Bells have been used since the Middle Ages for religious and secular reasons. The word “bell” is derived from the Latin word balare, meaning “the cry of animals,” which emphasizes how the word is connected to the sounds bells elicit. While the specific history of bells has been difficult to trace, words such as campana and nola suggest that the town of Nola in Campania, Italy played a major role in the development of the bell. Today, the study of bells is known as “campanology.”
The history of bells is traced through archaeological excavations. Bells are often dated by engraved dedications. Most bells excavated in England are engraved with thick, double-lined Roman or Saxon lettering that marks both the date of manufacture and the dedication of the bell to a particular person or parish. Additionally, some contain messages that determine the bell’s purpose, such as the sending off of the dead. It is presumed that early Christians did not use bells because parishes were small enough to share messages without ringing bells. But when Christian missionaries began to expand their congregations, they used hand bells to gather their followers. Larger bells first appeared during the late Saxon period. Bells were made using quadrilateral sheets of iron, then bent and riveted into a wedge and curve. After the shaping of the metal, bells were dipped into molten copper in order to coat them so that they may toll with a more musical tone. Hand bells were the earliest bells, followed by larger mallet-dependent bells, then by bells that use the familiar internal clapper. Unfortunately, some medieval church bells did not survive the Great Fire, so archaeological remains of church bells are limited.
While bells have been in existence for centuries, the purpose, function, and regulations of bells have changed over time. There is a strict delineation between religious and secular bells in the Middle Ages, during which the church bell was strictly regulated. For example, canon law prohibited “untimely” and superstitious ringing. Bell ringing was extremely important in the medieval ages, making the bell-ringing occupation a respected and high paying one, especially in medieval London. The most popular uses of bell ringing in medieval London included Sunday functions, festivals, celebrations, funerals, coronations, and marking the hours of day. In Roman London, four “curfew churches” tolled bells at 9 P.M. to call citizens home and close the gates of the London Wall. Examples include St. Bride’s and St. Giles Cripplegate. Bell types and striking style had very specific meanings in medieval London. For example, the monastery used large bells to summon monks to the major canonical hours, while small bells summoned them to minor hours; a smaller skilla invited them to eat or drink, and a full peal of bells notified them of an important guest. Special events that warranted bell ringing included Christmas and Easter, parish-specific saints’ days, harvest festivals, and the Pancake Bell, which was the last bell rung before Lenten fasting began. During the Black Death, bells were often struck for less appealing reasons. Death, funerals, and the arrival of the death cart all prompted bell ringing in London.
This bell in particular was found at The Hyde in Ingatestone, Essex, and is speculated to have come from Blackmore Priory, which exists today as The Church of Saint Lawrence/Jericho Priory. The Hyde was once the largest plot of land in the parish of Ingatestone and Freyerning but burned down in 1965. This bell is clearly the Sanctus bell of some church but the original parish name remains obscure despite historical and archaeological research. Sanctus bells became popular in medieval churches and were hung in a tower or at the apex of the nave, and rung during the Sanctus song. Historians suggest that this bell moved from Blackmore Priory to Smyth’s Hall, and then was later bought by Mr. John Disney of The Hyde, a popular antique collector, and remained at his estate until it was collected for research. The bell’s history is veiled in obscurity because it was discovered in the stables of the Hyde and is estimated to be 250 years older than all other bells of the area, as it was made around the year 1340. It is inscribed “PETRVS: DE: VESTON: ME: FECIT”, Latin for “Peter de Weston made me.” A well-known bell manufacturer of the time, he has made other bells found in Middlesex, Essex, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Oxfordshire. It is 440mm in height, 360 mm in diameter and 29 kg in weight.
Walters, Henry Beauchamp. Church Bells of England. London: Oxford University Press, 1912.
Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009.Daniell, Christopher. Death and Burial in Medieval England: 1066-1550. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Wilde, E.E. Ingatestone and the Essex Great Road with Fryerning. London: Oxford University Press, 1913.