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The hurdy gurdy is an instrument with a history stretching back to the 11th century. Originally called an organistrum, its use was primarily religious. Up to five feet long, it was a large instrument and had to be played by two musicians, one turning the handle, the other pulling the keys. This developed into a smaller box shaped instrument, the symphony, and was capable of being played by one person. From the 15th century onwards the hurdy gurdy took on a variety of shapes and styles, with the chien (the buzzing bridge) appearing in the 16th century.

The instrument had by this time become wholly secular in use, mainly in the hands of peasants, the poor and mendicants, and gained a rather unwholesome reputation. The 17th century saw a reversal of this attitude with the adoption of the instrument by the aristocracy in the court of Louis XIV in France. The hurdy gurdy fitted in perfectly with their pursuit of their 'pastoral' role playing. Many fine and ornate hurdy gurdies came to be made, with inlaid mother-of-pearl and ivory. The lute backed and guitar shaped instruments were developed in the 18th century, with more exotic timbers being used in their construction.

After the French Revolution the hurdy gurdy fell out of favour once more and was relegated to the people and the streets. It has continued as a folk instrument ever since, and the last thirty years have seen a huge revival of interest in this fascinating instrument.

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