“Peace Shall Be Her First Glad Ringing”: Bells, Community, and Auditory Culture

by Peter Tracy

Toning the Bell (1874) by Walter Shirlaw

“Peace Shall Be Her First Glad Ringing”[1]

“Our bell, her metal voice devoting
Alone to grave, eternal things,
Shall ever feel, while she is floating,
The throbbing touch of time’s swift wings.
The tongue of fate, she shall be ringing:
Heartless herself and pitiless,
She shall accompany with swinging
Life’s game of constant changefulness.”

– from Friedrich von Schiller’s “The Song of the Bell”[2]

There are several legends told in Brittany of a place called Ys, a mythical city rich with gold and cedar yet hallowed by its many bell towers. The legends differ as to the cause of the Ys’ demise. Some say it was the king’s own daughter, Dahut, who mistakenly opened the city’s dikes while trying to rendezvous with a secret lover. Others claim that Ys was a decadent city, a luxurious cousin to Sodom and Gomorrah that sealed its own fate when it aroused the displeasure of St. Gwénnolé. Whatever the reason, all accounts agree that Ys was lost forever beneath the waves off the Breton coast, never to be seen again. It’s bells, some say, can still be heard on windy days, tolling out the doom of their forgotten city from the depths of the ocean. “Who has not heard of the submerged bells of Ys”, wrote Lewis Spence, “and who has not heard them ring in the echoes of [their] own imagination?”[3]

The bells of the European past were more than simple tools to mark the hours. The tolling of village bells was a means by which people communicated across long distances, constituted themselves as communities, and communed with the sacred. Bells and bell towers could be the pride of a village, town, or city, and the silencing of a community’s bells — whether by force, by edict, or both — was associated with defeat, punishment, sacrilege, and sacrifice[4]. Writing about church bells in 14th century Catalonia, Michelle E. Garceau enumerates the myriad ways in which bells constituted their own auditory cultural sphere: “they signalled the hours of the day and times for prayers; they warned of tempests and enemy armies; they heralded masses, funerals, and deaths. The pealing of bells brought men, women, and children together, choreographing communal behaviour in time and space.”[5]

The oldest known depiction or a person playing a carillon (1612) by Angelo Rocca

Although the culture of bells in Europe was tied to their use in Christian ritual, bells did not always have a monopoly on the summoning of the faithful. “Early medieval religious societies”, write John H Arnold and Caroline Goodson, “were capable of producing something that we would recognize as bells, made either by hammered sheets or cast metal, but these were most often hand-held objects of smallish size.”[6] As early as the 7th century, bells were in use in various parts of Europe, but mainly in monasteries, where they marked the hours of the liturgical office and were tolled to sanctify the deaths of community members[7]. Larger, cast bronze bells became widespread in Europe only in the 9th and 10th centuries, and even then their use remained uneven. In the Old Testament, horns and trumpets were the instruments used to gather the spiritual community, yet other sonic tools could and did fill the same role throughout the centuries. Arnold and Goodson tell of a cleric who, on “visiting Rome in 831, was surprised to find that Romans used wooden clackers to bring the people to church, rather than bronze bells; this, he said, came from longstanding tradition, based originally in poverty but continued from respect for the past.”[8]

Cast bells were expensive and time consuming to produce, requiring a master craftsman to oversee a labor intensive, dangerous process that was by no means guaranteed to succeed. Bell founding was also a high status activity, with powerful figures in the church and the aristocracy financing its continuance. Notker of St. Gallen tells, in the 9th century, of an evil bell caster who stole silver given to him for a new bell by Charlemagne himself. Formed from tin and copper instead of the proper silver and bronze alloy, the bell emerged from its founding pit unable to ring and, according to Notker, fell from the rafters onto the head of the caster, killing him.[9]

Big Ben and the Quarter Bells in Elizabeth Tower Palace of Westminster 1858

The casting of new bells was all but a necessity in late medieval Europe due to their increasing importance as an auditory tool. “It is clear that by the twelfth century, bells were a recognized, essential element in Christian practice, and could be read as part of the “short hand” by which Christian identity was signaled”, write Arnold and Goodson. They go on to give the example of “the opening chapter of Islendingabók, a twelfth-century Icelandic history”, which “explains that the first immigrants from Norway realized that Irish monks must have settled in Iceland in a previous era, because they found books, bells and crosiers — holy objects identifying the earlier settlers as Christian.”[10] With bell towers and cathedrals sprouting up all over Europe, the tolling of bells was increasingly the soundtrack to Christian life, a sonic barrage that marked out the extraordinary from the ordinary, the living from the dead, and the secular from the sacred.

