Bell Lore by England Howlett

In all Christian countries from the earliest ages the use of bells is practically as old as Christianity itself. The bell in its original form was nothing more or less than a piece of metal rolled into a wedge-like form and riveted together, and it is a curious instance of survival that the cattle bells in many countries are now practically of this primitive pattern. In the early days of Christianity small portable handbells were used for summoning the people to worship. It was not long, however, before the bell founder’s art made great progress, and long before the year 1000 the music of bells pealing from church towers could not have been by any means a rare sound.

We must remember that although bells are primarily connected with matters ecclesiastical, still, more especially in the middle ages, they were used in all cases where it was necessary to give a public notice or warning. The commercial transactions of a market were to a great extent regulated by bells. In case of fire or danger the bells were sounded to arouse or warn the people. In harvest time the gleaners’ bell was rung to limit the time when the gleaners should set forth and return from their work. Before the days of the telegraph and quick travelling, bells were found to be a good medium for passing on intimation of any great national event or danger; and perhaps no sound has carried the news of such great joy and sorrow as the sound of the bell.

Gifts of bells to churches, particularly in the earlier ages, were always deemed the most acceptable of gifts, and during the middle ages these bells were not uncommonly given as a memorial of some deceased friend or relation. Kings and Queens may be found amongst the donors of bells, and one of the earliest royal bell givers was probably Canute, who presented a pair of bells to Winchester Cathedral in 1035.

The art of bell founding was principally, if not entirely, carried out under the direction of the ecclesiastics, prior to the thirteenth century. This, of course, is not to be wondered at when we remember that at this period the arts in general owed their preservation and development to the zeal and industry of the church.

In the early middle ages, not only in Scotland but also in England and on the Continent, we are told by Mr F. C. Eeles[2] that the richer churches each possessed several bells, obtained usually at various times, and often without regard to their respective sizes, or to the relations between their notes. The great bell was often dedicated to the patron saint of the church, and the smaller bells to the other saints who were commemorated in the church below; each was used separately for the services at the corresponding altar, while all were used for High Mass, and on great occasions. A desire to ring the bells in a musical way made itself felt very early. On the continent this took the form of adding a carillon to the already existing collection of heavy bells, while here it showed itself in a tendency to make the heavy bells themselves form a part of the diatonic scale, and therefore suitable for ringing in succession. Shortly before the Reformation the carillon developed very rapidly on the continent, and reached its perfection in the seventeenth century. It consisted of a large number of small light bells, fixed “dead,” and sounded by hammers worked by wires from an arrangement of levers, something like the keys of an organ.

In Scotland, during the middle ages, the country churches as a rule had no tower. This was one of the architectural peculiarities of the country at this period, and as the use and appreciation of bells was steadily progressing at the time, we find the architects gradually adapting themselves to the requirements of the case. This they did, not by building towers as in England, but by elaborating a type of belfry which became almost peculiar to Scotland, a sort of architectural feature of the country. It is curious and interesting to notice that this type of belfry survived the destructive element of the Reformation, and lived on through the re-actionary period when art and taste were practically dead. Thus we often find in buildings otherwise devoid of all architectural pretensions, these redeeming little belfries which were evolved simply to meet the growing use of the bell.

Most of these belfries come under the head of the open stonework class, which, from their very formation give an air of lightness and freedom to the building they surmount. When the Renaissance period came in the form of the belfry was not altered, but the detail then became of classical design.

In Scotland we find that in some of the larger towns both the steeples and the bells are the property of the municipality, the Church only having the use of the bells on Sundays, while on week days they are used by the town authorities. The origin of this curious sort of co-ownership would appear to lie in the fact that in former times it was no uncommon thing for a town to acquire a lien on the bells in exchange for helping to build the steeple or undertaking to keep it in order.

The following extract from the Burgh Records of Peebles exhibits a good instance of this:—

“1778, December 29. The Council in conjunction with the heritors, agree to the proposition of building a new church.... The town to be at the expense of building the steeple and furnishing it with a clock and bells, for which it is to be the property of the burgh.”

From the Perth Session Records, October 6, 1578, we find that “The Session ordains James Sym, uptaker of the casualities that intervenes in the kirk, to buy a tow to the little skellit bell—the which bell shall only be rung to the affairs of the kirk, also to the examinations, or to the assemblies.”

The same Session Records for Perth, under date February 6, 1586, tells us that “The Session ordains Nicol Balmain to ring the curfew and workmen’s bell in the morning and evening, the space of one quarter of an hour, at the times appointed—viz., four hours in the morning and eight at even.”

In many primitive parts of Scotland, where there was no belfry, it seems to have been the custom to hang the solitary bell on a tree. A writer in 1679 protests against “that pitiful spectacle, bells hanging upon trees for want of bell houses.” At Drumlithe the town bell used to hang on an ash tree, and thus continued to do until 1777, when a small steeple was provided for it.

Among the Church ornaments to be provided by the parishioners in the fourteenth century was “a bell to carry before the body of Christ in the visitation of the sick.” This was done in order that all, according to the then teaching of the Church, might be warned of its approach and pay reverence to it.

