‘Saved by the Bell’ or Curfew

Today, many of the original functions behind the use of bells have been forgotten and lost in obscurity. In the past, bells were not only sounded as a part of religious ritual before and after a church service, but also to announce good news; to celebrate occasions such as weddings, christenings, or funerals; to signal ships arriving in port; to spread an alarm about fires or wars; and to frighten away the ever-present evil spirits.

In modern times, it is difficult for us to appreciate the psychological significance of pealing bells throughout the Middle Ages. These were times when ignorance and superstition were widespread, when settlements and villages were often isolated and remote, and werewolves, wild animals, harmful spirits, demons, and many other imagined or real threats were believed to inhabit the countryside. The reassuring sound of powerfully resonating church bells, therefore, constituted a protective magic circle. Within this perimeter, a divinely ordained order prevailed, dispelling the forces of darkness and evil in the minds of the people. The bell’s sound, a constant comforting presence, divided every day into hours, regulating the order of the days, summoning the pious to prayer, and terrifying demons and unclean, maleficent entities. 

Bells were even fabled to disperse plagues and storms.59 Therefore, when the Black Death arrived in England, Edward III ordered London to be ‘…cleaned of all bad smells, so that no more people will die from such smells’.60 Cannons were fired to clear the air, and bells were rung to dissipate the ‘corrupt airs’, which physicians of the time believed responsible for the cause and spread of pestilence. 

Church bells were also thought highly effective in chasing away witches and sorcerers populating the night skies. In many European countries, therefore, bells were used to protect the harvest from witchcraft. Bells were also considered effective against the powers of the evil eye, which is why they were, and still are, attached to domestic animals, camels, goats, and horses in some countries. In this context, we only have to think of the splendour of horse shows and parades worldwide – the horses decked out with charms, talismans, and numerous little bells attached to their harnesses. 

Bells still feature prominently in maritime jargon. In the past, bells regulated life on board ship, rung after each half-hour and hour until ‘eight bells’ marked the end of a four-hour watch. In poor visibility and fog, the ship’s bell was used as a warning signal to any vessel in close proximity. Interestingly, even on modern nuclear and missile-oriented naval vessels, the ringing of the bell at specific intervals has its time-honoured place.

Throughout the ages, bells have been used for ritual, magical, and social purposes, and many superstitions surround bells and bell ropes. The Chinese once rang bells to summon rain, and they still hang protective or ‘safe’ bells in the entrances of their houses and in cars to ward off ill luck. 

It is difficult to ascertain when bells were first used. They played a significant role in the religions of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians, whereas the Romans seem to have been summoned by tintinnabula bells to their hot baths and, on certain occasions, to public places. China and India were long famous for using bells, whereas the ancient Hebrews used trumpets instead of bells. The Greek Orthodox Church followed the ancient custom of using wooden boards or iron plates pierced with many holes. These were knocked with a hammer or mallet to call the faithful to church. The first bells used in Christian religious ritual were small hand bells rung as a call to prayer, mentioned by Gregory of Tours (538–594 CE). From the eighth century onwards, church towers were built expressly to house bells, which implies that bells must have increased in size, whereas the very large bells used in churches and cathedrals today became integral to Christian observance from the tenth century onwards. Bells are still used in various Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu rites. 

The casting and consecration of church bells were once accompanied by elaborate ceremonies. Legend has it that during the Middle Ages, human sacrificial victims were at times dropped in the cauldron filled with the seething metals destined to become a church bell to give the bell a ‘voice’ to cry to heaven!61 When casting was completed, bells were officially and ritually blessed, sprinkled with holy water and salt and anointed with oil, to make all devils flee at their sound. The ceremonial baptism of a bell, usually dedicated to a saint in Catholic Europe, required a bishop or his deputy to officiate. The first such baptism of a bell took place in 968 CE when Pope John XIII had a very large newly cast bell consecrated and gave it the name John. Vestiges of this custom are still found in the names various bells are called, such as Great Tom at Christ Church in Oxford and Big Ben housed within the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster in London.

From about 800 CE, it was customary in Europe to sound a single, ominous, woeful bell, the ‘passing’ or ‘soul bell’, when someone died.  The ringing of this bell was to ensure the prayers of the whole community for the soul of the departed and to keep away evil spirits imagined as waiting to molest and terrify the soul in its passage to the netherworld. Consequently, the soul could get a good head start – like a hunted rabbit – in making it to the hereafter. 

