Friday, 1 February 2013

'Be not afeared: the isle is full of noises'

I felt that I should probably write a post explaining the title of this blog so here it is! From medieval times through to the 17th century Britain was described as 'the ringing isle' by foreign visitors. One of the main reasons for this was that Britain was peppered with many small parish churches which had two or three bells (cathedrals usually had more that five bells) that were rung for many different reasons. Including to call people to worship, to mark a birth, to mark a marriage, to mark a death, to call a meeting and in times of celebration. When someone died the number of times that the bells tolled depended on who you were so they would toll twice for a woman, three times for a man and more times for a member of the clergy depending on the orders that they had received. The ringing of bells was used a way of communicating a simple message to people in a quick and efficient way for example in his reign William the Conqueror introduced a curfew where bells were rung at sunset in the summer and at eight o'clock at night in the winter in order to signal that all fires should be extinguished. In 1552 Bishop Hugh Latimer proposed that 'if all the bells in England should be rung together at a certain hour, there would be almost no place but some [where] bells might be heard there', so it was not just visitors who noticed the dominance of the ringing bells around Britain.

People ringing hand bells during a medieval funeral
Some visitors found the sound pleasant and felt that it added to the charms of Britain's beautiful countryside with its vast forests and lush green fields. But others found it less agreeable and accused the English of being 'vastly fond of great noises that fill the ear such as the firing of cannon, drums and the ringing of bells'. Some even suggested that people in England would 'go up into some belfry and ring the bells for hours together for the sake of exercise', so it would appear that the English had a certain enthusiasm for bell ringing. Indeed the practice of bell ringing was so important to the English that the Reformation was unable to abolish it. The English people's attachment to the bells is also demonstrated as the bells and ropes were provided for the churches at the expense of the parishioners.

11th-14th century bronze bell 
Another slightly stranger but quite common reason for ringing bells in medieval England was the belief that ringing bells counteracted thunder and lightning. It was believed that thunder/lighting was caused by the devil so the sound of blessed church bells would chase the devils away. Latimer was not a believer in this and as he pointed out that, due the number of bells ringing in England the devil's powers should never be able to affect the country.

Therefore I felt that as this blog is about 15th and 16th century Britain it ought to have a name that has some relevance to the period and personally I feel that Britain as 'the ringing isle' sounds considerably nicer that Britain as 'that grey rainy place' and I would like to think that one day Britain will be known for its beauty again instead of for its bad weather.

(The title of this post is a taken from a line in Shakespeare's The Tempest)


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