A medieval legend held that the bell was "invented" in Nola, in the Campania, Italy, and that St. paulinus of nola was responsible for its adoption into the Church. Actually it was the fruit of primitive man's discovery that striking one hard object with another produced a sound that could mark the rhythm of his dances. Dried peas in a pod, forerunner of the rattle and the Egyptian sistra, induced man to form rattles of shell, wood, and later hammered metal (the crotal), enclosing hard pellets to produce the sound. When the rattle was opened on the bottom, a finger loop attached to the head, and a pellet hung on the inside to form a clapper, the bell came into being. With the progress of civilization, people became intrigued by bronze vessels whose resonant tone was soon explored. The deep cup was an ancestor of the Western bell and the Oriental barrel-formed bell, while the shallower dish developed into the cymbal. Small bells of one form or another (tintinnabula to the Romans) evolved several centuries before Christ. When the Church adopted the bell as a signal in its liturgy, the tinkling cymbal was gradually transformed into the campaniform object that the West knows today.
Early Use. In the early medieval period, churches used a small bell to mark solemn parts of the Mass. As communities grew larger and more people sought protection within monastery or town walls, greater and louder bells were needed. Larger bells meant larger housing—in belfry or campanile, the interesting new architectural form of the 10th and 11th centuries. As the use of bells spread, more and different-sounding bells were required to distinguish one announcement from another. Church and community often shared the bells of the same belfry, as they still do in parts of Europe. There were bells to announce the beginning of Mass, the angelus, birth and death, wedding and feast, fire and flood, to warn of enemies or pestilence, to appease the storm, to call to work, and to cover the fires for the night (Fr. couvre feu, curfew). In the 14th century the great tower clocks evolved, marking the quarters on the smaller bells, the hours on the deepest bourdon.
The Musical Bell. As the number of bells hung from a given belfry increased, it became customary, early in the 15th century in the Low Countries and to some extent in the section of England just across the North Sea, to ring the bells together. Until that time it had been enough that the bell function as a signal; it did not have to be pleasing to the ear as well. However, since musicians of that region were on the threshold of evolving the science of harmony, this new development meant searching for forms that would allow the bell to sound euphonic, not only when ringing alone, but also when pealed with others. The bell then took on its characteristic campaniform aspect. The more experienced and musically educated bell-founders discovered that the bell produced not just one note, but a whole series of tones, the pitches of which played a determining part in the purity of the bell. They then developed a form that would embrace the most musical series and learned how to tune each of these partials to a desired pitch. It was found that it was possible to give the bell almost the same series of overtones as that produced by nature in the taut string and the pipe—with one exception: the bell has a minor third, quite contrary to nature. It is this tone that gives the bell its distinctive characteristic, its plaintiveness and appeal. If a bell does not possess this tonal series, or if any of the partials are not on pitch, the bell sounds false in direct measure to the deviation from the norms. Since the 15th century, one criterion of a good founder has been the success with which he tunes his bells. The string and the pipe are nature's instruments; human beings developed and perfected the bell.
Thereafter, in the Low Countries, in adjoining northern France and western Germany, and in parts of Switzerland, peals of three or more bells produced music more pleasing than even the purest single bell. In Flanders and Holland particularly the number of bells was augmented to cover a range of two octaves. After the Reformation, the English abandoned this practice, in the development of which they had participated with the Continent, and now demanded only that their bells occupy positions in the scale. From this time dates "change ringing"— pealing rings of from 5 to 12 bells in ever changing sequences, sometimes for hours at a time—the traditional practice of the Anglican Church. However, in Spain, most of Italy, Scandinavia, the Balkans, and Russia, no thought has been given to purity of bell tone, and any definite pitch is purely accidental. The Orient has never modified its barrel-formed bells, a form incapable of pitch or harmony.
Great Bells. Some of the greatest bells in Christendom, installed either singly or as the bourdons (bass bells) of peals or carillons, are the 18,000-pound bell in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, the 55,000-pound bourdon of the peal of five bells in Cologne cathedral, St. Stephen's 4,000-pound bell in Vienna, the 40,000 pound bourdon of the carillon in the Riverside Church in New York, and the 38,000-pound bourdon of the carillon at the University of Chicago chapel, as well as the University of Notre Dame's 28,700-pound bell, Sacré Coeur de Montmartre's 44,000-pound bell in Paris, St. Paul's 11,500-pound bell in London, and Lincoln cathedral's 12,000-pound bourdon. In Moscow three bells (none of which is hung to swing) top all of these: one weighing 60,800 pounds; another at 120,000 pounds; and the Tsar Kolokol, the "King of Bells," which has never been used, at 443,772 pounds.
Bibliography: s. n. coleman, Bells (New York 1928). j. s. van waesberghe, ed., Cymbala: Bells in the Middle Ages (Amer. Inst. of Musicology. Studies and Documents 1; Rome 1951). w. wescott, Bells and Their Music (New York 1970). p. price, Bells and Man (Oxford, 1983).
[a. l. bigelow/eds.]
- Rare. concerned with bells or the manufacture of bells.
- a tower for peals of bells or a carillon, usually freestanding. Also called campanario.
- one who plays a campanile or carillon; a carilloneur.
- the science or art of bell ringing. See also change ringing . —campanologist, campanologer, n. —campanological , adj.
- change ringing
- the art of sounding a ring or set of from 3 to 12 tuned bells according to intricate patterns of sequences.
- 1. the sound made by ringing bells.
- 2 . a tinkling, bell-like sound. —tintinnabular , adj.
ring the bells backward ring them beginning with the bass bell, in order to give alarm of fire or invasion, or express dismay; the expression is recorded from the early 16th century.