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Brief History and Role of Bells in Western Liturgy

Bells are a sacramental that have been used in churches for at least fifteen hundred years. But how did they get there? They were first used in almost every ancient culture: Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, and those from the Americas. Bells started off small in the Western Roman Empire as house bells and doorbells. As the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the bell founding technology associated with casting bells moved to the Eastern Roman Empire. This empire became known as the Byzantine Empire or the Byzantium. Technology moved forward in the Byzantium and bells increased in size. The Byzantine emperors would gift bells to the pope or royalty, therefore, the instruments kept appearing in the west. By the fifth century, there was evidence of bells being used externally in the church bell towers, and internally in the church for the consecration.

In the west, bell founders were originally just a few families in France. Knowledge of how to cast a bell was a closely guarded secret, which gave these families great influence. Anyone who had the ability to cast a bell could mould and cast something else such as a cannon, and this gave the families great power. These bell founding families would go out each summer, traditionally on Ash Wednesday, to fulfill their contracts and make the bells on site with the help of the whole congregation. Everyone would build the furnace, make the bricks, and then the bell founders would create the mould and cast the bell. At the end of it all, the bell founders would return home to their farms to help with the harvest.

The bells were originally built by a lost-wax technique, which involved making moulds in three parts. First, a core would be made of bricks covered with a special mud of clay, sand and horse manure. Once this dried out, the second part, a layer of wax, went over the top. The wax was made to look exactly like the real bell, with all the words inscribed and the wax ornamentation added. This was known as the false bell. The third part was the exterior mould of mud, known as the cope. Once dry, the inner and outer moulds were separated and the wax removed, leaving a negative impression on the cope. The moulds were then put back together and bronze poured in and left to harden.

Bells are sacramentals that call people to pray. They have names and are blessed, even baptized. During baptism, God is asked through the voice of the bell to drive away all evil. Bells speak their own language, though this has changed over time. They used to be rung half an hour before Mass, then fifteen minutes before to call people to church and give them enough time to prepare themselves and their horses. In mountainous regions, bells would start ringing as early as one hour before the Mass. In modern times with the use of cars, bells do not need to be rung so early.

Bells used to send signals specific to the feasts and the more bells a church had in its bell tower, the more complex a signal could be sent. Just from the sound of the bells, it was possible to identify the church, the solemnity of the feast and the occasion. Again, this has changed over time, to the point where some churches have their bells on automatic function and can be set to play at certain times and even controlled remotely.

There are two types of bell ringing: civic bell ringing which involves stationery bells that toll the Angelus and funerals; and ecclesiastical bell ringing which which involves bells that swing and ring for the liturgy. The reason of a swinging bell is so that the mouth of the bell, which points out when it swings, can send out a large amount of sound to call people to church.

Lastly, there are seven reasons why bells are rung in the church:

1) To gather people to the sacred functions of the church;

2) To signify and distinguish festivals;

3) To rouse the souls of the faithful to render devout thanks to the Highest for benefits received;

4) To implore Divine help against the tempests of air and the ferocity of the spirits of Hell;

5) To decorate the solemn entry of princes and prelates;

6) To increase the happiness and gaiety of public processions in songs of praise to the Lord;

7) To make fervent piety of the faithful in relation to the dead.

This was taken from a presentation on "The History and Role of Bells in the Life of the Church" by Dr Steven Ball, Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Michigan. It was presented at the Latin Liturgy Association's 2010 Conference.



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