Posted by: kaleidophonic | January 18, 2012

The Sound of Bells Pt. 1: Ringing Relics

“If church steeples define the landscape in towns and villages across Quebec,” stated a recent article in The Globe and Mail, “church bells have long shaped their soundtrack.”

It’s true. Language issues aside, there is no single factor in Quebec’s soundscape that is more definitive than the sound of ringing church bells. Yet, while you can hear these ringing relics on any Sunday morning across the province, more and more Quebec’s bells seem to toll the erosion of religious practice here, rather than celebrating the population’s rootedness in Catholicism.

"Bell repairman Daniel Desormiers examines the clapper on one of the bells at Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs in Montréal on Dec. 14" Photo credit: Peter McCabe for the Globe & Mail

Still, regardless of the fact that parish pews may seem sadly empty these days, the church bell remains an intensely rich symbol of this province’s material and cultural heritage. Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the history of bells – both in general and in terms of Quebec – with a series of posts dedicated to those beautiful ring-ding-ding-dong-bing-bong-bells.

Most of what I’ll be talking about comes by way of two sources: Alain Corbin’s classic study of sound and meaning in France, Village Bells: Sound & Meaning in 19th Century French Countryside (1998) and a more recent work by Quebec visual artist François Mathieu, Les cloches d’église du Québec, sujets de culture (2010).

In today’s post I’ll talk a little about Corbin’s views on bells as structuring factors in village life, especially in terms of their role as markers of time, place, and community. Upcoming posts will deal with some of the general history of bells, Montréal’s bells, and hopefully also carillons. As you may have guessed by now, it’s a complex subject. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more written on this subject, especially in terms of Quebec. But I digress.

Corbin’s Village Bells is widely acknowledged as a masterwork on the aural history of bells, which he reveals as complex markers of time, place, and community, aural signals that structured the daily habitus (or habits) of French villagers. Take, for example, the roll of the bell as a marker of time. Before the advent of clocks (our modern time-pieces) the ringing of the church bell would have been the only regular auditory signal of the passage of time, what Corbin describes as “the temporal architecture of life”. This particular way of marking the passage of time has a very different ‘feel’ to it from our modern habits of clock-watching. Corbin describes the difference as essentially one between qualitative time (bells) vs. quantitative time (clocks). Here the peal of bells mark out sacred or meaningful moments throughout the year, the week, or the day. As the bell is rooted in space, up in the church bell-tower, it helps create a sense of time as rooted and immobile. As Corbin puts it:

“Listening to a bell conjurs up a space that is by its nature slow, prone to conserve what lies within it, and redolent of a world in which walking was the chief mode of locomotion. Such a sound is attuned to the quiet tread of a peasant.”

Compare the slow, steady sound of a ringing church bell to the constant and precise ticking of a clock. Clocks conjure a sense of speed, a sense of consumption of a limited number of temporal units. The passage of time slowly came to be marked by public clocks in municipal buildings or private homes, and eventually available to all individuals through the pocketwatch and wristwatch. This change in the ‘temporal architecture’ of life points to a shift from the communal and spiritual sense of time as infinate, toward a de-sacralized sense of time as linear and quantitative, something to be consumed by the individual.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Lets go back to that time before clocks, when the sound of church bells are still the pre-eminant authorities marking the passage of time. I said at the start of this discussion that Corbin’s book describes the role of bells in structuring time, but bells also bear a relationship to the structuring of space and community.

The churches in France (and Quebec) were the authoritative centres of their towns and villages. The bell, calling to worship all the members of the parish community, was thus an aural signal of territorial identity. As Corbin writes:

“Whatever degree of religious fervor of the local population, the church served to define a small space at the very heart of the village that was generally respected. From this center of padded silence emanated the sound waves that extended their “sacralizing” hold over an aerial space undisturbed by any other din.”

Bells were meant to be audible everywhere within the bounds of the community, and it was important that no part of the territory remain deaf to the messages being rung by the bells. Indeed, it is no accident that bells are positioned at the tops of towers – from these heights, the soundwaves could travel further, thus reaching more distant ears. There was also a correlation between the loudness of a bell and the extent of a parish’s territory (something I’ll come back to when I post about Montréal’s bells). It was important that everyone in the community be able to hear the church bell (at least until the advent of the 20th century), since the sound of church bells ringing were the authoritative auditory signals of daily life.

Bells were mighty messengers, capable of conveying quite a selection of messages: aside from marking out time, peals could be meant as public announcements such as a marrage or death; they could raise the alarm in the event of fire or invasion; they could command citizens to prayer or mass; they could sound a signal to guide wayfallen travelers through heavy snows or fog; or perhaps even summon angels, or ward away demon spirits.

The supernatural powers of bells slowly eroded with the coming of the Enlightenment and the ascendence of scientific rationalism – a process which undermined the authority of the Catholic Church, and the church’s bells. But this is something I’ll talk about in my next bell post, which will cover some of the general history of bells in France, Germany, Quebec, Canada, and the United States. So stay tuned for that, as well as later on some more stuff about the bells of Montréal.

[As a curious aside: when I Googled “angel bells” I found a website that still subscribes to the idea of bells having supernatural powers: Guardian Bell sells protective bells to motorcyclists. In the website’s words: “…by attaching a small bell onto your bike, …Evil Road Spirits will become trapped inside the bell where the constant ringing drives them insane, making them lose their grip until they fall to the ground.” Huh…]



  1. I seem to be Canada’s lone churchbell historian and certified bell expert (trained in Europe). I will gladly answer any questions about Québec’s still magnificent churchbell landscape.

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