The oud was originally an Arabian instrument; its name, al ‘ud, meaning literally the wood. This may seem like an odd name for an instrument, but it may have denoted a wooden soundboard and back rather than an animal skin stretched over a gourd. The back of the oud is made of several strips of bent wood, glued together to form a bowl, with a flat wooden soundboard. In common with all early plucked instruments – gitterns, lutes, citterns, guitars, vihuelas – the oud has a rosette or rose sound hole, a delicate wood carving or parchment cutting. For most of its history, the oud has been fretless: though some players used frets in the latter part of the 13th century, it was an experiment that didn’t last. It is strung in courses (pairs of strings) and played historically with an eagle's quill plectrum (there are laws against it now) and gut strings (processed from the small intestines of sheep).
No one knows for sure how far the oud dates back. Depending on who you believe, it first appeared between 3000 B.C.–1500 B.C. There is a traditional story that Lamak, sixth grandson of Adam (the very first one), hung the remains of his son in a tree and used the desiccated skeleton to form the world's first oud. The angle of the foot from the leg explains the bent peg box. (And if you’re familiar with the English tradition and its American offshoots, you’ll know there are also plenty of songs where female corpses are made into fiddles, harps and even banjos.) Whatever its origins, the oud's popularity spread across the Mediterranean, the Middle East and north and east Africa, where it remains popular to this day.
The first evidence of instruments we can say with some certainty are ouds are depicted in the art of the Sassanid era of Iran, the last Iranian empire before the rise of Islam, from A.D. 224 to A.D. 651. The oud entered Europe in the 9th century via the Moorish occupation of Spain and by the second half of the 13th century it was played by Christians as well as Muslims, as attested by the beautifully decorated Cantigas de Santa Maria (above), a richly-illustrated paean of praise to the Virgin Mary. This song book was compiled in 1260-1280 during the reign of Alfonso X (King of Castilla and other regions in modern day Spain and Portugal), clearly showing several Christian oud players.
By around 1300, the oud had become modified enough by Europeans to become a distinct instrument: thus the mediaeval lute was born. 200 years later, this would further develop into the renaissance lute, the most important instrument of the period.
Oud playing Cantiga 353: Quen a omagen da Virgen, anonymous Galician, c.1260-80.