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Origin

Ancient BellThat bells, at any rate hand-bells of relatively small size, were familiar to all the chief nations of antiquity is a fact beyond dispute. The archaeological evidence for this conclusion has been collected in the monograph of Abbé Morillot and is quite overwhelming. Specimens are still preserved of the bells used in ancient Babylonia and in Egypt, as well as by the Romans and Greeks, while the bell undoubtedly figured no less prominently in such independent civilizations as those of China and Hindustan. There is consequently no reason why the bells upon the high priest's ephod (Ex., xxxiii, 33) should not have been tiny bells of normal shape. Further it may be inferred from the purposes for which they were used that the tintinnabula of which we read in the classics, must at least in some instances have betokened hand-bells of larger size. See for example Martial, "Epig.", xiv, 161, where the signal for the opening of the baths is made with a tintinnabulum also described as &oeligs thermarum. None the less, the question whether anything corresponding in size to a church bell was known in pre-Christian times does not readily admit of an answer. We are not only ignorant of the dimensions, but also of the shape of the kodon which was used for example to announce the opening of the public markets (Cf. Strabo, Geogr., IV, xxi). We translate the word as bell, but it is possible that it would be more correctly rendered gong or cymbals. The officer who made the round of the sentries at night carried a (Thucyd., IV, cxxxv; Aristoph., Aves, 842 sqq.), and it is difficult to believe that anything resembling an ordinary bell could have been used for a duty in which the avoidance of accidental noise must often have been of the highest importance.

In coming to the Christian period the same difficulty is encountered. A new set of terms is introduced, signum, campana, clocca, nola, which are all commonly translated "bell", and it is certain that at a later period these were all used to denote what were in the strictest sense "church bells" of large size. The first Christian write who frequently speaks of bells (signa) is Gregory of Tours (c. 585). We learn that they were struck or shaken, and we find mention of a cord being used for this purpose (funem illum de quo signum commovetur, "De Vitâ Martini", I, xxviii), while as regards the use of these signa it appears that they rung before church services and that they roused the monks from their beds. Again, the word signum appears in the almost contemporary "Life of St. Columban" (615), for when one of his monks was dying Columban is said to have assembled the community by ringing the bell (signo tacto omnes adesse imperavit), Krusch, "Scrip. Merov.", IV, 85). Similar expressions, signo tacto, or cum exauditum fuerit signum, are used in Constitutions attributed to St. Caesarius of Arles (c. 513) and in the Rule of St. Benedict (c. 540). Moreover, if Dom Ferotin's view of the very early date of the Spanish ordinals which he has published (Monumenta Liturgica, V) could be safely accepted, it is possible that large bells were in common use in Spain at the same period. Still it must be remembered that signum primarily meant a signal and we must not be too hasty in attributing to it a specific instead of a generic meaning when first employed by Merovingian writers.

Again, the word campana, which even in the early Middle Ages undoubtedly meant a church bell and nothing else, occursBell Towerfirst, if Reifferscheid's "Anecdota Cassinensia" (p. 6) may be trusted, in Southern Italy (c. 515) in a letter to the deacon Ferrandus to Abbot Eugippius. It has been suggested from a Latin inscription connected with Arval Brethren (C.I., L. VI, no. 2067) that it was previously used to mean some kind of brazen vessel. However, no quite satisfactory examples of campana in church Latin seem to be forthcoming before that latter part of the seventh century, and it is then found in the North. It is used by Cummian at Iona (c. 665) and by Bede in Northumbria (c. 710), and frequently elsewhere after that date. In Rome, the "Liber Pontificalis" tells us that Pope Stephen II (752-757) erected a bellfry with three bells (campanae) at St. Peter's. It was probably this name which led Walafrid Strabo in the first half of the ninth century to make the assertion that bells were of Italian origin and that they came from Campania and more particularly from the town of Nola. Later writers went further and attributed the invention to St. Paulinus of Nola, but as St. Paulinus himself in the minute description which he has left of his own church makes no mention of bells, this is extremely improbable.

