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strings, and a deep shell or back. The Lute(s) experienced its peak in popularity around the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Though their history is debated, Lutes may have been in existence for over 1000 years prior.
The length of the neck can categorize these fascinating instruments, Langhalslaute (long-necked) and short necked. The longer necks are considered to have the eldest origins.
Lutes had a presence in the following cultures- Egyptian (in the Middle Kingdom), Hittite, Greek, Roman, Bulgar, Turkic, Indian, Chinese, and Armenian/Cilician. Do you recognize some of their counterparts?
Persian relative- Barbat
Iran- Tanbur (hammer dulcimer relative)
Central Asia- Komuz
Ancient Greece- Pandura
Italy- Viola De Mano- the ancestor of the modern guitar
Medieval lutes usually had 4 or 5 course* and were plucked with a quill.
By the end of the Renaissance, 7 different sizes of lute existed! The lack of written music pre 1500AD may be evidence that most lute music was improvised accompaniment. A player of the lute would have been called a lutist, lutenist, or lutanist. A maker of Lutes is a Luthier.
*A course is a pair or more of adjacent strings tuned to unison or an octave and usually played together as if a single string. It may also refer to a single string normally played on its own on an instrument with other multi-string courses, for example the bass string on a nine string baroque guitar.
Here are a couple quotes on the evolution of the Medieval Lute-
“In the last few decades of the 15th century, in order to play Renaissance polyphony on a single instrument, lutenists gradually abandoned the quill in favor of plucking the instrument with the fingertips. The number of courses grew to six and beyond. The lute was the premier solo instrument of the 16th century, but continued to be used to accompany singers as well.”
“By the end of the Renaissance the number of courses had grown to ten, and during the Baroque era the number continued to grow until it reached 14 (and occasionally as many as 19). These instruments, with up to 26-35 strings, required innovations in the structure of the lute. At the end of the lute's evolution the archlute, theorbo and torban had long extensions attached to the main tuning head in order to provide a greater resonating length for the bass strings, and since human fingers are not long enough to stop strings across a neck wide enough to hold 14 courses, the bass strings were placed outside the fretboard, and were played "open", i.e. without fretting/stopping them with the left hand.”
The lute began to be replaced by the keyboard instruments and almost fell completely out of use after 1800AD.
The art of playing the lute formed a major part of instrumental music making in the Renaissance before keyboard instruments assumed central significance. It was a refined, soft, and at the same time colorful art, in sharp contrast to the agitated times in which it was practised.
— Karl Schumann 
This style knows nothing of the otherwise usual requirements and prohibitions of voice-leading; it can only be understood in relation to the fingering technique; it frequently applies the sound of open strings and in no way avoids the otherwise so despised parallel 5ths and octaves or unisons. The dissonances and other conflicting sounds which appear so often...strike me as exciting and revealing.
— Carl Orff 
 Quotation taken from the liner notes to the Wergo edition of Orff's Kleines Konzert, with English translations by John Patrick Thomas.