The gittern was a relatively small gut-strung, round-backed instrument that first appears in literature and pictorial representation during the 13th century in Western Europe (Iberian Peninsula, Italy, France, England). It is usually depicted played with a quill plectrum, as can be seen clearly beginning in manuscript illuminations from the thirteenth century. It was also called the guiterna in Spain, guiterne or guiterre in France, the chitarra in Italy and Quintern in Germany. A popular instrument with court musicians, minstrels, and amateurs, the gittern is considered an ancestor of the modern guitar and other instruments like the mandore, bandurria and gallichon.
|Classification||String instrument (plucked)|
|Hornbostel–Sachs classification||321.322 (necked box lute)|
From the early 16th century, a vihuela-shaped (flat-backed) guitarra began to appear in Spain, and later in France, existing alongside the gittern. Although the round-backed instrument appears to have lost ground to the new form which gradually developed into the guitar familiar today, the influence of the earlier style continued. Examples of lutes converted into guitars exist in several museums, while purpose-built instruments like the gallichon utilised the tuning and single string configuration of the modern guitar. A tradition of building round-backed guitars in Germany continued to the 20th century with names like Gittar-Laute and Wandervogellaute.
Up until 2002, there were only two known surviving medieval gitterns, one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see external links), the other in the Wartburg Castle Museum. A third was discovered in a medieval outhouse in Elbląg, Poland.