Mirlitons were known through late medieval and renaissance Europe (16th and 17th C). Other names include “eunuch flute” or onion flute (Zwiebelflote) ,flute eunuque, flute d ‘onion.
It consists of a wooden tube widening out slightly to form a bell. The upper end of the tube is closed by means of a membrane stretched across the aperture The mouthpiece a simple round hole is pierced a couple of inches below the membrane into this hole the performer sings - his voice setting up vibrations in the membrane which thus intensifies the sound and changes its timbre to a bleating quality. A movable cap fits over the membrane to protect it.
Mersenne has given a drawing of the flute together with a description where he states that “the vibrations of the membrane improve the sound of the voice and by reflecting it give it an added charm. There were concerts of these flutes in four or five parts in France -and they had the advantage over other kinds of reproducing more nearly the sound of the voice” 1 Though they were described in 1636, they date back to the 1500s. Shakespeare may have made mention to the mirliton in Twelfth Night2
I recreated a number of mirliton prototypes using a lathe (red cedar, basswood, and black locust). For the test membrane I tried various types of wax paper and plastics and finally settled on window cellophane for durability and tone.
Enough to make you cry: Zwiebelflote
Intrigued by the description of the mirliton as “onion flute” I looked to the German literature if the moniker was to describe the shape of the end cap – as some versions found in Switzerland and Germany looked quite onion-like - or the membrane itself. The best description I found was that the membrane was a “wet onion skin” 3
I set about to try exactly which parts of the onion would work. I tried the dry outer membrane and a thinner inner layer - to no avail. What did work however is the nearly translucent membrane between layers of the onion. While I was cleaning a bone for another whistle I thought to try the fascia that covers the bones and muscles... As sources mention the use of "translucent animal membranes" used to bring light to saxon dwellings. Unfortunately these membranes dried tough like a drum head making them ideal for windows I suppose but terrible for a mirliton membrane.
The inner onion membrane shrunk a bit when dried but still retained a flexibility much like cellophane (even after weeks of drying). And sounded great in the wooden mirlitons.
Viking Kazoos: A working theory
Numerous single-hole tubes have been found at Viking dig sites5, tentatively identified as broken whistles, but some lack the proper hole placement and may not be whistles at all.
Applying an onion skin membrane to a hollowed bird bone created a working mirliton
It is quite likely that if these constructs existed at all in Viking culture they were used for hunting calls. However combine this with Mersennes description of the mirliton consorts and you have a great instrument, which can play in any key and can be held in the mouth while strumming a lyre or beating a drum.
Another type of mirliton is simpler still. A tube open on both ends without a center hole. In this case a perforated membrane is attached to the far end and vibrated via vocalizations through the other side.4
Simple tube mirlitons were created from onion skin and turkey bone. The membrane can be fastened with beeswax or wool thread.
More controversy: Sew what?
So these simple bone tubes look suspiciously like another ubiquitous Viking find – the needle case.
Some of the finds identified as needle cases could actually be simple mirlitons perhaps used as hunting calls. Of course the most suggestive of these would be the ones without needles in them and those found in male graves. They fit the basic structure found in other cultures (pics, refs) of a hollow tube with a single hole.
1 Chisholm 1911, p. 891 cites L'Harmonie universelle ((Mersennus Paris, 1636), livre v. prop. iv. pp. 228-229.
2. Twelfth Night: New Critical Essays. Shiffler, J. Ed. 2013 pp. 298-299.
3. Van Wasielewski W.J., Geschichte der Instrumentalmusik im XVI Jahrhundert. 1878.
4. Cabrera, R.V. Ancient Aerophones with Mirliton. 2008.
5. MacGregor A.J et al Craft, Industry, and Everyday Life: Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn from Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval. 1999.
6. Thunmark-Nylen L., Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands I&II. Almqvist & Wiksell Int. 1998.