a few grave finds from te eight and ninth century. Like the burial site of Broa on the Swedish island of Gotland. Semi-finished examples, known from Dorestad and Haitabu (Hedeby), support the idea that lyres, or parts thereof, were made in the trade centers. Apparently we must place the context of these settlements in the production of these instruments, because lyres were not a part of the inhabitants daily life.
A Dutch version of this blog was posted at www.vikinglanghuis.nl on June 16, 2018. English translation by JAVACA – © Luit van der Tuuk – 2018