Catholic World – Bell Gossip

detail of the national carillon, Canberra, Australia; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThere are some competent artistic observers who contend that bells were the origin, the cause, the ruling motive, of one of the most important parts of a Christian church – perhaps the most important, in regard to external appearance. The Rev. J. H. Sperling, in a paper read recently before the Architectural Institute, dwells at considerable length on the influence of the turret, campanile, or bell-tower in determining the character of a church. As a means of summoning the faithful to mass (there were no Protestant churches, because no Protestants, in those days), or to bid them pray wherever they might be, a bell was needed with a sound that would reach to a distance; and this could only be insured by placing it in a tower at some elevation. The Gothic architects made everything contribute to the design of their cathedrals and churches; and this elevation of the bell was just the thing to call forth their ingenuity. They made the bell-tower one of the chief features in their design. It was often entirely detached from the building, and was known generally as the campanile. Examples of this are observable at Canterbury and Chichester cathedrals, at Beccles, at Ledbury, and at West Walton in Norfolk. Salisbury cathedral had originally a campanile; but modern wiseacres, who thought they knew better than the men of old, removed it. The central towers of cathedrals and churches were intended as lanterns to let in light, not as turrets to contain bells; this was a later innovation. Many towers have been altered from their original purpose to convert them into bell-towers, but injuriously – as at Winchester and Ely. Mr. Sperling, as a matter of usefulness as well as of style, advocates the detached or semi-detached campanile; and recommends architects to direct their attention more frequently to this matter.

Another way in which church bells manifest, if not a scientific or artistic, at least a historical value, is in their connection with the saints of the Catholic Church; they are still existing records of a very old ecclesiastical custom. The bell of a church was frequently, if not generally, named after the patron saint of that church; and if there were more bells than one, the lowest in tone was named after the patron saint, and the others after saints to whom altars, shrines, or chapels within the edifice were dedicated. Probably, in such case, each bell was appropriated to the service of its own particular saint; for the use of many bells in a peal is comparatively modern. At Durham cathedral, and at the church of Saint Bartholomew the Great near Smithfield, are (or were recently) examples of a family of bells receiving names bearing special relation to the particular fabric for which they were intended.

Archaeologists claim for church bells a certain value in regard to the inscriptions which they nearly always bear, and which serve as so many guide-posts directing to facts belonging to past ages. Each great bell-founder (and many of them belonged to monastic institutions) had his own particular style of ornamentation, and his own favorite inscription, monogram, or epigraph. Sometimes it was only his own name; sometimes a name and a date; sometimes a pious ejaculation. The towns of Norwich, Lynn, Colchester, Salisbury, etc., had all celebrated families of bell-founders, in the days when the later Gothic cathedrals and churches were built. The earliest known dated bell is at Fribourg, bearing the year 1258, and the inscription: “O Rex Gloriae, veni cum pace; me resonante pia populo succurre Maria.” The oldest in England is supposed to be that at Duncton in Sussex, dated 1319. London can boast one a little over four centuries old, at All Hallows Staining, Mark Lane. The inscriptions on the bells, in the days when saints patronized them, were mostly in Latin, in most cases including the entreaty, “Ora pro nobis” (Pray for us). Sometimes the mottoes adverted to the many uses which church bells subserved, such as:

“Laudo Deum verum, plebem voco, congrego clerum,
Defunctos ploro, pestem fugo, festa decoro.”

Even this did not exhaust the list; for we meet with an enumeration of nearly twenty purposes answered by church bells – some of which we should be little disposed to recognize in these scientific days of ours. The following is not an actual motto on a bell, but an elegy on the subject:

“En ego Campana, nunquam denuntio vana,
Laudo Deum verum, plebem voco, congrego clerum.
Defunctos plango, vivos voco, fulmina frango,
Vox mea, vox vitae, voco vos, ad sacra venite.
Sanctos collaudo, tonitrua fugo, funera claudo,
Funera plango, fulgura frango, Sabbatha pango,
Excito lentos, dissipo ventos, paco cruentos.”

Occasionally, some of the more peculiar of these uses were expressed in English:

“Sometimes joy, sometimes sorrow.
Marriage to-day, and Death to-morrow.”
They generally lose their point when they lose their Latinity.

The mottoes on old bells, other than those which were dictated by the reverential feeling of the middle ages, comprise instances of vanity, ignorance, and silliness, such as would hardly be expected in these matters. Sometimes a kind of moral aphorism is attempted, with more or less success.

“Mankind, like us, too oft are found
Possessed of nought but empty sound.

When backward rung, I tell of fire;
Think how the world shall thus expire.

When souls are from their body torn,
‘Tis not to die, but to be born.”

One, very short, bids us to

“Embrace trew musick.”

A bell-founder named Pleasant used to put all kinds of punning mottoes on his bells suggested by his name. Some record the financial virtues of the persons who supplied the money for casting the bell:

“I’m given here to make a peal,
And sound the praise of Mary Neale.”

