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Fleming, Michael

Viol-Making in England c1580-1660

Ph.D. The Open University (Milton Keynes, UK), 2001
(m@michaelfleming.co.uk)

Viols made in England c1580-1660 held a leading reputation, yet few survive and little is known about their makers. This study describes a new protocol for gathering information from such instruments. Images of thirty-eight viols, and data collected from them by applying the protocol, are discussed, showing that antique viols provide unreliable evidence about their original state. On top of the effects of wear, damage and alteration, changes in the structural wood of viols over time mean they cannot retain their precise original shape or dimensions. These viols, therefore, are not amenable to the sort of geometric-proportional analysis of shape which is widely considered to describe their makers' intentions. It is also shown to be highly unlikely that either viol-makers or their clients would have mathematically-sophisticated predilections or capabilities, so such techniques would not be employed.

Images of viols in a range of media are shown to give an unreliable record of the viols that were played in England, but to provide good evidence of the shapes and decoration that were familiar to those who made and used viols. The commercial organisation of viol-making is examined, demonstrating that although apprenticeship was important, it was not essential for instrument-making. Viols are shown to have been made in other places besides London, and by non-specialist woodworkers, typically described as joiners. Viol-makers are investigated by replacing conventional ideas of "schools" of making with a detailed consideration of makers' place in society. The five viol-makers praised by Thomas Mace (1676) are discussed in detail along with others, some of whom are identified for the first time. This characterisation of viol-makers and consideration of extant instruments suggests reforms for our understanding of the nature of viol-making, and calls into question traditional attributions of viols to particular makers.