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Kerr History 101 Essay

The beginnings of the European guitar are unknown. Scholars disagree as to whether the guitar, like the lute, was introduced to medieval Europe from the Middle East, or if it was indigenous to Europe. It is impossible to establish the history of the guitar before the Renaissance, but there are some much earlier plucked-string instruments that are related to later guitars either in physical form or playing technique. One of the earliest of these is a long-necked lute, either Roman or Byzantine, from Egypt. The lute has a waisted soundbox (or body) like a guitar and survives from the third to sixth century (12.182.44).

During the medieval and Renaissance periods, a wide variety of plucked stringed instruments can be found in both literature and art. They include the citole, cittern, vihuela, mandore, gittern, and, of course, the lute and its variants. During the Renaissance, the guitar’s closest contemporary was the vihuela. The vihuela is a larger instrument than the guitar, with six or seven courses of strings and tuned like a lute. It is sometimes pictured with sharply cut waists, like on a violin (20.92), and sometimes with rounded corners like a guitar (25.2.26). The vihuela and guitar existed simultaneously until the seventeenth century, when the popularity of the guitar superseded the vihuela.

The first instruments that modern audiences would recognize as guitars were built in the fifteenth century. At that time, the guitar was much smaller than its modern counterpart, with four double courses of gut strings (occasionally the top string was single). The guitar also had tied gut frets, friction tuning pegs, a decorative rose, a bridge set near the bottom of the instrument, and sometimes a rounded rather than a flat back. Its courses of double strings were tuned in the intervals of fourth, major third, fourth (for example, g’/g-c’/c’-e’/e’-a’), often with the lowest course in octave rather than unison doubling.

The four-course guitar enjoyed a rich repertory in the sixteenth century that included dances, fantasias, chansons, and other secular genres. The instrument was widely played in France, Italy, England, and throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Four-string guitar repertory includes works by the Spanish composers Alonso Mudarra (ca. 1510–1580), Miguel de Fuenllana (died after 1568), and Juan Vasquez (ca. 1510–ca. 1560); the Italian composer Melchiore de Barberiis (published 1549) and lutenist Alberto da Ripa (ca. 1500–1551); the French composer Guillaume de Morlaye (published 1550); and the printers Adrian Le Roy (ca. 1520–1598) and Pierre Phalèse (ca. 1510–1573).

The Baroque Guitar
The Baroque guitar is similar in shape and body to earlier guitars, but is typified by five double courses of strings (which appeared as early as the late fifteenth century). From about 1600 until the mid-eighteenth century, its popularity supplanted both the four-course guitar and the six- or seven-course vihuela. The five-course baroque guitar was a bit larger than the earlier model, averaging approximately 92 centimeters long, with string lengths of 63–70 centimeters. Guitars used by players were probably relatively plain, perhaps typified by many Spanish guitars of the period. Many decorative guitars survive, including those by the Sellas family of Venice and Bologna and by Jean-Baptiste Voboam in Paris (1990.103; 1989.147).

The Baroque guitar had a rich repertory of solos and accompanied songs. Some of the finest seventeenth-century composers for solo guitar were Francesco Corbetta (ca. 1615–1681), who worked for both Louis XIV of France and Charles II of England; Angelo Michele Bartolotti (first half of the 17th century–after 1669); and Giovanni Battista Granata (died after 1684). Vocal works appeared with guitar accompaniment by such well-known monody composers as Giulio Caccini (ca. 1545–1618), Emilio de’ Cavalieri (ca. 1550–1602), Jacopo Peri (1561–1633), and Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). A characteristic Italian guitar notation called alfabeto, a letter system representing strummed block chords, was utilized for many solos and accompaniments, although tablature continued to be used until the mid-eighteenth century, when staff notation replaced it. Guitarists were also expected to improvise continuo accompaniments from figured and unfigured bass lines.

The repertory of the Baroque guitar required a mixture of techniques, including strummed or rasgueado chords, punteado (the characteristic pizzicato lute technique), and the ringing melodic passage-work called campanelas. Five-course guitars featured a variety of tunings; one typical tuning was a/a-d’/d’-g/g-b/b-e’. The third course is the lowest, a system called “re-entrant” tuning, so that two fingers could more easily combine the low fifth and third courses with higher courses in scale passages. Also, without true bass strings, the instrument has a higher, brighter sound than the modern guitar.

The five-course guitar was a Spanish favorite, but spread to Italy and then to France, England, Germany, and the Low Countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Jayson Kerr Dobney
Department of Musical Instruments, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wendy Powers
Independent Scholar

September 2007

Let’s see, for your Ancient History 101 course, your topics so far look like this:

  • The history of the landline phone
  • Life before the Internet
  • A world without Snapchat

Even though these topics might seem like ancient history, they’re probably not what your course is about or what your professor had in mind when she assigned the paper.

