Mark Twain Ringers


Function: noun
Etymology: New Latin campanologia
Date: circa 1823
the art of bell ringing

            Like many inventions, English Handbells have derived by adaptation from an earlier product. Until the end of the 17th century, bells, from the large church bells to small hand-held bells, were made in similar ways by casting them in moulds made from patterns set in clay and wattle. For the small bells, this was a very labor-intensive method, and the cost of them was quite prohibitive. Then, the Cor brothers, from the village of Aldbourne, Wiltshire, discovered that they could cast small bells in sand moulds at a fraction of the cost of the older method.

          In medieval times bells were steeped in superstition. This was probably because of their long association with religion. They were baptised, and once baptised had the power to ward off evil spells and spirits. Bells were hung in doorways to protect visitors and the visited from the evil spirits which always wait around the door awaiting the chance to slip inside. A visitor would ring the bell to drive the spirits away then pass inside - which is the likely origin of the present day doorbell! This custom also lead to the "Passing bell" which was rung to drive away spirits who stood at the foot of a bed and about the house ready to seize a person's soul as he died. The local ringers who were paid to ring the passing bell were paid more for a big bell than a small one, not because the big one was harder to ring but because it kept the spirits further away and gave the departing soul a better start. The sound of consecrated bells was also believed to dispel thunder and lightning and to calm storms at sea for all of which demons were believed to be responsible. When a tempest broke out bells would be rung in an effort to clear the storm. This happened for example at Sandwich in Kent, in the "great thundering" of 1502 and again in 1514 ' The "great thundering" was still in use against hail in Southern France in the nineteenth century as it was in Cornwall for those in peril on the sea.

          After Bells had moved outside the church in Paulinus' time, handbells continued their development within the church. A cappella chanting (voices only) was replaced in popularity by more elaborate modes of liturgical accompaniment, which included bells, stringed and wind instruments and small organs. Many mistranslations of the Latin "cymbala" used both for cymbals and bells in early times exist in psalms today, e.g. "Praise him upon the loud cymbals (big bells), praise him upon the well tuned cymbals (tuned handbells)." Early illuminations show small chimes of handbells hung from rods and in the early middle ages instructions for sung masses included the use of bells to double up on the tenor line. Perhaps church choirs have always been short of tenors (singers not bells). (In those days the tenor carried the tune.)

          The first use of these bells is likely to have been for cattle bells and for bells on the tradesmen's' horse drawn wagons - to warn approaching traffic in the narrow country lanes. Soon the church tower bell ringers in England (who had their own way of ringing bells in sequence - quite unlike the random style then prevalent in the rest of Europe) started using these small bells to learn their 'method' ringing. It must have been much warmer and more comfortable for them to learn their intricate patterns of changes around the local hostelry fire than in the dark and draughty belfries on a cold winters' night. They numbered their 'handbells' just like the church tower bells (the smallest bell, the treble, is numbered 1 and so on up to the largest). No doubt, these bells were then used for simple tunes particularly at Christmas and the art of tune ringing began. It was not long before the bell founders started making handbells specifically for method and tune ringing; with clappers and handles tailor-made for the purpose and a vast improvement from the basic clapper assembly used on the cattle bells.

          This business must have been reasonably lucrative because about 45 handbell founders are known of who made handbells in England from around 1700 up to today. Only two of these firms still exist in England, Taylor's of Loughborough and the world renowned Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the area of London from which it gets its name. In fact, the English handbell foundries still make handbells in the traditional way and from traditional materials using, in one instance, equipment and techniques that date back several hundred years.

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