1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Psaltery

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PSALTERY, Psalterion, or Sawtrie (Fr. psaltérion, salteire; Ger. Psalterium; Ital. salterio, istrumento di porco), an ancient stringed instrument twanged by fingers or plectrum, and mentioned many times in the English Bible; a favourite instrument also during the middle ages in England, France and Italy. It is exceedingly doubtful whether the word was ever applied during the classic Greek period to any individual instrument; there is, moreover, no trace in the monuments of that time of the psalterion in any of the forms in which it afterwards became known during the middle ages. It is also puzzling to find no fewer than four different instruments translated psalterion in the Septuagint, i.e. Nebel, Psanterin, Ugab (organ) and Toph (Job xxi. 12). On the other hand the Aramaic word Pisantir or Psanterin (Dan. iii. 5, 10, 15) generally translated psalterion, and by some scholars claimed as a loan word from the Greek, corresponds to the Santir, a stringed instrument represented on Assyrian monuments of the 8th century B.C. (when as yet the word had not been used in Greek for a musical instrument) and still in use in Persia at the present day by the same name. The instrument itself, moreover, a dulcimer, which in its earlier forms differed from the psalterion mainly in that its strings were struck by curved sticks instead of being plucked, must in the absence of contrary evidence be considered as the prototype of the medieval psalterion or psaltery. Early medieval writers generally connect the psalterium and the cithara, probably because the strings of both were set in vibration in the same manner, by plucking or twanging.

The medieval psaltery consisted of a shallow box-soundchest over which strings varying in number were stretched, being fastened at one side to pegs and at the other to wrest pins. In the early rectangular form the strings, numbering 10 or 12, were, as in the cithara, of uniform length, the pitch being varied by the thickness and tension of the strings. When the triangular form succeeded the rectangular, the stringing was that of the harp, pitch being dependent on the length. The trapeze form, clearly borrowed from the oriental Kanon, and the curious Italian istrumento di porco, were the latest types to survive. In these later forms the vibrating length of the strings was regulated by means of two wooden bridges, converging as the strings became shorter. The psaltery was held in an upright position against the chest of the performer, until, owing to the increasing number of strings, it grew too cumbersome, and was placed flat on a table or on the knee. The German zither is the sole European survivor of the medieval psaltery. (K. S.)