- The primary purpose of church and monastery bells was, and is, to remind hearers of a duty of prayer; in medieval times they marked the 'canonical hours' for monks (6 a.m., 9 a.m., midday, 3 p.m., 6 p.m., 9 p.m.), rang before Mass and at certain points during Mass, rang the 'passing bell' when anyone in the parish was at death's door, and tolled for *funerals and the anniversaries of deaths. They also sounded in celebrations and thanksgivings, to honour eminent visitors, at *weddings, and to mark holy days. The choice of which bell or bells to ring, for how long, and in what rhythm, was a code indicating what had occurred. Bells were widely believed to frighten away the demons of the air that cause storms and *thunder.Much of this continued after the Reformation. Soon, the unique English skill of change ringing evolved, as set out by Fabian Stedman in his Tintinnalogia (1668) and Campanalogia (1677). The tolling of a single bell was used as a signal to request prayers for a dying person (the 'passing bell'), and also just before a funeral. Parishes developed local codes for the latter - three strokes for a child, six for a woman, nine for a man was common; but Didsbury (Cheshire) did eight for a child, twelve for a woman, sixteen for a man; Marsham (Suffolk) did three for a girl, four for a boy, five for a spinster, seven for a wife or widow, eight for a bachelor, nine for a husband or widower; some places then gave as many strokes as the age of the deceased. Peals were rung for local celebrations, especially weddings, and for public festivals and national events.Bell-ringing took on a secular role as the Morning Bell, rung in many places at 5 a.m. in summer and 6 a.m. in winter to summon labourers to work, and the curfew at 8 or 9 p.m. to mark the day's end. There are numerous records of benefactors leaving a piece of land to a church, for its rent to pay someone for ringing peals and curfews; at Kidderminster (Wiltshire), Twyford (Hampshire), and elsewhere, legend says the donor's life was saved when the sound of a bell guided him or her home when lost. Bells also signalled the opening of markets, the moment when gleaners could enter a harvested field, and the making of fritters and *pancakes on * Shrove Tuesday.Many places have a legend telling how a church bell fell into deep water, and could never be recovered. In some cases it fell in accidentally; in others, it was carried off by looters, or demonic forces. Rescue attempts failed because some *taboo was infringed, and the bell sank back. The tale usually concludes by saying that it can still sometimes be heard ringing underwater. Legends about *churches or wicked villages submerged or swallowed up as a ^judgement also often include this final detail; so do some traditions about real medieval villages lost through coastal erosion, for example at Dunwich (Suffolk). Tom Ingram, Bells in England (1954); Camp, 1988.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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