1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Rotta

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ROTTA, Chrotta, Hrotta (Fr. Cithare, rotta; Ger, Cythara, Rotta), a medieval stringed instrument derived from the Greek cithara. The rotta possessed, in common with all other forerunners of the violin, the chief structural features of the cithara, i.e. the box sound-chest composed of back and belly either flat or delicately arched connected by ribs. The rotta represents the first step in the evolution of the cithara, when arms and cross-bar were replaced by a frame joined to the body, the strings being usually restricted to eight or less. Examples of these early rottas abound in miniatures from the 8th to the 12th century or even the 14th, such as Cotton MS. Vespasian A. I. (Brit. Mus.), 700 A.D., and the MS. copy in the Durham Cathedral Library of the Cassiodorus Commentary on the Psalms[1] manu Bedae. The most interesting is a real specimen of wood found in an Alamannic tomb of the 4th to the 7th century at Oberflacht[2] in the Black Forest, and now preserved in the Völker Museum, Berlin.

The next step was the addition of a finger-board and the consequent reduction of the strings to three or four, since each string was now capable of producing several notes. In the Carolingian Bible presented to Charles the Bald[3] by Count Vivian of Tours there is a fine example of the rotta at this stage, in which the artist has reproduced the position of the fingers of the left hand stopping the strings, and of the right hand plucking them. The same instrument occurs in a companion Bible, known as the Bible of St Paul because it was preserved in the monastery of that name “without the walls” at Rome. Although these MSS. were executed in the 9th century, they do not represent contemporary scenes, but were inspired by Romano-Christian models, if not actually copied from older MSS. This is the only representation yet found of the finger-board thus applied to the rotta. In the final transition preceding the transformation into the guitar, the rotta appears as a guitar-shaped instrument without neck or head and having a hole large enough to allow the hand to pass through left in the body on each side of the strings. At first this instrument, which developed into the crwth, was twanged with the fingers, but in the 11th century it was played with a bow, the bridge having been slightly raised on feet.

The first (and perhaps also the second) of these transitions was accomplished in the Christian East, where, however, the upper frame of the earliest rotta seems to have been at once discardedin favour of a long neck with frets, for which the tanbur undoubtedly supplied the idea. This evolution is to be traced in the miniatures of a single MS., which supplies examples of all the transitions. The miniatures illustrate the Psalms in the Utrecht Psalter; they were beyond doubt originally designed to accompany a Greek or Syriac version.[4] The Utrecht Psalter, executed in the diocese of Reims under Anglo-Saxon influence during the 9th century, is no servile copy, but it owes much of its inspiration and local colour to an unknown Greek or Syrian prototype.

As soon as the neck was added to the guitar-shaped body, the instrument ceased to be a rotta and became a guitar (q.v.), or a guitar-fiddle (q.v.) if played with the bow. Of the rotta, there were two distinct types, the one derived from the cithara, the rotta proper, and the other derived from the lyre, which survived to the 18th century as the Welsh crwth. Although the various forms of the name came to be applied somewhat indiscriminately in different countries and epochs to both types, yet the structural features of both remained true to their respective archetypes.

The words rotta in England and cythara in Germany seem to have clung more especially to the first of these types, while the forms crwth, crowd, crouth were reserved for the bowed instruments, the earliest of which appeared in the 11th century.[5]

The crwth or crowd, so popular in England during the 14th century, does not seem to have won equal favour in Germany, where at that time the nidel or guitar-fiddle had been popularized by the minnesingers. The crwth derived from the lyre underwent no further development. (K. S.)


  1. Both miniatures are reproduced by J. O. Westwood in Facsimiles (London, 1868).
  2. Reproduced in Jahreshefte d. Würtemb. Altertums Ver. vol. iii. (Stuttgart, 1846), pl. viii. figs. 10 and 11.
  3. See Facsimile, by Comte Auguste de Bastard (Paris, 1883).
  4. The whole case of this much-discussed Psalter, with résumés of the principal writings on the subject of facsimiles of the miniatures bearing on the evolution of the cithara, will be found in Kathleen Schlesinger's Instruments of the Orchestra, pp. 343-82 and pl. iii., vi. and vii. (London, 1909).
  5. See Kathleen Schlesinger, op. cit., pp. 334, 338-39 n. and 441-50.