The vielle was a popular instrument. As you can see from the picture above, it was the stringed instrument from which the viol and the violin descended. Like them, it was played with a bow. In the thirteenth century it usually had five strings, but its shape and size could vary.
It’s made from wood and has a front and a back that are more or less flat. Apart from the two holes carved in the front, they’re identical. They’re both glued to a thin strip of wood along their edges to form an oval box. A length of wood is glued to the front and extends beyond it. This is the neck. At the far end it has pegs facing away from the instrument around which the strings are tightened. They’re tied off at the other end. It’s hidden in the top picture, but in the one below you can see the line of the bridge, a thin piece of wood which raises the strings away from the body. The vielle in the picture above has frets on the neck; the one in the picture below does not. That variety is also represented in the videos below. For quite a long time the vielle was oval, but you can see a slight inward curve in the middle of the body of the one below and that trend continued through the centuries.
You can see that the vielle could be played very much in the same way that a violin is played. The player presses the strings against the neck and pulls the bow across the strings he wants to sound. This causes them to vibrate and the sound they make is amplified by hollow box. The strings are tuned by tightening the pegs at the end of the neck.
We’ve already discovered that drones were popular in the Middle Ages and the vielle could also cater to this taste. The melody could be played on three of the strings, leaving two strings as drones.
The vielle was easy to carry and was the favourite instrument of the troubadours and jongleurs.
In this video Alexis Bennett talks a bit about playing the vielle and plays a salterello that you might recognise if you’re familiar with medieval music.
This next video showcases a larger instrument and a different playing position.
Lovely as this performance is, I suspect the medieval reality was more like this next video, in which yet another playing position is demonstrated.
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca