Τhe medieval transverse flute between Western Europe and Byzantium

Dimitris Kountouras, Dr, M.Music

Very few things are known to us about the transverse flute in Europe during the Middle Ages. No instruments survive and no specific mention in the repertoire indicates the flute. Our only sources are iconography and literature. According to scholars, the flute came to the West from Byzantium. We have written references already in 7th century Byzantine manuscripts, while the Byzantine iconography that includes a transverse flute dates from the 10th and 11th centuries. (Powell, The Flute, p. 12-13)

Few testimonies from the field of music archaeology provide information about transverse flutes in Greek antiquity; among them the newly discovered flute of Koile (a road outside the walls of the city), in the tomb of a woman in Athens. Dating from the 2nd century BC, a transverse flute made of bone with bronze rings and a conical embouchure was found in good condition during the excavation of a cemetery in the year 2000 (For the Koile Flute, see Psaroudakes).

Byzantine references and iconography

In a treatise on alchemy, dating from the middle Byzantine period (probably the 7th century), by the anonymous writer known as Anonymous Alchemist (Published for the first time by Berthelot M. Ruelle as Collection des Ancients Alchemists Grecs, in 3 volumes, Paris, 1888.), we find two paragraphs concerning music matters; the first one refers to the echos [ήχος], i.e. the modes of music theory.

The second refers to musical instruments. The writer categorizes the instruments as strings or kitharika [κιθαρικά], wind instruments or aulitika [αυλιτικά]—with a distinction between brass and wood (or reed) instruments—and nausta [ναυστά] or percussion instruments.

The list of non-brass wind instruments, or aulitika [αυλητικά], includes the following:

Monokalamon [μονοκάλαμον]: single flute

Dikalamon [δικάλαμον]: double flute

Polykalamon [πολυκάλαμον]: syrinx or the pan flute

Rax tetroreon [ραξ τετρώρεον]: non identifiable

Plagion [πλάγιον]: transverse flute

This reference to the transverse flute—plagion—is probably the first one in Byzantine culture (Maliaras, Byzantine Musical Instruments, pp. 36, 37)

The library of the Greek patriarchate of Jerusalem contains 33 illuminated manuscripts from the 9th up to the 16th century, with no less than 430 illuminations.(Braun, p. 314)

In the Codex Taphou 14, 2a, folio 33v, from the 11th century, there is a depiction of a flute player in a bucolic scene, together with a pan flute player. Both are seated on a hill. The flutist holds the instrument sideways on his right (Mentioned by Maliaras, Byzantine Musical Instruments, p. 315; also by Braun).

In the same manuscript of Jerusalem (Codex Taphou 14, fol. 310v), there is a depiction of the birth of Zeus, king of the gods. In this mythological scene, the armed custody of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, called the Corybantes, are shown sitting next to Zeus at his birth. The Corybantes play music so that Cronus, leader of the Titans, won’t notice the baby’s cries.

The Corybantes are depicted playing different instruments: cymbals, a bowed string instrument, a cylindrical type of tabor and a small transverse flute held sideways on the player’s right. As Braun suggests, this could well be a depiction of an existing musical ensemble (See Braun, “Musical instruments in Byzantine illuminated manuscripts”, p. 318, in Early Music, vol. 8, no. 3 (Jul 1980), pp. 312-327, Oxford University Press)

Taphou 14, fol. 310

In Psalterion Ms Vatican Gr 752, a Byzantine psalter, there are around 200 miniatures in golden ply. This manuscript, dating from 1059 CE, shows, in fol. 5, King David with musicians. King David, often associated with music, is shown in the middle top together with a flute player holding a long flute sideways on his right. King David holds a pear-shaped bowed instrument and, on his right, a musician is holding a round cymbal. There are more figures holding instruments or objects which are difficult to make out (see Maliaras, p. 49).

Miniature from Ms Vatican Gr 752, fol. 5.

In fol. 449v of the same manuscript there is one more miniature of musical interest, depicting musicians surrounding David. These eight figures represent the oktoechos, the eight modes on which psalmody is based in Byzantine music theory. At the top centre, between a cylindrical tabor on the left and a bowed string instrument on the right, there is a flute player, with his head erased, under the name Asaf.

Ms Vatican Gr 752, fol. 449v.

In another Byzantine Psalter from around 1092, manuscript Vatic Barb Gr 372, fol. 249, we find a representation of female musicians in a scene from the Old Testament: the dance of Myriam after the crossing of the Red Sea.

The scene is described in the Book of Exodus, 15: 20–21:

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: Sing unto the Lord for He has triumphed, O triumphed; horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea.

Myriam stands in the centre dancing and playing some kind of castanets with her hands, while four more women musicians are playing various instruments. On Myriam’s left there is a woman playing tabor and next to her a flute player holding the instrument sideways on her left. The two women on the right are playing a set of cymbals and a bowed string instrument.