“All ye who hear my solemn sound.
Thank Lady Hopton’s hundred pound.”

“Robert Forman collected the money for casting this bell:
I’ll surely do my part as well.”

The name of the founder is sometimes supplanted by that of the churchwarden, or they may appear in companionship.

“John Martin of Worcester he made wee,
Be it known to all that do wee see.”

“John Draper made, as plainly doth appeare.
This bell was broake and cast againe wich
tyme churchwardens were,
Edward Dixon for the one who stode close to his tacklin.
And he that was his partner then was Alexander Tacklyn.”

The rhymster was evidently driven to his wits’ end by the name of Tacklyn. Some had a touch of loyalty in them:

“God save the Church,
Our Queen, and Realme,
And send us peace in Xt.”

The following are examples of a more or less childish class, marvels to find perpetuated in hard metal:

“My sound is good, my shape is neat:
Perkins made me all complete.”

“I am the first, although but small,
I will be heard above you all.”

“I sound aloud from day to day:
My sound hath praise, and well it may.”

“I ring to sermon with a lusty boom,
That all may come, and none may stay at home.”

“Pull on, brave boys; I am metal to the backbone,
I’ll be hanged before I’ll crack.”

The letters of the inscription are not, as some persons may suppose, cut or engraved on the metal by hand: they are formed in intaglio or sunk in the sand of the mould, and thus appear in relief on the outside of the bell when cast. What can be done in this way by that strange people the Chinese may be seen in the British Museum; we might search long enough to find an English bell equal in elaborate ornamentation to the Chinese bell there deposited.

The musical tone of a bell unquestionably depends on the scientific principles of acoustics as applied to music. The pitch of any one bell is determined conjointly by the size and the thickness. Of two bells equally large, the thicker gives the higher note; of two bells equally thick, the smaller gives the higher note. But then bell-founders look to the quality of the tone as well as to the pitch; and on this point there is much divergence of opinion among them. Concerning the metal used, some combination of copper and tin predominates in nearly all church bells; generally from two to three times as much copper as tin. Small additions of other metals are occasionally made, according to the theoretical views of the founder. The popular belief that silver improves the tone of a bell, is pronounced by Mr. Sperling and Mr. Denison to be a mistake; if added in large quantity, it would be as bad as so much lead; if in small quantity, it does neither good nor harm. Whether there is or is not really silver in two well-known bells, called the “Acton Nightingale” and the “Silver Bell” of St John’s College, Cambridge, it is believed by these authorities that the sweetness of the tone is due to other causes. A feeling of piety probably influenced the wealthy persons who, in old days, were wont to cast silver into the furnace containing the molten bell-metal. Mr. Sperling thinks that the old bells were, as a rule, better than the modern, by having more substance in them – obtaining depth and fulness of tone by largeness in height and diameter, rather than by diminishing the thickness at the part where the hammer or clapper strikes. “Nothing is more easily starved than a church bell.” A long-waisted bell (high in the sides) is considered to give forth a more resonant tone than a shallow or low waist, because there is more metal to act as a kind of sounding-board; but a lower bell is easier to ring in a peal; hence, as Sperling thinks, a reason for the difference in the richness of tone in old and modern bells. There are indications that the old founders sometimes tuned a set of bells in what is called the minor mode, the source of much that is tender and plaintive in Scotch and Irish melodies; but in our days they are always in the major mode. Where the ringing is done by clock-work, the sounds of several bells constitute a chime – where by hand, a peal – but in either case the actual tone or note of each bell is fixed beforehand. It is by many persons believed that the quality of the tone is improved by age, owing to some kind of molecular change in the metal; this is known to be the case in some old organs, and in instruments of the violin class, in the metal of the one and the wood of the other; and so far there is analogy to support the opinion. For good peals of bells, the founders generally prefer D or E as the note for the tenor or largest bell.

As to largeness in a bell, its intention bears relation rather to loudness than to pitch, as a means of throwing the sound to a great distance. This is the reason for the mighty bells that we are told of – Saint Paul’s weighing something like 13,000 lbs.; Antwerp, 16,000 lbs.; Oxford, 17,000 lbs.; Rome, 18,000 lbs.; Mechlin, 20,000 lbs.; Bruges, 23,000 lbs.; York, 24,000 lbs.; Cologne, 25,000 lbs.; Montreal, 29,000 lbs.; Erfurt, 30,000 lbs.; “Big Ben,” at the Houses of Parliament, 31,000 lbs.; Sens, 34,000 lbs.; Vienna, 40,000 lbs.; Novgorod, 69,000 lbs.; Pekin, 119,000 lbs.; Moscow, 141,000 lbs.; and, giant of all the giants, another Moscow bell weighing 192 tons, or 430,000 lbs. Our own Big Ben is more than twice as heavy as our own Saint Paul’s bell, which used to be regarded as one of our wonders, and its sound travels much further; but whether its quality of tone is equal, is a point on which opinions differ. The history of the two Big Bens must be more or less familiar to most of our readers – how that three chief commissioners of works, and two architects, and three bell-founders, and two bell-doctors, quarrelled year after year; how that both the Bens cracked, and got into disgrace; how that one of them recovered its voice again; and how that we have paid the piper to the tune of something like four thousand pounds for the two Big Bens and the four smaller bells. If a musical reader wishes to know, he may be told that the four quarter-bells give out the notes B, E, F++, G++, and that Big Ben’s tone is E, an octave below the first E. Remember, when Big Ben is heard six miles off, it is half a minute behind time, seeing that sound takes about half a minute to travel that distance.

