Making a joyful noise

There was a time when Christian churches didn’t ring bells. Bells, bell ringers, and bell towers were gradually incorporated into use over many centuries and are now current symbols of Christianity. This is a brief history of the origin and developments in the utilization of church bells.

Before Christianity, pagans rang bells to drive away evil spirits, cure the sick, and calm storms. Before European Christians used church bells, they used other noisemakers such as blowing trumpets, or banging on metal plates or wooden planks to call people to worship. The first Christian bells were hand bells such as Salvation Army workers use today to collect donations. The first church bells as we know them didn’t come into use until around AD 400, when Bishop Paulinus of Nola, Italy, installed one.

An interesting fact is that Nola lies in the Campana region of Italy, and the word Campana came to describe the bells. We know the word today as campanile, which refers to a free-standing bell tower.

Bells become commonplace

In AD 604, Pope Sabinian sanctioned the use of bells in churches throughout Europe. After that, bells began to be used for various purposes, depending on the church. They signaled events such as worship or eucharist, and sometimes they reminded people to pray at various times of the day. There was really no limit on what they could be used to communicate, and I think there’s something comforting in the sound of church bells.

By the middle of the eighth century, bishops were introducing standard operating procedures for the use of bells. The meanings of the bells were a lot more understandable if they had some uniformity throughout a region rather than each village having its own system.

Since the Church controlled every aspect of the lives of most Europeans from the fourth century to nearly the present time, churches were at the center of the villager’s world. In an age of ignorance, superstition, and extreme violence, the church was where they could find God’s protection. Like the pagans, many Christians believed in the supernatural powers of church bells, but they were also used to communicated news of invasions, funerals, weddings, festivals, and the time of day.

Making church bells

Bells were made in different alloys, shapes, sizes, and thicknesses to produce specific sounds. The earliest church ones were reportedly made from iron sheets that were formed into the shape of bells and then dipped in molten copper. Since the art and science of metal casting had been in use for centuries, the process was adapted to church bells.

It began with heating molten bronze—an alloy of 78% copper and 22% tin—to a temperature of around 1,100 degrees, then pouring it into bell-shaped molds. Once cast, the metal could take as long as two weeks to cool and be ready to remove from the molds. Then, the bell-makers had to test the bells to determine if their tone was correct. If it wasn’t perfect, the foundry workers had to modify the bell or melt it down and recast it.

Once the bell was tuned and polished and had its clapper installed, then came the arduous task of hoisting it up to steeples or bell towers and installing it. That becomes almost unimaginable for the larger bells. The weight of most church bells is from 300 to 4,500 pounds. Today, the largest ringing bell on Earth is in Germany and it weighs 55,500 pounds, or around 27 tons!

By the thirteenth century, bells were being installed with various mechanisms to make them easier to ring. Bell ringers eventually formed associations or guilds to share trade information and music with one another.

The use of bells evolved from a single bell to multiple bells and then to carillons, which are sets of bells that can now be played using a keyboard.

Bells as part of the culture

There were no natural sounds, except maybe thunder that could compete with church bells. Before the age of factories, trains, automobile, and power tools, their sounds would have been ubiquitous. They resounded through the countryside and could communicate between towns. People were born to the chiming of their village bells and died many years later listening to those same bells. They could become as comforting and familiar as their own breathing. Bells could sound so melodic and soothing, but I imagine they could also be extremely annoying to some people. Regardless of how they affected the villagers, everyone had to adapt to their sounds because church bells were a part of life.

When the bells stop ringing

The only time the bells would be silenced was when they underwent repairs, the bell ringer was incapacitation or died, or during times of war. When Muslim invaders captured Christian towns, they certainly had the opportunity to silence the bells. At other times, European governments ordered bells removed and melted down so they could make more bullets, bombs, and guns. That happened repeatedly during the never-ending wars in Europe. It’s believed in World War II 150,000 church bells were melted and recast into armament.

It must have been extremely unsettling for townspeople to lose their beloved church bells. Their comforting presence was gone, and the town must have turned ominously silent. In addition to their functions, bells were also works of art. Works of beauty turned into weapons to kill one another seems perverse, but that’s what happened.

The tragedy of losing church bells was bad enough, but a far greater tragedy was losing one’s bell tower or an entire church. A few years ago, I visited the Flanders region of Belgium to better understand trench warfare along the Western Front during World War I. Since Flanders is a relatively flat region and church steeples and bell towers are tall, the tops of churches were the perfect places to observe enemy movements. The Germans knew that, so as soon as they moved into artillery range, their first targets were the churches and other tall buildings. Churches near the front lines were pulverized. Even now, a hundred years later, the Belgians are still putting the finishing touches on rebuilt cities like Ypres, the town I stayed in.

Ringing the noon bell

Most of us are familiar with the tradition of churches ringing their bells each day at noon. That’s not a signal to sit down for a lunch break and be thankful that half the workday is over. That tradition didn’t begin until the fifteenth century. Three years after the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople and sent European Christendom into panic, the Turks renewed their aggression. In 1456, they launched an invasion of the Kingdom of Hungary, the next phase on their agenda to create a Turkish Roman Empire. The armies met at Belgrade in Serbia and the Turks put the city under siege.

Pope Callixtus III ordered every European church to ring their bells at noon to remind Christians to pray for the defenders of Belgrade. The Christian army was ultimately victorious and sent the Turks into a major retreat. After the battle, churches continued to ring their bells at noon to commemorate that magnificent victory, maybe due to the supernatural powers of church bells. The pope’s decree was never reversed, so the bells continue to ring at noon in Catholic and many Protestant churches today. In the future, whenever I hear them ring, I will be reminded of the reason they play that music of celebration.


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