When and where did the art of bell ringing begin?
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.