Saint John before the bread doth go, and poynting towards him
Doth show the same to be the Lambe that takes away our sinne,
On whome two clad in Angels’ shape do sundrie flowres fling,
A number great of sacring Belles with pleasant sound do ringe.

These hand-bells were also used in procession on the Rogation days, and frequent notices of them are to be found in Church inventories.

Small hand-bells were in general use in a variety of ways in pre-Reformation times. At the burial of the dead we find them used for the double purpose of clearing the way for the funeral procession, and also to call for prayer for the deceased. The Bayeux Tapestry, which was worked by Matilda, the Queen of William the Conqueror, depicts the burial of Edward the Confessor, and in this a boy appears on each side of the bier carrying a small bell. We find reference to the use of these hand-bells at funerals by Chaucer:—

... they heard a bell clink
Before a corse was carried to the grave.

Hand-bells which were kept for this purpose were generally called “the corse bell” or “the lych bell,” and by these names they are constantly found mentioned in Church inventories. The custom of ringing these small bells at funerals was sought to be stopped by the Bishops in the sixteenth century. In 1571, Grindal directs that “at burials no ringing of hand-bells,” and a few years later (1583), Middleton directs “that the clerk nor his deputy do carry about the town a little bell called the Sainctes bell before the burial.”

It is a very prevalent belief that a large quantity of silver was used in the composition of the old bells, and that to this fact we owe much of the beauty and purity of their tone. It is commonly stated that in the middle ages it was the practice for our ancestors to throw in their silver tankards and spoons when the parish church bells were cast. However, a subsequent analysis of many bells of this period which have since been recast show the proportion of silver in them to have been exceedingly small.

The ancient bells, when cast, were set apart for their sacred uses by a solemn benediction, often called, from a too close approximation to the office of Holy Baptism, the Baptism of Bells. The office and the ceremonies used, which can be found in the Pontificals of the Mediæval Church, varied very little after the ninth century. The bell itself was washed by the bishop with water, into which salt had been previously cast. After it had been dried by the attendants, the bishop next dipped the thumb of his right hand in the holy oil for the sick, and made the sign of the cross on the top of the bell; after which he again marked it both with the holy oil for the sick and with chrism, saying the words:—

“Sancti + ficetur, et conse + cretur, Domine, signumistud: in nomine Pa + tris, et Fi + lii, et Spiritûs + sancti in honorem Sancti N. pax tibi.”

It is interesting to notice that in many places the practice still remains of ringing the bells at particular hours when no service is to be held. This is clearly a survival of the times when the bells were rung to call people to the mediæval services. We are reminded in “The Bells of Kincardineshire,” that at the present day various reasons, more or less utilitarian, have been given in Scotland for these old service bells. The country people say that the eight o’clock bell is to “let you ken it’s the Sabbath,” or to “gar the hill folk mak’ theirsel ready or the kirk win in.” This is very often called the “rousing bell,” and the later bell the “dressing bell,” or the “get ready.”

The Perth Session Records, July 10, 1560, provide that “The Session, after the appointment of the order of communication, ordains that the first bell should be rung at four in the morning; the second at half five o’clock; the third at five. The second ministration, the first bell to be rung at half nine o’clock; the second at nine; the third at half ten.” July 6, 1703, “The Session appoints that the church doors be opened at seven of the clock in the morning, and not till then; as also that the first bell be rung at eight of the clock; the second at half nine; and the third at nine.”

The ringing of bells at funerals is a custom of ancient origin. It was a popular belief that the sound of the bell had power to drive away evil spirits. In England, Bishop Grandison of Exeter in 1339 found it necessary to check the long ringings at burials, on the grounds that “they do no good to the departed, are an annoyance to the living, and injurious to the fabrick and the bells.”

Before the Reformation there were five bells at Dundee on which “six score and nine straiks” were given three times a day, to call to “matins, mess, and even-sang.”

Presbyterianism has naturally had a great influence on the bells in Scotland. Mr Eeles, who is an authority on the subject, tells us that the passing bell is no longer rung, nor is there any ringing at burials beyond tolling the bell for a few minutes as the procession approaches the churchyard. In some parishes even this is said to be fast dying out. In the Burgh Records of Dundee “it is statute that an ony person cause the gret bells to be rung for either saul, mass or dirige, he sall pay forty pence to the Kirk werk.”

The ringing of the death-knell was universal after the Reformation, when it seemed to have acquired a new meaning in the minds of the people, having become degenerated, so to speak, into a mere notice to the public that a death had taken place. Shakespeare refers to this ringing of the death-knell in his seventy-first sonnet:—

No longer mourn for me when I am dead,
Than ye shall hear the surly, sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell.

The Reformation and the decline of Gothic architecture both combined to put their impress upon bells. The Reformation naturally caused a great change in the inscriptions, and the decline of Gothic led to a poverty of design and an abandonment of the fine lettering, crosses, and other ornaments. Figures of angels and saints no longer appeared, and soon the artistic black letter gave place to the commonplace Roman capitals. With these drastic changes much of the romance of the bell has been swept away.