Heading into day 6 of lock-down and we feel fortunate to have a large house, a garden and such beautiful surroundings. Things are complicated of course and there are financial implications for many of us but the main thing is to stay well and to make the most of these exceptional circumstances.
So, along with getting the vegetable garden into shape we, together with many others, are knuckling down to paperwork and addressing ourselves to all those tasks that easily get put off in our usually busy lives. And one of the more pleasant of these is to catch up with the backlog of subjects waiting to be written up for the blog! So here goes: The Bells.
The brief to-do about Bonging for Brexit (how long ago that seems!) got me thinking about bells, bell-ringing and what it all means.
I love the sound of church bells pealing out over the English countryside, in fact I have that earmarked as one of my choices in the unlikely event that I should ever be invited onto Desert Island Discs. My mother was very dismissive of French efforts in that direction – they just bang the bells she used to say, but perhaps she was unaware of the specific meaning of different peals of bells.
One of the most obvious use of a church bell is to inform people of the time and this was especially important when very few possessed a watch. Although country folk are used to reckoning the time by the sun – or by their stomachs – the ringing at midday and again at six in the evening also indicated the hour to recite the Angelus. (Strictly speaking the Ave bell should also ring at six in the morning, according to an edict of the 15th Century). Larger communities had a bell reserved for this function, some very ancient ones being inscribed with the first words of the prayer: Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.
When we were first here, Arlebosc was one of the few villages proudly retaining the services of un clocheron. Twice a day without fail he would sound the bell, before crossing the road to the café for un petit verre with the other local worthies. I do not now remember if he rang the prescribed canonical version of three times three chimes with a pause between each, or whether his was a more abbreviated call signalling l’heure de l’apéritif!
Generally speaking church bells were only used to indicate religious events. But in the absence of a town bell, certain peals, such as the curfew, would be rung out from the church, as would le tocsin, which is the call to alert the population of any kind of danger or the need to gather together. Le tocsin is a rapid, repeated chime, rung at a rhythm of 90 to 120 beats a minute on a special bell which was reserved for this use, known as un braillard. (These days the verb brailler is used for an incessantly crying child, or the sound made by a peacock!)
The tocsin was replaced by a siren in 1960 and this in turn has been replaced by text alerts on the phone. Our phones binged constantly throughout the night of Monday 16th to inform us about the extraordinary measures, in case we hadn’t watched President Macron’s address to the nation.
Of course there are joyous peals of wedding bells and those for christenings but the sound that nobody wants to hear is le glas. This is the mournful tolling of the bell as soon as it is known that someone in the village has died. There are different traditions by region, but frequently there is a specific sequence depending whether it is a man or a woman who has passed away. The bells toll again one hour before the funeral and again during the procession to the cemetery.
A more cheerful note is sounded by the Easter bells. A very old tradition in the Orthodox church, followed also by the Roman Catholic decrees that no bells are rung during Lent, or at least during Holy week after Maundy Thursday. They ring out again during the Easter vigil mass, at the singing of the Gloria. More prosaically and excitingly children are told that the bells have journeyed to Rome during Holy Week and when they return they scatter Easter eggs which the children must hunt for.
Church bells are often of course very ancient and usually have names and godparents. The most famous bell in France is Emmanuel, the bourdon of Notre Dame de Paris. (Bourdon means drone, and also bumble bee, but Emmanuel actually sounds in F#). Founded in 1685 and weighing over 13,000 kg it is dedicated to Christ Emmanuel and the godparents were King Louis XIV and his wife Marie Thérèse of Austria. It is rung to mark notable events in the life of the nation, such as the end of both World Wars, to honour victims of terrorist attacks in Paris and Libya, and the heroic action of Colonel Beltrame who took the place of a hostage and was assassinated in Carcassonne in March 2018.
Emmanuel rang the glas for Pope John Paul II and again in September 2019 for the State Funeral of Jacques Chirac. Fortunately the bell suffered no damage in the fire which tore through Notre Dame the previous April, but the ringing mechanism had been destroyed in the blaze meaning that, for the first time since 1945 it had to be rung manually. A return of the invaluable clocheron!
PS I was just finishing up this post when Markus alerted me to an event this evening in Grenoble. Since the start of the lock-down people have been gathering at their windows at 8pm precisely and applauding the hard work and dedication of the medical personnel, and hospital workers of all types who are toiling day and night to treat people and save lives. This evening the bells were rung in Grenoble, as a louder and more general encouragement to all those to whom we owe so much in these difficult times.