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  • Adrian J. Boas

On the Uses and Abuses of Chimes


Bells in the ruin of the canons' refectory, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

On the occasional days when the hum of the traffic on Azza Street is subdued, the chimes from bells of the Greek monastery in the Valley of the Cross drift up between apartment buildings and cypress trees to reach my house in Rehavia, in the centre of Jerusalem. Their hollow, metallic reverberation is one of the more pleasing sounds in our neighbourhood, where the sanctity of quiet moments is more often broken by the ear-shattering wails of ambulances or the sirens of the prime minister's daily cavalcade.


There is an opulence in this sound that is unique to the bell, and a complexity as well. It is more than a sound; it is a process, from the initial clang when the clapper strikes the bell's inner side, followed by a slowly declining, pulsating peal that fades into an oblivion usually masked by a repeat of the clapper's strike. Bell ringing has only a minor presence of the "urban soundscape"* of today's Middle Eastern cities. But in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries bells were heard everywhere, from the church towers where they rang for mass, to the monasteries and military order houses where they woke the brothers from their slumber at 2.30 or 3 am, and sent them stumbling blearily to the latrine and then to the chapel. They were abundantly heard on festive days, such as on the Saturday before Easter when, after the appearance of the miraculous Holy Fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, bells were rung throughout Jerusalem to herald mass in all the city's churches.


But bells had secular use as well. They were rung in the ports to inform the populace of the entry of a ship into harbour, and they were rung in times of discord and danger, to warn of the approach of an enemy and call the people to arms. Sometimes indeed, they themselves were a source of, and a participant in, communal strife. In 1153-4, at the time of tension between the Master of the Hospital of St John and the Patriarch of Jerusalem over a dispute about parochial jurisdiction, the brothers rang their bells in order to drown out the sermon of the patriarch in the neighbouring Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The chronicler, William, archbishop of Tyre, when describing this episode makes no effort to hide his view with regard to this aggression, which was merely the preliminary to yet greater acts of "audacious fury" including the actual firing of arrows within the church:


"With intentional malice they set their great many bells ringing so loudly and persistently that the voice of the patriarch could not rise above the din, nor could the people, in spite of all his efforts, hear him".**


Had this altercation happened a century later and in England rather than the kingdom of Jerusalem, the patriarch might have invoked the Law of Nuisance (in Latin nocumentum), to have the bells silenced, but the twelfth century crusader kingdom appears to have had no mechanism for restraining such abuse that transformed the celestial bell into an instrument of belligerence.





*On bells in twelfth century Jerusalem see Iris Shagrir "Urban Soundscape. Defining Space and Community in Twelfth Century Jerusalem" in Communicating the Middle Ages. Essays in Honour of Sophia Menache, Crusades-Subsidia 11, Abington and New York, 2018, pp. 103-20. ** William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, trans. E.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, New York, 1943, 18.3, p. 240.


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