Ms Vatic Barb Gr 372, fol. 249

A depiction of a female flute player is found in a mural painting in the southern tower of the temple of Saint Sophia in Kiev, dating from the year 1037.

Staying clear of any mythological, pastoral or biblical connotations, this is a secular scene at the Hippodrome of Constantinople depicting an instrumental ensemble: cymbals, salpinx, a polychord instrument and a flute played sideways on the left.

The painting also shows the arena of the Hippodrome and the imperial box where the family of the Byzantine emperor was seated during chariot races and other ceremonies where music was played. The instrument played by the seated musician at the bottom, centre, is characteristically reserved for outdoor secular use.

Ensemble at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, church of St Sophia in Kiev

Another depiction of the transverse flute in the Byzantine tradition comes from the second half of the 10th century and is found on the Veroli casket, discovered in Veroli, close to Rome, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Connected to a higher noble of the court of Constantinople—judging by its fine decoration—the casket was probably made for a member of the Umayyad house. It shows mythological themes, among them the Rape of Europa by the disguised Zeus. Music and dance are connected to centaurs and maenads; two centaurs (half men, half horses) are playing the transverse flute and pan flute respectively, next to a lyre player and some percussion players.

The Veroli casket, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This combination of these two wind instruments is not uncommon in Byzantine iconography, judging from the above-mentioned pastoral scene in Codex Taphou 14, 2a, foglio 33v, from the 11th c. The pan flute, or syrinx or polykalamon for the Byzantines, was associated with the god Pan and the pastoral mood, but also with festive or even orgiastic scenes.

Whenever the god Pan appeared, he brought on pan-ikos [πανικός], i.e. panic. In the ancient Greek bucolic idylls of Theocritus (circa 300 BC, died after 260 BC), father of bucolic poetry, the poet presents a dialogue between shepherds Tirsis and Epolos (from Tirsis, or Ode 159):

Ἁδύ τι τὸ ψιθύρισμα καὶ ἁ πίτυς, αἰπόλε, τήνα ἁ ποτὶ ταῖς παγαῖσι μελίσδεται, ἁδὺ δὲ καὶ τύ

συρίσδες· μετὰ Πᾶνα τὸ δεύτερον ἆθλον ἀποισῇ.

Sweet is the sound of the pine tree by the river, Just like you, shepherd, play (syrisdes) so sweetly. You are second only to Pan.

There is a characteristic association between the sound of the flute, the god Pan and the verb syrisdes (making a windy and whistle-like noise). The onomatopoeia here—based on the sibilant consonant, i.e. the -s- sound at the beginning and the end of the word—points to the syrinx more than any other kind of flute.

And Tirsis continues:

οὐ θέμις, ὦ ποιμήν, τὸ μεσαμβρινὸν οὐ θέμις ἄμμιν συρίσδεν. τὸν Πᾶνα δεδοίκαμες· ἦ γὰρ ἀπ᾽ ἄγρας τανίκα κεκμακὼς ἀμπαύεται·

We should not play the syrinx in the afternoon.

We are afraid of Pan; for it is the time he rests after hun³ting.

Western Europe: iconography and references

During the period between 1000 and 1400 CE, we find different instruments of the flute family in Europe, such as the recorder, the flute, the pipe and tabor, the pan flute, the double flute, with different names for them in each language—like the French frestel, flaüte, flajol, and fleuste traversaine, to mention but a few (See Lasocki).

The transverse flute was a rare instrument in the West during that period; the most common were the fiddle and the harp.

Two of the most well-known depictions of the medieval flute are of a much later date than the Byzantine ones, coming from the 13th and the 14th centuries respectively (For the iconography of the transverse flute in the Middle Ages see Ehlich)

The Spanish monophonic repertoire of the Cantigas de Santa Maria comes to us from the court of Alfonso X the Wise (1221-84) and dates from the end of the 13th century. Together with the musical notation, it contains rich illustrations depicting more than forty musical instruments, among them the transverse flute. In fact, two flute players are holding large flutes sideways on their left. Scholars believe that they are looking at each other tuning their instruments (Powell p. 19).

Two flute players from the Cantigas de Santa Maria collection.

Another function of the flute in a secular music context comes from Germany. Here the ensemble consists of a fiddle player, a singer, and a flute player, in a picture included in the Codex Manesse, dating from around 1340 (Picture 8). The codex in question includes music by the minnesinger Johannes Hadlaub, active around 1300 (died before 1340).

Ensemble with flute player from Codex Manesse

Until the 13th century the transverse flute was apparently in use mostly in the lands of the Holy German Empire, which is probably why it became known as the German flute. From the 13th century on, there are references in other countries, showing that the flute also appeared outside Germany.

