The cittern, also known as the cittharn, cithren and various other names, is a plucked, fretted instrument, with a body shaped like a tear drop and a flat back. It was most popular in sixteenth century Italy, where it rivalled the lute, but was also widely used in France and England.
The Medieval Cittern
Very little is known about the medieval cittern. It is thought to have derived from the Greek kithara. It had a flat back and tear drop shape like its Renaissance counterpart, but had more pronounced wings at the bass of the neck.
The Renaissance Cittern
The cittern was second only to the lute in terms of plucked instruments in the Renaissance. It's flat back made for easier construction, and this coupled with steel strings, gave the cittern a reasonable volume level. Despite several derisive comments, oft quoted, comments from the seventeenth century, most notable Thomas Dekker's metaphor for a whore being A barber's cittern for every serving-man to play upon, the instrument earned its place in the exquisite six, the most highly regarded six part consort in Elizabethan England.
While its simpler construction made the instrument widely available, there were some exquisite models made for the upper classes. According to Vincenzo Galilei the citterns made in Brescia were supposed to be of the highest repute, and appreciated by the nobility.
While the tuning for cittern was far less standardised than for lute in the sixteenth century, there were nevertheless several "standard" tunings which were used frequently. The three most common were E D G A from Adrian le Roy's Breve et facile instruction of 1565, E D G B C A from Lanfranco's Scintille di Musica of 1533 and E D G B A F from Paolo Virchi's Il Primo Libro ... di Citthara of 1574. Things were further confused by the number of strings. Cittern's had four, five or six courses, and these courses had from one to three strings. Multiple string courses were sometimes tuned in unison, and at other times in octaves.
The two best sources for cittern music from the Renaissance are Paolo Virchi's Il Primo Libro... of 1574 in Italy and Anthony Holborne's The Cittharn School of 1597 in England.
The Modern Cittern
The modern cittern, also known as the Irish bouzouki or octave mandolin, is unrelated to the medieval and Renaissance citterns. It takes the name cittern from the fact that they are visually similar to the older citterns, rather than any historical descent. Tuning varies, but it is often tuned in fifths, G D A E, like a mandolin but an octave lower.