The harp is an ancient instrument dating back to the Sumerian civilization. In the Middle Ages, it seems to have been strung with gut, except in Ireland where metal strings — probably brass — were used from an early date. The number of strings varied a lot, with a tendency towards increased numbers as the centuries wore on. By the l4th century there were sometimes as many as twenty-five.

Harp. Virgin and Child (detail) by Pere Sera (14th century). Barcelona, Museo de Arte Cataluña.


Gothic harp with bray pins. Angel musician (detail) from the Najera Tryptich by Hans Memling (ca.1480). Antwerp, Musée des Beaux-Arts, no. 780.

Harp. Oswald von Wolkenstein: Lieder. Ensemble Sequentia. Benjamin Bagby, harp. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472-77302-2 (1993). Trk 7 O snode werlt (excerpt)


Around l400 the harp acquired a more slender shape which we term “gothic,” and also a series of little elbow-shaped pegs called “bray pins” which touched the strings as they emerged from the sound-box, causing a nasal buzzing sound as the strings were plucked. This was helpful in projecting the sound, since the sound-box of the gothic harp was small (in comparison to later harps) and made of hardwood, and thus did not have the natural resonance of larger spruce-bellied instruments. It also made for a very different aesthetic from the modern harp.


Close-up of bray pins. Hell (detail) from Garden of Delights (1500-10) by Hieronymous Bosch. Madrid, Prado.


Gothic harp (16th century). Nuremberg, Germanische Nationalmuseum.


Bray-pin harp. Forse che si, forse che no: musique de danse du quattrocento. Ferrara Ensemble, dir. Crawford Young. Debra Gomez, harp. Fonti Musicali Atelier Danse fmd 182 (1989). Trk 11, Giove (excerpt).