The word clocca (Fr. cloche; Ger. Glocke; Eng. clock) is interesting because in this case it is definitely known what was meant by it. It was certainly Irish in origin and it occurs at an early date both in Latin and in the Irish form clog. Thus it is found in Book of Armagh and is used by Adamnan in his life of St. Columbkill written c. 685. The Irish and English missionaries no doubt imported it into Germany where it appears more than once in the Sacramentary of Gellone. It is plain that in primitive Celtic lands an extraordinary importance was attached to bells. A very large number of these ancient bells, more than sixty in all -- the immense majority being Irish -- are still in existence. Many of them are reputed to have belonged to Irish saints and partake of the character of relics. The most famous is that of St. Patrick, the clog-an-edachta, or "bell-off-the-will" now preserved in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. There seems no serious reason to doubt that this was taken from the tomb in the year 552. Like most of these bells, it had an official and hereditary custodian (in this case named Mulholland) in whose possession it remained, being handed down for centuries from father to son. Other similar early bells are those of St. Senan (c. 540) and St. Mura; there are several in Scotland and Wales, one at St. Gall in Switzerland, one known as the Saufang at Colonge, and another at Noyon in France. The evidence for the extraordinary veneration with which these bells were regarded in Celtic lands is overwhelming. Even Giraldus Cambrensis notes in the twelfth century that upon them was taken the most solemn form of oath. They were also carried into battle, and even though the earlier specimens are nothing but rude cow-bells, wedge-shape in form and made of iron plate bent and roughly riveted, still they were often enclosed at a later daye in cases or "shrines" of the richest workmanship. The shrine of St. Patrick's bell bears an inscription of some length from which we learn that this beautiful specimen of the jeweler's craft must have been wrought about 1005. History tends to repeat itself, and if we remember the important part played in the missionary work of St. Francis Xavier by the handbell with which he gathered round him the children, the idle, or the curious, we have probably a clue to the intimate association of these very early Celtic bells with the work of Christianity. When in 1683 Father Maunoir, the great Breton missionary, had at last to relinquish further expeditions, the bell which he handed on to his successor was regarded as a sort of investiture. It may be noted that the famous round towers of Ireland, which are now generally recognized to have been places of refuge against the inroads of the Danes and other marauders were commonly called cloc teach. The bells occasionally stored there for the sake of safety seem to have been regarded as the most precious of their treasures and from this circumstance the towers probably derived their name, though it is of course possible that they in some cases served as belfries in the more ordinary sense.

bellThe great development in the use of bells may be identified with the eighth century. It was then, seemingly, that they began to be regarded as an essential part of the equipment of every church, and also that the practice of blessing them by a special form of consecration became generally prevalent. If we interpreted literally a well-known passage in Bede (Hist. Eccl.., IV, xxi), we should have to believe that already in the year 680, the bell (campana) that was rung at Whitby at the passing away of St. Hilda was heard at Hackness thirteen miles off. But the whole setting of the story implies that Bede regarded the occurrence as miraculous and that the distance might as well as have been thirty miles as thirteen. On the other hand, it is clear that in the eighth century church towers began to be built for the express purpose of hanging bells in them, which implies that the bells must have been increasing in size. The case of St. Peter's in Rome has already been noticed. So in the annals of St. Vandrille (cap. x, p. 33) we read that in the time of Ermharius who died in 738 that abbot had a bell made, to be hung in the little tower (turricula) "as is the custom of such churches"; while the "Monachus Sangallensis" (DeCarlo Magno, I, xxxi) tells the story of a monastic bell-founder who asked Charlemagne to give him a hundred pounds of silver with a proportionate amount of cooper to provide materials for a single bell. In any case it is certain from Charlemagne's "Capitularies", as well as from Alcuin, Amalarius, and other writers of the early ninth century that by that time in the Frankish dominions every parish church was expected to have one bell. In the next century Regino of Pr m, providing a programme of questions to be asked at an episcopal visitation, puts in the very first place a question about the church bells. Seeing that the clearest evidence of the popularity of church bells in Carlovingian times is encountered in regions where the influence of Irish or English missionaries had prevailed, it may perhaps be concluded that this development should be traced to Celtic influence. The missionary's hand-bell, with which he gathered his congregation together in the open air, would soon become sacred as a thing immediately associated with him and his work. Moreover, the idea would grow up that no religious service could take place without some preliminary ringing of a bell. Although we have traces of the use of signa and companae in monasteries before the Irish became missionaries, there is no evidence to show that these were bells rather than gongs. On the other hand, semantron, used to announce the beginning of service in Greek monasteries, was a flat plate of metal and its name (from semainein, "to make a signal") is obviously the counterpart of signum. Further we also find in the old glossary of the tenth century that the Greek word tympanon (drum) is given as the equivalent of campanum (Corpus Glossariorum Latinorum. III, 24). At the same time, we can trace in Ireland itself a gradual evolution of the shape of the bell, passing from the small cow-bell of riveted iron to the cast bronze instrument of considerable size with which we are now familiar.


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You are here: Art & Architecture > Architecture Features > Origin  Back one page.

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All contents © copyright, 1998-2018
The Catholic Liturgical Library
http://www.catholicliturgy.com