1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fiddle

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FIDDLE (O. Eng. fithele, fidel, &c., Fr. vièle, viole, violon; M. H. Ger. videle, mod. Ger. Fiedel), a popular term for the violin, derived from the names of certain of its ancestors. The word fiddle antedates the appearance of the violin by several centuries., and in England did not always represent an instrument of the same type. The word has first been traced in 1205 in Layamon's Brut (7002), “of harpe, of salteriun, of fithele and of coriun.” In Chaucer's time the fiddle was evidently a well-known instrument:


For him was lever have at his beddes hed
A twenty bokes, clothed in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his Philosophie,
Than robes riche or fidel or sautrie.”
(Prologue, v. 298.)


The origin of the fiddle is of the greatest interest; it will be found inseparable from that of the violin both as regards the instruments and the etymology of the words; the remote common ancestor is the kethorah of the Assyrians, the parent of the Greek cithara. The Romans are responsible for the word fiddle, having bestowed upon a kind of cithara — probably then in its first transition — the name of fidiculae (more rarely fidicula), a diminutive form of fides. In Alain de Lille's De planctu naturae against the word lira stands as equivalent vioel, with the definition “Lira est quoddam genuē citharae vel fitola alioquin de reot. Hoc instrumentum est multum vulgare.” This is a marginal note in writing of the 13th century.[1]

Some of the transitions from fidicula to fiddle are made evident in the accompanying table:


Latin fidiculae
Medieval Latin vitula, fitola.
French vièle, vielle, viole.
Provençal viula.
Spanish viguela, vihuela, vigolo.
Old High German fidula.
Middle High German       videle.
German fiedel, violine.
Italian viola, violino.
Dutch vedel.
Danish fiddel.
Anglo-Saxon fithele.
Old English fithele, fythal, fithel,
     fythylle, fidel,
     fidylle, (south) vithele.


For the descent of the guitar-fiddle, the first bowed ancestor of the violin, through many transitions from the cithara, see Cithara, Guitar and Guitar-Fiddle.

Britannica Fiddle Minnesinger.png
From Julius Rühlmann's Geschichte der Bogeninstrumente.
Minnesinger Fiddle. Germany, 13th Century, from the Manesse MSS.

In the minnesinger and troubadour fiddles, of which evidences abound during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, are to be observed the structural characteristics of the violin and its ancestors in the course of evolution. The principal of these are first of all the shallow sound-chest, composed of belly and back, almost flat, connected by ribs (also present in the cithara), with incurvations more or less pronounced, an arched bridge, a finger-board and strings (varying in number), vibrated by means of a bow. The central rose sound-holes of stringed instruments whose strings are plucked by fingers or plectrum have given place to smaller lateral sound-holes placed on each side of the strings. It is in Germany,[2] where contemporary drawings of fiddles of the 13th and 14th centuries furnish an authoritative clue, and in France, that the development may best be followed. The German minnesinger fiddle with sloping shoulders was the prototype of the viols, whereas the guitar-fiddle produced the violin through the intermediary of the Italian bowed Lyra.

The fiddle of the Carolingian epoch, — such, for instance, as that mentioned by Otfrid of Weissenburg[3] in his Harmony of the Gospels (c. 868),


Sih thar ouch al ruarit
This organo fuarit
Lira joh fidula,” &c., —


was in all probability still an instrument whose strings were plucked by the fingers, a cithara in transition. (K. S.)


  1. See C. E.. H. de Coussemaker, Mémoire sur Hucbald (Paris, 1841).
  2. See the Manesse MSS. reproduced in part by F. H. von der Hagen, Heldenbilder (Leipzig and Berlin, 1855) and Bildersaal. The fiddles are reproduced in J. Rühlmann's Geschichte der Bogeninstrumente (Brunswick, 1882), plates.
  3. See Schiller's Thesaurus antiq. Teut. vol. i. p. 379.