Catgut Strings: John Dowland’s “Other Necessary Observations” 1610

In 1610 Robert Dowland published his Varietie of Lute Lessons, evidently as an effort to gather favour with the Royal Court to become James II’s chief lutenist. Within the work his father, John Dowland, wrote his Other Necessary Observations belonging to the LUTE, an extended letter giving advice to lute players. Within it, the first epistle For Chusing Lute-strings is an extremely important and very early perspective on the nature of gut strings and the broad international network that supplied the market in London as in other cities across Europe. This is one of the sources that I refer back to in various articles, and I thought to put the relevant section in this blog for the sake of easy reference. In transcribing it, I have modernised the original text to make it more legible, but have kept the original wording. A scan of the entire book is available on IMSLP by following this link. The only thing that really needs to be explained from this point on is that “Fasled” is written at much the time that Shakespeare was putting many English words into the written record for the first time. This one seems to have slipped out of view, but presumably relates to the single hair-like strands of catgut that appear as a string wears out, or if the ends become untwisted. With that definition in mind, perhaps Fasled became Frazzled?

Variety of Lute Lessons
The sources and markets for strings mentioned in Dowland’s Observations. 

In the final paragraph Dowland asserts the main rationale for writing his letter, as an encouragement for London merchants to seek out strings in the seasonal markets of Leipzig and Frankfurt. In the process he talks about treble strings coming from Rome and other parts of Italy, sold by the dozens in bundles, and German strings that were sold in boxes, coming from Monnekin and Mildorpe, which are considered best along with Italian strings from Livorno. The best bass strings came from the areas around Strasbourg and Nuremburg, as well as ‘Venice’ Catlins – so-called because they were shipped through Venice, but made in Bologna.  He relates in some detail to the consequences of the cost of strings, attesting to the practice of oiling old strings in order to make them look new. Read on…


Dowland intro
WWhen we take in hand to instruct or teach a man on the LUTE, we do suppose that he knows before (be he never so rude) what a String, a Fret, a Stop, a Strong, &c, meaning therefore it were not convenient for a Teacher to stand upon every small point and matter that may be thought appertaining to the art of Lute-playing, but to leave and let pass over some things, as apparent of themselves, or easy to be discerned of every learner, by Nature, Sense, Reason or Common Experience, and therefore we will only entreat and give Resolution to those things which are most needful: of which the choosing of Lute-strings is the least. Ordinarily therefore we chose Lute-strings by the freshness, or new making: the which appears unto us by their clear and oiliness, as they lie in the Box or bundle; yet herein we are often deceived, for Oil at any time will make strings look clear and therefore this trick is too too commonly used to them when they are old.

Now because Trebles are the principal strings we need to get, choose them of a fair and clear whitish grey, or ash colour, and take one of the knots in your hand, but let it not be too small, for those give no sound, besides they will be either rotten for lack of substance, or extremely false. Also open the bouts of one of the ends of the Knot, and then hold it up against the light, and looke tha it be round and smooth: but if you discern it to be curly, as the thread of a curled Cypress, or horse hair, (which you may as well feel as see) then refuse them, although they be both clear and strong, because those strings were not well twisted, and therefore will never be true on the Instrument. For trying the ends of the Knot, which if they find stiff, they hold them then as good; but it it bend as we say, through a dankish weakness, then they are not strong. Some again do take the end of the string between their teeth, and they pluck it, and thereby it it breack faseld at the end then it is strong, but if it break stubbed then it is weak. This Rule also is holden for the breaking of a string between the hands. The best way, is to pluck out an end of the string (if theseller will suffer you, if he will not assure yourself that those strings which he shows are old or mingled,) then looke for the cleareness and faults before spoken, as also for faseling with little hairs. And again look amongst the bouts, at one end of the Knot, that the string be not parted, I mean one piece great and another small, then draw it hard between your hands, to try the strength, which done, hold it up again against the light between your hands, and marke whether it be clear as before; if it be not but look muddy, as a brown thread, such strings are old, and have been rubbed over with oil to make them clear. This choosing of strings is not alone for Trebles, but also for small and great Meanes: greater strings though they be old are better to be borne withall, so the colour be good, but if they be fresh and new they will be clear against the light, though their colour be blackish.

Now again some old string will hold well the stretching between your hands, yet when you set them on the Instrument they will stick, (and rise by starts) in the Nut, and there break, even in the tuning: the best remedy when strings stick so, is to rub the little nicks of the Nut, (in which the string slides) with a little Oil, Wax, or black lead. If you desire to choose strings that are not false, that th maker cannot promise you; but there is a rule for the knowledge therof by fight after the string is drawn out, which being it is so ordinary and so well known, I hold it not fit to trouble you with the relation. Some string there are which are coloured, out of which choose the lightest colours, viz. among Green choose the Sea-water, of Red the Carnation, and of Blue the Watchet.

Now these strings as they are of two sorts, viz.  Great and Small: so either sort is packed up in sundry kinds, to wit, the one sort of smaller strings (which come from Rome and other parts of Italy) are bound up by certaine Dozens in bundles; these are very good if they be new, if not, their strength does soon decay: the other sort are packed up in Boxes, and come out of Germany: of these, those strings which come from Monnekin and Mildorpe, are and continue the best. Likewise there is a kind of strings of a more fuller and larger sort then ordinary (which we call Gansars.) These strings for the sizes of the great and small Meanes are very good, but the Trebles are not strong. Yet also there is another sort of the smaller strings, which are made at Livornia in Tuscany: these strings are rolled up around together, as if they were a companie of horse hairs. These are good if they be new, but they are but half Knots. Note there is some store of these come hither lately, and are here made up, and pass for whole Knots. For the greater sorts or Base strings, some area made at Nuremburg, and also at Strasbourg, and bound up only in knots like other strings. These strings are excellent, if they be new, if not, they fall out stark false. The best strings of this kind are double knots joined together, and are made at Bologna in Lombardy and from thence are sent to Venice” from which place they are transported to the Martes, and therefore commonly called Venice Catlines. The best time for the Merchant is to provide his strings at Michaelmas, for then the string-makers bring their best strings which were made in the Summer to Frankfurt, and Leipzig Marts. Contrarily at Easter they bring their Winter strings, which are not so good.

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