Jew’s Harps

Introduction

Jew’s harps are small musical instruments that are played by plucking a flexible tongue/reed with one’s fingers, the tongue attached to a frame held in one hand at one end and by the player’s teeth at the other.  Though most jew’s harps are made of iron (Wardle in Egan 1998, 284), the majority of examples recorded through the PAS are composite objects with a copper-alloy frame, and a separate iron tongue/reed (usually lost to corrosion).

PAS object type to be used

Use JEWS HARP

Date

Jew’s harps had been introduced to Europe by the time of the Crusades (Wardle in Egan 1998, 284).  Far more commonly than medieval examples, post-medieval jew’s harps are those usually recorded through the PAS.

Terms to use in the description

Jew’s harps tend to have a rounded head which extends notably wider than the two arms which extend from the base of the head and which gradually converge.  The arms often have a lozengiform cross-section.  The separate tongue is held within a rabbet at the centre of the head, on one side.

Medieval jew’s harps

Some medieval examples published in Wardle in Egan (1998, 285; fig. 217) have a distinctive flattened head, or a rounded head far smaller than the characteristic post-medieval instrument.  One example with a trefoil shaped head found in Winchester has had a 14th-century date suggested for it based on a both stylistic and archaeological evidence (Rees et al. 2008, 275).

Post-medieval jew’s harps

Jew’s harps of this period tend to be characteristically of the sort with the large, rounded head.  They tend to be plain, some with some transversely engraved lines, though a few are quite elaborate: SF8969SUR-33D582, SOM-908E25.

Examples

Jew's harp: Late medieval jew's harp (top left, WILT-809C82); post-medieval jew's harp (top right, KENT-79748E); post-medieval jew's harp (bottom, SOM-908E25). Copyright: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum; Kent County Council; Somerset County Council; CC-BY-SA licence)
Jew’s harp: Late medieval jew’s harp (top left, WILT-809C82); post-medieval jew’s harp (top right, KENT-79748E); post-medieval jew’s harp (bottom, SOM-908E25). Copyright: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum; Kent County Council; Somerset County Council; CC-BY-SA licence)

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Key references

Wardle in Egan 1998