Archbishop Antonij of Novgorod (ca. 1200) speaks of a sonic divide between the Eastern and Western churches.*
“[The Greeks] adhere to [the use of] the semantron according to the Angel’s instruction, but the Latins ring bells.”**
So the western church—the Roman Catholic Church centered in Rome—use bells, but the Eastern Orthodox Church—centered in Constantinople (Istanbul)—use the semantron. Edward V. Williams claims that these sonic divergences became one of the most powerful symbols of the two halves of the Christian world.
So what is a semantron? In short, it’s resonating wood (in some cases, metal). It is often a flat plank of wood, stationary or mobile, that is beat with wooden mallets. Like bells, they call the faithful to prayer or worship. I was struck (pun intended) by the resonance of the wood. Here we have the semantron followed by zvon ringing in a monastery.
And here we hear masterful rhythms with two mallets.
And here we hear a portable semantron.
Semantra grew out of a tradition in Palestine and Egypt of knocking on monks’ cells with a hammer or mallet to assemble them. We have evidence of this door-banging custom from the fifth century, and by the sixth century we see wooden semantra in monasteries of Egypt, Palestine, Sinai, and maybe even in the Far East. The semantron spread throughout the Christian lands, although in western Europe bells were always favored more.
*Information in this post taken from Edward V. Williams, The Bells of Russia: History and Technology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).
**Williams’ translation of Savvaitov, ed., Puteshestvie novgorodskago arkhiepiskopa Antoniia, col. 84.