According to Garceau, “the ubiquitous presence of bells reflected the omnipresence of God in the medieval world.”[11] The diffusion of a peal of bells over a landscape marked out a sonic space in which the spiritual life of a community took place, allowing the internal and the abstract to become physical through sound. This is particularly obvious in those cases in which the call represented by tolling bells was challenged or even rejected, or where the cultural sphere which the sound of bells demarcated overlapped with other sonic professions of faith. During the period of Islamic rule on the Iberian peninsula, numerous Christian writers such as Paul Albar relate, with scorn, the reactions of Muslims to the bells of Christendom in the 9th and 10th centuries:

“But when they hear the bell of the basilica, that is the sound of ringing bronze, which is struck to bring together the assembly of the church at all the canonical hours, gaping with derision and  contempt, moving their heads, they repeatedly wail out unspeakable things; and they attack and  deride with curses (not in uniform derision, but with a thousand different infamous outrages) both sexes, all ages and the whole flock of Christ the Lord.”[12]

The reverse was true as well: the calls to prayer of the Muslim muezzin, the adhan, served a similar function to that of Christian church bells, and the Christian writer Euologius describes his grandfather’s attempts to plug his ears when it sounded from Cordoba’s minarets. Thus the adhan and the peal of church bells were seen, at least by the religiously zealous, as part of competing auditory systems of identity and meaning. Just as the cross and the crescent (among other symbols) represent Christianity and Islam visibly, so too did the adhan and the call of bells represent these seemingly contrasting cultures of the 9th and 10th centuries sonically.

The capturing of standards — flags and other items denoting rank, unit, and allegiance — has been a longstanding feature of warfare, and the same is true of the capture of bells. Arnold and Goodson relate, for instance, that “in 997 the Cordoban ruler al-Manshr sacked the town and shrine of Santiago de Compostela, razed the pilgrimage church, and carted the bells home to Córdoba with Christian captives, apparently hanging them as trophies at the Great Mosque.”[13] The Qarawiyyin mosque in Fez features a number of chandeliers made of converted church bells, some of which still exist. Thus the silencing of bells marked the conquest of a community and their subordination to a different sonic system of meaning. In later times, early-modern European commanders were assumed to have the right to a captured city’s bells (which could then be sold or converted to canon), a custom which continued even into the 20th century. As late as the First World War, there are examples of the Germans confiscating bells in occupied territory, likely because their power to summon the people and raise the alarm could be an active threat to occupiers.[14]

Church of St. Etienne du Mont Paris (1839) by Thomas Shotter Boys

Bells were important to the people of the late-middle ages not only because of their scale, their cost, and their visual appeal but because of their sound. Church bells marked the important occasions that constituted the cycle of life, helping to construct the identities of communities and individuals alike. An old man in a rural French village of the 13th century might have been able to remember the baptisms, funerals, and weddings of all the members of their community, and each of these events would have been accompanied by the tolling of bells. The sound sanctified the event, and vice versa.

Language and other systems of signs shift their meanings overtime, and the history of bells in European society is no different. Changes in technology and the role of the church in European life meant that bells were increasingly put to secular uses after the 14th century, or at least were developed along lines that had little to do with their original role as calls to prayer. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the instrument known as the carillon, a system of chromatically tuned bells playable by lever or keyboard, was developed in the Low Countries beginning in the 14th century, and its spread throughout the following centuries allowed for whole musical pieces to be played from clock towers. Advances in bell founding and techniques of performance also allowed, beginning in the 17th century, for what is known as change-ringing, a distinctly English phenomenon that re-imagines the ringing of bells as a mathematical game:

 “Change-ringing, which still sounds from English church towers today, uses all the bells in a tower, ringing them in rounds. Every bell must be rung in every round, and the order in which they are rung must never be repeated. The aim is, in theory at least, to work through all the possible orders in which the bells can be rung, without ever repeating a round, and with strict rules about which bells swap places and how.”[15]

Bells were therefore expanding their reach in the early-modern period, moving from markers of liturgical time to alarms, tools of civic celebration, and musical instruments in their own right. As the material power of the church in Europe waned, the use of bells was increasingly subordinated to civic rather than religious needs, yet their lingering power is evidenced by the many conflicts over and decrees concerning bells which can be found in the history of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Citizens of a town might attempt to ring their bells to mark an ancient saint’s feast day or the anniversary of a peasant uprising, only to be reprimanded and shut out from the bell tower by bewildered authorities. A  village’s bells might be kept from ringing or confiscated entirely by an insulted mayor or a wily archbishop, leading citizens to take matters into their own hands. The tide, however, was changing, and the fight to preserve the auditory culture of bells in its pre-modern state was a losing one.