As to bell-ringing, the adepts insist upon it that this is a science; and they give it the name of campanology. We all know, ever since we learnt about permutation and combination at school, that if there are six, eight, ten, or any number of distinct things, we may arrange them in an enormous number of ways, each way differing from every other. The things in this case are bells of different tones; and according to the order in which they are struck by the hammer or clapper so many changes may we produce. Out of the almost infinite number of these changes, campanologists select certain groups which to their ear seem most musical and agreeable; and these changes are known by the names of their proposers or inventors, just as we speak of a work by a great artist. It is not clearly known whether change-ringing began earlier than the seventeenth century; but it is certain that the art is practised much more in England than in any other country. There are peals from two or three to ten or twelve bells. Sixteen of twelve bells, and fifty of ten bells, are mentioned in the books as peals now existing in England. The largest peals now in England are at Bow church, Exeter, and York, each of ten bells; at Bow church and at York they vary from eight hundredweights to fifty-three hundredweights each; at Exeter from eight to sixty-seven hundredweights. From these weights, it must be evident that it is no small labor for men to pull such bells for several hours at a time. Just as the achievements of celebrated pedestrians and race-horses are placed upon record, so are the fraternity proud to refer to the bell-ringing exploits of their crack pullers. Twenty-four changes per minute are frequently reached. We are told that in 1787, 5,040 changes were rung in three hours and a quarter; and that on other occasions there were 6,876 changes rung in four hours and a quarter, 7,000 in four hours, 10,008 in six hours and three quarters, 14,224 in eight hours and three quarters, and (the magnum opus) 40,320 changes rung by thirteen men in twenty-seven hours, working in relief gangs. In one of the old churches, North Parret in Somerset, the belfry contains a set of rhyming rules, purporting that a six-pence fine shall be imposed on the ringers for cursing or swearing, for making a noise or telling idle stories, for keeping on their hats, for wearing spurs, or for overturning the bell. This overturning does sometimes occur, even to the loss of life. One ringer was killed about the time when his brother was drowned; and the following delectable epitaph records the double catastrophe:

“These 3 youths were by misfortun serounded;
One died of his wound, and the other was drownded.”

Whether bell-pinging is really a science, or whether it is only an ingenious art, as most people would prefer to call it, certainly the technical terms are most profuse and puzzling. Let the reader make what he can out of the following, taken at random from one of the books on the subject: Treble lead, plain work, course, call word, reverse method, direct method, double, method, balance, hold up, cut down, following, handstroke, rounds, backstroke, plain hunt, touches, course ends, hunting up, hunting down, place making, dodging, double dodging, Bob doubles, singles, observation, grandsire doubles, slow course, principle, Bob minor, double Bob minor, treble Bob, superlative surprise, wrong way, Bob triple, tittums. Bob caller, Bob major, double Bob major, treble Bob major, Bob caters, grandsire caters, Bob royals, Bob cinques, Bob maximus, treble Bob maximus. Bob certainly seems to be in the ascendant here. When the reader has marvelled at these funny names, let him try to understand the directions for ringing one particular set of changes: “Call two Bobs on 9, O, x; bring them round. Or, if the practitioner pleases, he may call the tenth and eleventh to make the ninth’s place; the former will be a six before the course end comes up. Then a Bob when the tenth and eleventh dodge together behind completes it. In this course the bells will be only one course out of the tittums” – which it is very satisfactory to hear. Once more; and here we would ask whether the directions do not suggest the idea of a damsel going through a sort of country-dance with seven swains all rejoicing in the name of Bob? “When the seventh has been quick, call a Bob when she dodges the right way behind, which will make her quick again; then, if the sixth goes up before the seventh, keep her behind with Bobs, until the seventh comes up to her; but if the sixth does not go up before the seventh, call her the right way behind again, and the sixth is sure to be up before her the next time.” After a little more of these extraordinary evolutions – “If not out of course, Bob with the seventh down quick till the fourth comes home; if out of course, a single must be called when the seventh goes down quick, to put them right. But if it happens that the fourth is before the fifth comes home, call when the seventh does her first whole term, and down quick with a double.” And we hope that they lived happy ever afterward.

– text taken from Catholic World magazine, October, 1865