Talking Bells

France seems to have been the country for church bells – locals vied with each other for the best bells and ringers, but they featured in every parish of England that could afford them, and at important times, especially national celebrations, the noise in some towns must have been horrific, with some ringing all night plus guns firing and fireworks to celebrate major victories.

But the ringing was not random. There was a sound to each bell, so parishioners could tell them apart so they could tell which one was ringing so they knew whether to respond to them. Bells could announce death of monarchs, weddings or births, but they could also announce the outbreak of war, imminent invasion or the arrival of peace. They could tell people to start or end work, to pray or attend services, so the ringing was both a noun and a transitive verb. So there was a rich auditory language that people understood and shared. This knowledge united communities, was a form lf language, a communication between them and with them and the dead, as in the case of the passing bell which told that a local person of some wealth was dying; it told the gender and ages o people knew roughly who it was, and the poor prayed for their souls and for them to  leave alms for them, so there was at times some vested interest in responding to them. This is in addition to the bells on the clocks ringing out the time.

It was not just the language of bells. Messages were sent by drums &bugles in battle;I recall a John Wayne film when he ordered the bugler to sound several orders. I am sure there were more I can’t think of right now. Guard dogs and even guard geese were audible. As was Paul Revere.

So, time and news and all else was primarily an auditory event, at a time when most people were illiterate. Roughly in parallel with the conversion of time from auditory to visual, was the rise of print news, the conversion of hearing to vision being our dominant sense, the sense of a predator. It was also the gradual shift from a communal society to individualist one. From reading together, singing communally, to reading and listening alone.

If you want to witness the difference, try the following exercise. Have a group of people read together aloud – doesn’t matter what the text is:  a newspaper article,   a children’s story, the bible. then read the same paragraph to yourselves. It suddenly seems quiet. You feel lonely. Strange, isn’t it?

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