The Bells

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.

11 thoughts on “The Bells

  1. Fascinating! I too love bells. I recorded the bells of San Marco at midnight on Dec. 31st, 1999 on my Walkman and for some time it played for a few moments on our answerphone tape in London.
    At school, when turn came around to be bell prefect, the 63 bells for the start of the school day or to call people to chapel was not too taxing. But the three bells (with no little after-ping) for the start of the service was more taxing.
    (The school had been re-founded on an old-boy’s 63rd birthday in 1563 for 63 scholars in a schoolroom 63 feet long.)

      1. When the rope tried to tug you off the ground, that was when it rang. It could have lifted a very light person.

  2. Thank you, Kate. Good thoughts to you and Markus and all who read this.

    My nearby church, founded by German and Swiss immigrants in 1868, built a beautiful neo-Gothic sanctuary in 1916 and kept the original church bell while adding a “modern” bell. When someone dies from our congregation, the bell is rung by hand tolling the years that individual walked this earth.

  3. You must be the first person to ‘Like’ my old post about ‘the art of bell-ringing’! Now I know why! Stay well and stay safe.
    Like you we have the benefit of a garden and a home on the edge of a small town in a rural, area which means we can get out and about and still maintain a safe distance from anyone we encounter. I feel desperately sorry for city dwellers in flats/apartments.

    1. Hello Frank, great to hear from you! Your post got linked to mine and I was so interested to read your clear explanations on the art of change ringing – something I have never before understood. Enjoy your garden!

  4. Another extraordinarily interesting and erudite post. This is writing of the highest quality.
    As I sit in our sunny garden having just mowed the lawn fur the first time this year, while Lesley tidied the shed, I too feel incredibly fortunate.
    We can usually hear the wonderful peal of bells from St Lawrence Church below us in the town on a Sunday morning like this one. But no Sunday mornings have ever been like this one. I suppose campanologists working together in the confined space of a bell-loft is just the sort of thing that is no longer permissible. But you have made me realise the potential significance if a way can be found to reestablish a partial ring. Funnily enough we are doing a socially-distanced walk with two friends (and their dog Molly) this afternoon and this would be a good shouting-point as they are very active at St Lawrence – unlike us…
    Love to you both.

    1. Dear James – you are really too complimentary! Thank you. It certainly is weird here, needing a written authorisation to go anywhere, and only one person at a time and only for essential shopping. I am reading a book about the Resistance in France under the Occupation – it seems quite appropriate!

  5. So happy to read more evidence that people all over the world are showing their appreciation for those in the front lines in the fight against this horrible virus.

    1. Yes, all the nurses and doctors and all the helpers in and around hospitals whether in China, Italy or here in France are amazing! It is a HUMAN crises – not a war motivated by greed. .. and humanity will always win.
      Markus

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