The following curious story, from the Dictionary of Superstition by Iona Opie, illustrates the function of bells in dispersing evil entities. In 1911, the vicar of Upton Grey in Hampshire in the United Kingdom noted that when the time came for tolling the passing or soul bell, his sexton tolled all the bells instead. When he enquired as to the reason for this, the vicar received the following delightful reply: ‘You know, Sir, devils can’t abide o’ bells. And there’s some devils as are feared of some bells, and there’s other devils as are feared of other bells, and so we tolls them all to fear them all’.62 

Until a few decades ago, it was still customary in many parts of Europe to make numeral distinctions when ringing the soul bell: nine knells were meant for a man, six for a woman, and three for a child. Shakespeare refers to the soul bell in Henry IV: ‘And his tongue sounds ever after as a sullen bell, remember’d knolling a departing friend’.63 This bell is still sounded in rural areas of various European countries as a sign of mourning, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘for whom the bell tolls’.

Another interesting bell is the so-called ‘cover fire’ bell, commonly believed to be of Norman origin. A law was made under William the Conqueror in the eleventh century that with the ringing of the couvre-feu bell every evening, all people had to put out their hearth fires, lights, and candles. The couvre-feu bell or, in translation, ‘cover fire’ bell, was a common and approved regulation at the time. This bell was used in most northern European monasteries and towns, mainly to prevent accidents from fires, which had unintentionally been left to burn. As all common houses consisted of timber, and dwellings were built very close to each other, house fires were frequent and usually fatal, spreading rapidly from house to house. Although ascribed by some to William the Conqueror and imposed on the English by the Normans as a token of servitude, the same custom seems to have also prevailed in France, Spain, Italy, and probably all other European countries at the same time. Our modern word ‘curfew’, meaning ‘the restriction of movement of people after a certain time deadline’, is a corruption of the French couvre-feu, the bell signifying when all people were once expected to douse their fires and turn in for the night.  

Equally fascinating is the origin of the expression ‘saved by the bell’, meaning ‘to be rescued by last-minute intervention’. Most sources attribute the origin to popular boxing slang, which came into being some time in the mid-1850s. A boxer is ‘saved by the bell’ marking the end of each round. Especially if he is in the process of losing a bout, the sound of this bell must be most welcoming! 

However, there is an alternative explanation regarding this phrase, involving a curious invention thought to have originated at the end of the eighteenth century. Although there is no evidence of the phrase ever being used in this connection, it may however describe people saved from being buried alive by using a coffin with a bell attached. Several such devices, called safety coffins, were in fact patented in England, on the Continent, and in America, though it is unknown whether such coffins were ever used.

The fear of being buried alive is an ancient one but drew public attention especially during the cholera epidemic of the eighteenth century when bodies were more hastily buried than usual. In the past, medical diagnoses were rudimentary and conditions rendering the body motionless, cold, and unresponsive were not competently and adequately recognised. Basically, it was impossible to establish with certainty that a person was dead until putrefaction had set in. Therefore, doctors devised several tests: Salt and pepper were blown up the nose to see if a corpse would sneeze, or pieces of horseradish, onions and garlic shoved up the nostrils to revive the person; trumpets blown very close to the ears; vinegar, salt and warm urine poured down the throat; stinging nettles applied to the body; scalding hot wax dripped on the scalp and most extreme of all a red hot poker applied to the rear end of the corpse in an attempt to make it flinch. 

However, in spite of such extreme measures, the undisputed fact reported throughout history, of coffins found with scratch marks on the inside attests to people actually having been buried alive. Hence, there was considerable public anxiety about this topic voiced by various prominent figures, especially during the Victorian Age. The macabre writings of Edgar Allan Poe tapped into and fuelled public fear, with short stories such as The Premature Burial, released in 1844. Such fears and anxieties therefore resulted in the timely, reassuring invention of various curious devices that could be incorporated into coffins, yet had a means of communication to the outside, such as a cord with a bell attached. The presumed dead unfortunate, enclosed six feet under, could then indeed be saved by the bell!


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