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Lord Michael

Toys and Games


Illustration below is from ‘The Study of Man’, by Alfred C. Haddon, published 1898 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Downloaded from Wikipedia5*.

The bullroarer is an ancient (dating back to Paleolithic times5) musical instrument/toy that has been found throughout the inhabited world5. Primitive societies on all continents used (and still use) it for ritual purposes4, but among Europeans in Medieval and Renaissance times it was simply a toy for children1 (although it may have been used for ritual purposes in earlier times. In particular, in parts of Scotland it was known as a ‘thunder-spell’ and was believed to protect against lightning5).

            In European cultures bullroarers were made for children. As for who made them, anyone with the most basic woodworking skills could have done so; parents, other relatives, possibly even the children themselves. They were also among the many toys available for sale at the fairs that were held throughout Europe1.

            The instrument consists of a piece of wood attached to a string2. The wood piece comes in various shapes in different cultures; European models tend toward rectangular5, possibly because it is the easiest shape to make (why put more work into a toy if you have no ritual reason for doing so). The length of the piece varies from several inches to a foot3 (one of my sources5 says 2 feet; that would take one strong man to swing), with the width varying from ½ inch to 2 inches5. I have found no figures on thickness, but the piece is typically shaped into an airfoil5, so you need some wood to work with. The edges are typically serrated2.

            I have also found no information on the length of the string, other than that it is ‘long’4.

            In use, a slight twist is put into the string, and then the string is held while the wooden part is whirled over the head5 (one of my references4 says that the instrument is swung in a vertical plane, i.e. in front of the user, and it does work that way, but swinging it overhead provides more room). The wooden part spins on its axis as it is whirled around, producing a whirring sound (note that it usually takes several seconds of spinning before the sound starts). The sound is intermittent, as the string winds and unwinds first in one direction and then the other. Varying the free length of the string and/or the speed at which the instrument is swung changes the sound.


* Subscripted numerals refer to numbered sources in the bibliography.



Materials and techniques

            The piece is made of pine, a wood that was readily available in Europe in Medieval and Renaissance times2. I have found no information on what kinds of woods were used for making bullroarers in period, but I suspect that the makers made use of any scrap material that happened to be available1. I chose pine because it is readily available, inexpensive, and easy to work.

            The dimensions are 6”L x 1 ½”W x ¼”D. My intention was to make the piece large enough to (hopefully) produce a loud sound, but small enough to be practical for indoor demonstrations.

            The hole for the string was made with a Dremel tool. A Medieval or Renaissance artisan would have used a hand drill, which I do not have (do they even MAKE hand drills anymore?).

            The piece was formed into an airfoil shape using sandpaper. A Medieval or Renaissance artisan would have carved the piece with a knife, a skill that I have never been able to master (and with my hands getting shakier with each passing year, it is likely that I will NEVER master it).

            The notches in the edges of the piece were made with a triangular file. Again, a Medieval or Renaissance artisan would have carved them with a knife, and the reason for the substitution is the same as in the last paragraph (my strength in the arts is in research, not in actually making things).

            I applied a wax to the piece to protect it from the elements. I have found no evidence that this was done in Medieval or Renaissance times. It has no discernable effect on the performance of the piece.

            The string is made of hemp, which was widely used in Medieval and Renaissance times for making cordage2. I tried a cotton string and a leather thong, but the hemp gives much better performance than either of those.

            I applied a drop of glue to the knot in the string to ensure that it will not come undone. I have no evidence that this was done in Medieval or Renaissance times; it is strictly a safety measure to ensure that the piece will not change categories from toys and games to arms and armor.

            At first I swung the piece at a moderate speed, both to minimize the possibility of accidents and to minimize wear and tear on my arm. This produced disappointing results; not only was the sound not very loud, but there was virtually no difference in performance between the carefully shaped piece that I put so much work into and an unshaped piece of the same size.

            Swinging the piece as fast as I could manage produced much better (though still not earth-shaking) results, along with a clear difference in performance between the shaped and unshaped pieces. I also found swinging the piece as fast as I could to be VERY tiring, and I can not keep it up for long.

            I would like to try a larger piece to see how much louder a sound can be produced, but given the difficulty of swinging this small one, I doubt that I could swing a larger one fast enough to be effective.




1)         Toys Through the Ages

            by Dan Foley

            Chilton Books – Publishers


Children’s Toys Throughout the Ages

by Leslie Daiken

Spring Books – London


The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Editor: William Morris

Houghton Mifflin Company

ISBN 0-395-20359-7


New Age Encyclopedia

Lexicon Publications


2)         The Columbia Encyclopedia

            Editor: Paul Lagassé

            Columbia University Press

            ISBN 0-7876-5075-7


3)         Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia

            Editor: Mark A. Stevens

            Merriam-Webster, Incorporated

            ISBN 0-87779-017-5


4)         www.musicguidebook.com/articles/bull-roarer


5)         en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullroarer_(music)