To hang our Lyres up to the Willows…

By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.”

Psalm 137:1-2 (ESV)

Albani Psalter
o you probably have heard these verses? They are fairly well known.
The people of Israel are in exile in Babylon, and their captors ask them to sing songs about Israel. But they hang their lyres on the willows and sit down staring at the river and crying. Not capable of any creative or jolly endeavour. It paints an intense image of sorrow and sadness.
A feeling of longing,  remembering better times in the past, not knowing what the future will bring, dark and unsure. After the last months of Corona lockdown, I am sure we can all relate.

During the lockdown I have been working on some research about instruments in early medieval psalters (more on that in future blogs). Illustrations by the psalms can be a rich source of information for a variety of subjects. I have become a great admirer of the Utrecht and Stuttgart Psalters, both masterpieces in their own right.

The scene of Psalm 137 (136 in the Vulgate and Septuaginta) is interesting because of the instruments, , but also because of its slightly comedic, almost cartoonish depiction.

Stuttgart Psalter

311 Rivers of babylon

Stuttgart Psalter  –  Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Cod. bibl. fol.23 f.152r (detail)

In the Stuttgart Psalter (Paris, 9th C.) we see two old men, sitting next to the stream while their lyres are hanging in the back.

These instruments might look a bit strange to us, knowing how an early medieval lyre should look, but it seems that the artist tried to keep in line with the description of a Psalterium in Ps 33:2 Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre and 144:9 “[…] on the ten-stringed lyre I will make music to you”. Or perhaps even make a depiction of a small organ?

The psalter was probably made after earlier Italian (8th C.) and Byzantine (6-7th C.) manuscripts.

Utrecht Psalter

Utrechts-Psalter_PSALM-136 detail

Utrecht psalter – Utrecht University 32, f. 161 (detail)

The picture in the Utrecht psalter (Reims, 9th C.) has faded over time and is almost unreadable, because the ink of the next page shines through.

Utrechts-Psalter_PSALM-136 detail filter 3

Utrecht psalter – Utrecht University 32, f. 161 (detail)

Some adjustment in the contrast gives us a vague image of a couple of harps or lyres in the trees on the right. The river flows like a serpent below.

Eadwine Psalter

Luckily we have a backup for the Utrecht psalter images. In the 12th century the Utrecht Psalter resided in England, were its images stood model for two other, more colourful psalters; the Eadwine and Harley psalters.

Eadwine 2

Eadwine Psalter – Cambridge Trinity College R.17.1, f. 243v (detail)

In the Eadwine Psalter we see what the illustration in the Utrecht Psalter might have been.

Eadwine 3

Eadwine Psalter – Cambridge Trinity College R.17.1, f. 243v (detail)

So what to do with these pictures? Not much, just enjoy them as a soure of inspiration…

Last weekend I was at the medieval farm at Schothorst along with a couple of friends. And we simply couldn’t resist…


From left to right: Jan van Cappelle (The Dutch Luthier), Roel Zwetsloot (Primal Craft Instruments), Ilja Zendman (Moro) and Spike Bakker (Moro). Hanging about a variety of early medieval instruments made by Roel and me.  –  Photo: Marjan Grinwis.

Despite the picture we are certainly not hanging our lyres to the willows. Early medieval lyres have seen quite a renaissance in the Netherlands over the last five years. Thanks to the hard work of these four people and their friends and fans.

Off course this psalm has also been an inspiration for other works of art. You probably know “The Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians


Which is probably more famous in the version of Boney M…


During the search for these pictures I found a lot of other examples. There are even examples where they throw complete organs in the tree branches. So there will definitely be a sequel to this post…

If you want to know more about the bibe verse and pictures, read this blog post Super flumina Babylonis: silenced organs?by Cristina Alís Raurich. She goes further into the different translations and forthcoming interpretations of the text. Highly recommended!

Super flumina Babylonis


Upon posting this blog my friends of MORO made a fitting tribute to this blog…

Thank you very much you wonderful fools!

This entry was posted in History, Living history, lyre, Music, Projects, Re-enactment, Research, Think different, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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