There are three clear citations referring to the transverse flute from the period before the 15th century (Lasocki, p. 23)

The minstrel Adenet le Roi (c.1240-c.1300) (Bowers, p. 8.), active at the court of Flanders at the time of Count Gui de Damperre (1226–1305), includes the transverse flute in a list together with other instruments used to perform a French piece called Cleomadés, written around 1285 (For the text and translation, see Powell, p.16)

La sont trestout si estrument, qui valent un granment d ’argent: harpes, rotes, gigues, vi’oles, leuus, quitaires et citoles,

et tinpanes et micanons, rubebes et salterions Tabours et muses et flajos

y a assez, grelles et gros, Bahutes d argent traversaines, estives, cornes et dou^aines, et d’autres instrumens asses

que ne vous ai pas tous nonmes. Se j’ere la, jes venderoie et de l’argent me cheviroie,

car de nul instrument ne sai …


Every sort of instrument was there that was worth any money:

harps, rotes, fiddles, viols, lutes, gitterns and citoles,

and dulcimers and half-canons, rebecs and psalteries.

Tabors and pipes and whistles there were many, small and large, silver transverse flutes, hornpipes, cornetts and dulcians, and so many other instruments

that I have not told you all their names.

If I had been there, 1 would have sold them and come into some money, for 1 do not know any instrument …

The silver flute might refer to a valuable instrument. The great Ars Nova French composer and poet Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) refers to the transverse flute in his work La Prise d’Alexandrie, written around 1370-72, a poetic account of Pierre de Lusignan, King of Cyprus (1328–1369), and his campaign to conquer Alexandria in 1365.

Machaut writes (For the citation of the text and the translation, see Lasocki, p. 15 and 16):

Là avoit de tous instrumens. Et …

Je vous diray les propre noms Qu’il avoient & les seurnoms,

Au meins ceuls dont j’ay congnoissance


There were instruments of all sorts there and … I will tell you the proper names they had and their bynames, at least those of which I have knowledge.

And he goes on to mention loud and soft flutes, meaning for outdoor and indoor use respectively:

flaios plus de x. paires,

C’est à dire de xx. manieres, Tant des fortes com des legieres


more than ten pair of flajols, that is to say, of [more than] twenty kinds, both loud and soft

flaüstes traverseinnes … & flaüstes Dont droit joues quant tu flaüstes

transverse flutes … and flaüstes you play straight when you flute.

Machaut’s pupil Eustache Deschampes (1346-c.1406) makes a distinction between flaustes and traversaines, the latter describing the transverse flute in a poem on the death of his master, in 1377. In a later poem, he refers to a fleuthe traversaine (Lasocki, p.16)

Bibliographic references

  • Berthelot, Marcellin/Ruelle, Charles Emile, Collection des anciens alchemists grecs, 3 vol., Paris, 1888.
  • Bowers, Jane, “Flaüste Traverseinne” and “Flute d’Allemagne”: the flute in France from the late middle ages up through 1702’, RMFC, 19, 7-49, 1979.
  • Brown, Joachim, “Musical instruments in Byzantine illuminated manuscripts”, in Early Music, vol. 8 (July), Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • Ehlich, Liane, “Zur Ikonographie der Querflöte im Mittelalter”, BJb HM8 (1984), 197- 211, 1984.
  • Lasocki, David, The Recorder and Other Members of the Flute Family in Writings from 1100 to 1500, Instant Harmony, 2012.
  • Maliaras, Nikos: Byzantina Mousika Organa [Byzantine musical instruments], Panas Music, 2007.
  • Powell, Ardal, The Flute, Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Psaroudakes, Stelios, “The Hellenistic side flute and the Koilē-Athens instrument”, in Poetry, Music and Contests in Ancient Greece, Proceedings of the IV International Meeting of MOISA, Lecce, 2010.

Dimitris Kountouras


Dimitris Kountouras is active as a performer, teacher and scholar. He studied recorder, early flutes and historical performance practice at the Utrecht School of the Arts, at the Early Music Institute in Milan, the Vienna Conservatoire and the Trossingen School of Music. He graduated with a performers diploma and a Masters of early Music and got his PhD on historical musicology at the University of Athens and he was a post-doc scholar for the Centre of Humanistic Studies for his research on the Troubadours of the 4th Crusade. Except from the renaissance and baroque recorders and flutes he plays also rare kinds of the flute family such as the nedieval traverso, the dvoyanka and the gemshorn.

He performed as soloist and with early music ensembles in Europe, in the Near and the Far East in venues and festivals such as the Sala Verdi in Milan, the Konzerthaus in Vienna, the Pablo Casals Hall in Tokyo, the Megaron in Athens etc.

He published articles and essays on the Crusades and the Troubadours and on the relations between renaissance humanism and music. He is the director and founder of Ex Silentio ensemble and performed with Harmony of Nations Baroque Orchestra, Armonia Atenea and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. 

He is teaching early flutes and recorders and Early Music at the Ionian University and the Athens Conseratoire. He has gives lectures and masterclasses at the Sibelius Academy, at the Kings College London, the Geneva Conservatoire and the international community “Music village” in Pelion.