In the course of translating ancient documents, I have found that there are numerous detours. A case in point is a bit of a dispute about what a timbrel actually is. What, after all, is a timbrel? Have you ever seen one? In his commentary on the book of Judith, Hrabanus raises this issue, since the book of Judith does mention a timbrel in Judith’s song.
The relevant passage is as follows (chapter 16, verse 4):
Certain people say that a timbrel (tympanum) is a musical instrument, “like two cones with only the points joined together; the sonorous reverberation is from the hide stretched over them. Musicians play it rhythmically with repeated resonance, beating with a measure of discipline.”  Others, however, say that the timbrel is a very small thing, by the fact that it can be carried in a woman’s hand, as it is written in Exodus, “So Mary the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand” (Ex 15:20); and also to be formed into a trumpet (tubam) with a single small pipe at the narrow end through which it is blown into, mystically signifying that the knowledge of the ancient law in the hand of the synagogue of the Jews from ancient times is the minimum, which was enlarged in the hands of the Holy Church only through Christ.
The first quote is from Cassiodorus’ commentary on the Psalms (PL70 1052D). Cassiodorus seems to be describing what is now called a goblet drum, which has been in use since ancient times in the middle east.
The second description was a bit more puzzling to me. Not only had I never imagined a timbrel to be a wind instrument, but a brass wind instrument was even further from my mind. The critical edition by Adele Simonetti that I am using is generally quite good at indicating citations of other works, but in this case it was unclear to me who “others” was.
It turns out that a pupil of Hrabanus Maurus, Walafrid Strabo, mentions this very thing (hat tip to Diego), noting that Jerome says that a timbrel is a type of trumpet: “According to Jerome it is a type of trumpet (tubae) having a reed or pipe on top, through which it returns a sonorous sound” (PL113 232C-D).
Jerome was the clue I was looking for. With a little googling, I came across a short letter to Dardanus from Saint Jerome on musical instruments. Modern scholars don’t believe this letter was actually written by Jerome himself and is thus falsely attributed to him. The author is generally referred to as Pseudo-Jerome. (At least one scholar argues that Hrabanus himself wrote the letter). It is pretty clear to me that our Hrabanus was referring to a passage from this letter and was not likely its author. A translation of the relevant passage follows:
The timbrel (tympanum) can be explained in a few words: it is a very small thing, by the fact that it can be carried in a woman’s hand, as it is written in Exodus, ‘So Mary the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand’ (Ex 15:20). And it is the minor wisdom of the ancient law in the hand of the Jews of the synagogue in ancient times. It was also a bagpipe (chorus), a single hide with two brass pipes, and through the first it is blown into; through the second it emits sound. It is a type of the earlier people who had received a narrower understanding of the law, and through the narrow purpose of the proclamation feebly proclaimed all. If, however, I were to look back on earthly things wisely and diligently, they should be understood both spiritually and mystically.
And here is where things got fun. This letter may be the earliest source we have describing what is probably a bagpipe (chorus).
Now the way that Hrabanus (and also possibly Walafrid Strabo) reads the passage is, I believe, the way I have translated it. But from what I can ascertain by just looking at the pictures, a later document may have read it differently, possibly breaking the above paragraph into two. It provides illustrations of two different instruments, one for each of the two words mentioned above. It is an illuminated manuscript called “Instruments of Hieronymus” (Hieronymus is Jerome’s name in Latin) and is based at least in part on this letter to Dardanus. I have included the two illustrations, one for tympanum and a separate one for chorus.
I assume that Hrabanus and Strabo inferred tuba (trumpet) from the description. Tuba generally refers to a metal wind instrument, usually a long straight war trumpet. But it could also refer more generally to a tube.
What exactly was a timbrel? I’m not sure I can say with any certainty. But let’s just say that I’m really skeptical that it was a bagpipe…
For further information about this translation project, please see my series of posts on Judith.