When and where did the art of bell ring­ing be­gin?

BBC History Magazine - - Miscellany - Eu­gene Byrne is an au­thor and jour­nal­ist, spe­cial­is­ing in his­tory

Trevor Cow­burn, by email AEver since the early Mid­dle Ages,

bells have been used in Chris­tian churches to call peo­ple to wor­ship, and some­times also to ring out sig­nals and warn­ings. How­ever, the art of ‘mu­si­cal’ bell ring­ing did not re­ally emerge un­til the 16th or 17th cen­tury.

The car­il­lon, an ar­ray of bells housed in the tower of a church or other build­ing, orig­i­nated in 16th-cen­tury Flan­ders, Bel­gium. Re­fined over the next decades, it is ba­si­cally a huge mu­si­cal in­stru­ment, with each bell played us­ing levers and ped­als.

The change ring­ing we as­so­ci­ate with Eng­lish churches is al­to­gether dif­fer­ent, and was made pos­si­ble in the postRe­for­ma­tion pe­riod by new bell mech­a­nisms – par­tic­u­larly wheels, stays and slid­ers, which gave ringers much more con­trol. Sets of hand­bells, each tuned to a sep­a­rate note, also came into vogue in the 17th and 18th cen­turies, and were of­ten adapted by church ringers for prac­tice.

By the late 17th cen­tury, church bell ring­ing was be­com­ing an in­creas­ingly sec­u­lar ac­tiv­ity, pur­sued as much for recre­ation as for re­li­gious ser­vices. The math­e­mat­i­cal dis­ci­plines of change ring­ing might even be said to have been part of the com­ing sci­en­tific and in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tions, though only up to a point – by the 1700s, ac­counts started to emerge of rowdy and drunken be­hav­iour among bell ringers in many com­mu­ni­ties.


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