VIOL, a generic term for the bowed precursors of the violin (q.v.), but in England more specially applied to those immediate predecessors of the violin which are distinguished in Italy and Germany as the Gamba family. The chief characteristics of the viols were a flat back, sloping shoulders, "c"-shaped sound-holes, and a short finger-board with frets. All these features were changed or modified in the violin, the back becoming delicately arched, the shoulders reverting to the rounded outline of the guitar or troubadour fiddle, the shape of the sound-holes changing from "c" to "f," and the fingerboard being carried considerably nearer the bridge. The viols, of which the origin may be traced to the 13th and 14th century German Minnesinger fiddle, characterized also by sloping shoulders, can hardly be said to have evolved into the violin. The latter was derived from the guitar-fiddle through the Italian lyre or viol lyra family, distinguished as da braccio and da gamba, and having early in the 17th century the outline and "f" sound holes of the violin. The viol family consisted of treble, alto, tenor and bass instruments, being further differentiated as da braccio or da gamba according to the position in which they were held against the arm or between the knees. The favourite viol da gamba, or division viol, frequently had a man or a woman's head instead of the scroll finish to the peg-box, and sometimes a few fine wire sympathetic strings tuned an octave higher than the strings in the bridge.
Michael Praetorius mentions no less than five sizes of the viol da gamba, the largest corresponding to the double bass, and in a table he notes the various accordances in use for each. He carefully distinguishes these instruments as violen and the viole da braccio (our violin family) as geigen. Of the latter he gives six sizes, the highest being the pochette with vaulted back, a rebec in fact, and the lowest corresponding to the violoncello, which he calls bass viol or geige da braccio.
The viols were very popular in England in the l6th and 17th centuries, holding their own for a long time after the introduction of the louder-toned violin; they are fully described and figured in the musical works of the period, and more especially in Christopher Simpson's Division Viol (1667), Thomas Mace's Musick's Monument (1676) and John Playford's Introduction to the Skill of Music.