Excerpted from The Kitchen Musician:
Dulcimers originated in the Middle East, probably during the first millennium A.D. The instrument was brought to Europe from the Middle East during the Crusades, and similar instruments have spread around the world. Other research puts the origin near the end of the Middle Ages, in Burgundy, holding that the earlier medieval paintings and statues probably depict psalteries or dulcimer-like instruments without a central bridge. Earlier 19th Century theorists, now largely discredited, put the origin in Assyria ca 800 BC, based largely on a bas-relief now in the British Museum.
Dulcimers have many names in many lands: dulcymore, salterio, tsimbal, tsimbaly, santour, yang q'in, hackbrett and cymbalom. * The name "dulcimer" is derived from Latin, meaning "sweet sound". Hammered dulcimers were popular in England during the reign of James I, when the Bible was translated into English as the King James Bible. The dulcimer was mentioned in the Book of Daniel 3:5 among other instruments "..the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick..." The word in the original Hebrew text is now known to mean something other than "dulcimer"; and it is believed the King James translators were doing the best they could with knowledge available to them at the time.
There are many theories as to the history of the dulcimer. Some of them are contradictory, some are complete conjecture, and some are well-documented.
The most confusing aspect of the hammered dulcimer is its namesake -- the Appalachian, or mountain, dulcimer. The shared name seems to point to a shared heritage at some time. Actually, the mountain dulcimer is not a true dulcimer at all according to the definition of the word, which is: a member of the zither family that is played with hammers.
European and Eastern variants of the dulcimer are in evidence throughout recorded history, although the actual folk instrument that is most comon today probably came to these shores intact from Britain in Colonial times.
The actual specifics of this emigration are obscured by the fact that, at that time, the instrument was not truly in widespread use but rather surviving in isolated pockets. There is still quite a vital playing tradition in certain parts of Wales and Northumbria.
Interest in the hammered dulcimer continued in the United States, as evidenced by contemporary advertisements in the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues, and by the publication of self-tutors and method books throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, the instrument enjoyed a small burst of widespread acclaim due to its being a favorite of Henry Ford, and its inclusion in "Henry Ford's Old Fashioned Dance Orchestra".
In the Old World, the dulcimer experienced a strange revival in the year 1697 when a fellow by the name of Pantaleon Hebestreit invented an improved version of the medieval instrument and called it the pantaleon. It reportedly had 186 strings and was in evidence as late as 1767 when performances were given in England by George Noel on an instrument having 276 strings.
The Pyrates Royale