Hurdy Gurdies have had many shapes over the years: You can see from the illustration (left) the various shapes they have taken. While initially used in churches before they had organs (around 1,100 a.d., in northern France), It didn't take too long before street musicians used hurdy gurdies in folk music.
The very earliest medieval hurdy gurdies were box shaped.
During the 18th & 19th centuries, the instrument was somewhat reinvented. It's evolution took it to 6 strings, as well as the addition of resonant sympathy strings.
Pictured right is an antique from the mid 1800's. The owner was very gracious in allowing me to make detailed notes & pictures.
Above is a drawing of a four-stringed hurdy gurdy by Marin Mersenne (1636). The four stringed arrangement seems fairly typical of early & Renaissance period instruments.
Where does the name 'Hurdy Gurdy' come from?
The French name for the instrument is 'vielle a roue' (wheel fiddle), or sometimes 'vielle'.
Long ago when the instrument first made it's way to the British Isles, the English used the term 'hurley burley' as a derogatory reference
to the instrument's music. This evolved into the English name for the instrument that we know today : 'Hurdy Gurdy'
the 1960's, folk singer Donovan had a hit with his extremely awesome song 'The Hurdy Gurdy Man'. While the song didn't
actual feature a hurdy gurdy on the recording, it brought a new awareness of these wonderful instruments to modern pop culture.
How did they get the teardrop shape that we know of today? I once read that at some point luthiers (stringed instrument makers) were so inundated with hurdy gurdy orders that they couldn't keep up with demand. So, they would take other instruments (such as tear-drop shaped lutes) cut off the neck, and rebuild them into hurdy gurdies!
Hurdy Gurdy History
Hurdy Gurdies by George & Anwyn Leverett