In his fascinating book Village Bells, Alain Corbin traces this change through the history of France after the revolution of 1789. By the Napoleonic period, there were numerous instances in the collective memory, stretching back centuries, of rural communities in which bells were confiscated and either sold or destroyed. The causes differ: a village might have their bells smashed as punishment for a period of insurrection, but they could also be sacrificed and fashioned into canon when a community was under threat from marauding armies. The Napoleonic Wars saw an expansion of the power of regional administrators and the central government in France, such that authorities and bureaucrats were able to interfere with all aspects of French life, including its sonic landscape. France’s celebrated “ringing towns” formed a sonic patchwork that connected villages, abbeys, cities, and chapels across the entire French countryside, yet by the late 18th century the number of bells in each locale had already been significantly reduced. Decrees from the central government mandated the turning over of bells from suppressed monasteries and churches: the early revolutionary government known as the Constituent Assembly (lasting from 1789 – 1791), for instance, decided that these bells would be better put to use as bronze coinage.[16] Still, it is clear that some of the motivation for the confiscation of bells was the lingering power of bells to create and cultivate a community which was in some sense antithetical to the project of secular nation-building.

Rue des Chantres (1862) by Charles Méryon

Not only the number of bells, but their culture and meaning changed significantly during the French 19th century. It might be more accurate, in fact, to describe this change as a movement toward a lack of meaning. “The rural peals of the nineteenth century”, writes Corbin, “which have become the sound of another time, were listened to, and evaluated according to a system of affects that is now lost to us. They bear witness to a different relation to the world and to the sacred as well as to a different way of being inscribed in time and space.”[17] Even in the 19th century, Romantic writers (following Schiller’s example) were simultaneously celebrating the power of bells and mourning the loss of the auditory landscape which the ringing towns of France had made manifest. In a world that was quickly incorporating, first steam power, then heavy industry, electricity, and further noisy technological changes, the idyllic world which many of the 19th century Romantics remembered or imagined was rapidly fading. The times in which church bells served to punctuate the long silences of rural life were already gone, and the intervening century has only completed this process.

The systems of sounds which govern our lives are not limited to music. From the robotic voices of public transportation to the digital dings of phone notifications and the white noise of nearby superhighways, the auditory landscape of the 21st century might seem, to a 19th century Romantic, to be polluted beyond repair. Like the bells of lost city of Ys, the auditory culture of bygone centuries has left us, yet it continues to be felt and heard in our stories, our music, our language, and our attitudes towards sounds of all kinds. The 21st century, one could argue, is louder than any preceding era, such that it can be difficult to find meaning in the chorus of noise. Yet while we have lost the codes of meaning that defined bells throughout European history, we have gained other things in their stead: the soft, gentle static of a stuttering radio; the slow glissando of a subway car leaving the station; the mournful drone of a distant airplane: these are also sonic signs, and they too leave their mark on us. Although bells have lost their power to constitute a community and an identity, many further, more pluralistic sources of noise can and should take their place.

A playlist centered around bells and their auditory landscape.

Early Music Seattle: Bells



[1]     From Friedrich von Schiller’s “The Song of the Bell”, quoted from Margarete Münsterberg, ed., trans. A Harvest of German Verse (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1916).

[2]     From Friedrich von Schiller’s “The Song of the Bell”, quoted from Margarete Münsterberg, ed., trans. A Harvest of German Verse (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1916).

[3]     Lewis Spence, Legends & Romances of Brittany (London: G.G. Harrap and Co., 1917), 184.

[4]     Alain Corbin, Village Bells : Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-century French Countryside. European Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 292.

[5]     Michelle E. Garceau, “‘I Call the People.’ Church Bells in Fourteenth-century Catalunya.” Journal of Medieval History 37, no. 2 (2011): 197.

[6]     John H Arnold and Caroline Goodson, “Resounding Community: The History and Meaning of Medieval Church Bells.” Viator (Berkeley) 43, no. 1 (2012): 99-130.

[7]     Arnold and Goodson, 107.

[8]     Arnold and Goodson, 108.

[9]     Arnold and Goodson, 111.

[10]   Arnold and Goodson, 112.

[11]   Garceau,197.

[12]   Arnold and Goodson, 112.

[13]   Arnold and Goodson, 113.

[14]   Corbin, 9.

[15]   Katherine Hunt, “The Art of Changes: Bell-Ringing, Anagrams, and the Culture of Combination in Seventeenth-Century England.” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 48, no. 2 (2018): 388.

[16]   Corbin, 9.

[17]   Corbin, xix.