Resounding, Performing Community

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Bell Tower of Douai

Bells signal to the community, and community members respond. This is the pat truism presented as the standard historical narrative for bells in the European middle ages and beyond, but as usual—it’s not quite that simple. So what if citizens or lay parishioners didn’t want to respond to the bell’s call? What would that look like exactly? After all, a tower bell is not like an alarm clock that you can just hit the snooze button and delay the signal.

alarm clock gif

John H. Arnold and Caroline Goodson examine this point in their article “Resounding Community: The History and Meaning of Medieval Church Bells.”* In the late middle ages, when tower bells were prevalent across Europe, there are in fact instances of listeners “misusing or refusing” bells’ signals.

In one instance in 1337 near Cortona in France, a woman named Lena di Castello rang the church bell at night, bringing all the parishioners to the church. Her motive was to have the parishioners bear witness to the argument that she was having with the village priest, Alessandro, as he refused to relinquish her belongings that he had taken. It was an open secret in the village that she was Alessandro’s lover. Bells were supposed to be rung for true emergencies, but in this case, Lena cleverly used the bell to gather the community together for just recourse.

In another example, from late thirteenth-century France, workers in the vineyard near the church attested that another worker refused the bell’s call to say a prayer during the Mass, and instead he retorted with this blasphemy, “Don’t believe that it is the body of Christ, because if it were, and were as large as the Mount of Vinhar, it would have been eaten long ago. And if you believe it you are fools, and I don’t want any share in that credulity of yours.” Strong words indeed.

The evidence for the outright rejection of bells’ calls are scant. But then again, how could it not be so? I would imagine that the most egregious rejections of bells would be recorded in cases like those above, but what about the parishioner who mutters the prayer under his breath, barely missing a beat in his work? What about the worker who very s l o w l y gets out of bed and starts to work? Reluctant responses to the bells all. These subtle rejections of the bells’ messages would hardly be noteworthy because I suspect that they were fairly common. Bells conveyed a message to the community, but there is certainly a lot of room for its intended listeners to reject a message in spirit while still following the letter of its command.

Arnold and Goodson’s central point is encapsulated so well at the end of their article, “Bells are not merely ‘markers’ of community so much as auditory performances of community…” [p. 128] Bells perform community—yes! In other words, they present their messages to an ideal community working together in sacred and secular harmony. Bells operate under the assumption that not just one person, but everyone in the community, will listen and obey. It’s easy to extrapolate this idealized vision onto the past, when little evidence suggests otherwise, but naive to do so. In fact, bells were rejected outright…to what extent we’ll never know.

* John H. Arnold and Caroline Goodson, “Resounding Community: The History and Meaning of Medieval Church Bells,” Viator 43, No. 1 (2012): 99-130.

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