But what is there to write about in any history course? That stuff is so old and boring, right? Not necessarily. Here are 13 history essay topics to bring your essay to life.

But wait…I don’t know how to write a history paper

Maybe you’re not even at the point where you should be picking a topic just yet. Maybe you still need to understand more about how to write a history paper.

If that’s the case, check out How to Write a History Paper That Will Go Down in History. Then finish reading this post to learn more about finding a topic and see those 13 history essay topics you came here for.

13 History Essay Topics That Will Bring Your Essay to Life

Here are 13 history essay topics to help you find the perfect subject for your paper. I’ve also included a few links to example essays for even more historical inspiration!

1. How did Homer influence history (and literature), and did he really exist? No, I don’t mean Homer Simpson. I mean the ancient poet, Homer. But if you’re really creative and your professor allows some flexibility in assignments, maybe you can write a compare and contrast paper about how both Homers have influenced history.

2. Examine Hitler’s rise to power. You might consider several elements of Adolf Hitler’s childhood and early adulthood that influenced his desire for power. You might also write about larger, societal influences and what allowed Hitler to become so powerful.

3. Compare and contrast religions. Examine two (or more) religions and compare and contrast various elements, such as how they treat death, the afterlife, or marriage. I’d suggest picking two to three  topics and examining them in-depth. Don’t try to compare the religions as a whole without any specific criteria.

You might also examine one religion more closely (such as Buddhism, Confucianism, or Christianity) and examine how the religion is different in various parts of the world. Again, pick two to three criteria to compare and/or contrast.

Read Compare and Contrast Essay Tips from a Kibin Editor to learn more about writing a compare and contrast essay.

4. Were the Dark Ages really that dark? The Dark Ages were long before the days without cell phones and Internet. During this time, millions died from war and sickness, but this was also a time of great ideas and discoveries. Thus, is the name “Dark Ages” an appropriate title for the time period?

5. Examine historical myths and legends. Did people like Count Dracula or Robin Hood exist, or were they simply subjects of great legends (and movies)?

Remember, if you’re writing an argument about whether they really existed, you’ll need to present evidence to support your argument but will also need to address the counterargument.

Read How to Write a Winning Argument Essay to learn more about argument writing.

6. Examine the causes and effects of the Cold War. What were the underlying causes of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union? What were the effects of the Cold War on the United States, the Soviet Union, or other parts of the world?

If you want to write about the Cold War, you could also write about the events that precipitated the ending of the Cold War.

Read this tip sheet on cause and effect papers for more help with this type of essay.

7. Examine the causes and effects of China’s one-child policy. Why did China implement a one-child policy, and what effect did this have on the country and its citizens? (Note: In 2015, the government began to phase out the one-child policy. Why was this necessary?)

8. Argue that there are positive effects of war. Most argue that there are only negative results of war. However, some argue that war produces positive changes in culture and encourages patriotism. (You might examine war in general or focus your argument on a specific war.)

9. Compare the Salem Witch Trials to another historical event. The era of the Salem Witch Trials was a time of fear and paranoia. Compare this time period to other times of hysteria, such as The Red Scare or the months following the September 11 terror attacks.

10. Examine the war on drugs throughout history. The war on drugs isn’t a recent phenomenon. Examine the use, influence, and prosecution of drugs throughout history.

You could chronicle the more recent developments of the war on drugs (the past 20–30 years), or you might try another angle and consider opium use and trade in China or the use and cultivation of spiritual and medicinal plants in Native American culture.

11. Argue how a specific invention changed history. This type of paper might examine inventions, such as electricity, television, the phone, or the personal computer. Or the paper might focus on medical discoveries, such as the polio vaccine or penicillin.

12. How has feminism either positively or negatively changed society? This type of paper might present both positive and negative aspects or examine only positive or only negative influences. You might focus your discussion on one society or compare and contrast different regions or countries.

13. Examine the historical significance of the number 13. Why is 13 considered an unlucky number in the United States? Some trace the unlucky origins back to the Bible. Others point to mythology. You might examine the number’s origin and why the number is still considered unlucky today (think Friday the 13th).

But wait…I don’t know anything about any of these history essay topics

You probably know something about some of these history essay topics, but maybe not enough to write a successful paper. This simply means that you’ll need to do some research.

Locating a variety of resources, including primary and secondary sources, will help you turn the boring textbook stuff into a more lively and interesting read.

If you need even more help with research, check out these posts:

Ready to share your draft and have the Kibin editors provide feedback? Send it our way!

Happy writing!

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