Bells as a Defence Against the Supernatural

Medieval BellBeing entirely honest, I have a lot of books. I doubt any of my readers will be surprised to find that many of them are about the supernatural in the Middle Ages and Early Modern.

One thing that crops up again and again is the idea that bells have power over the supernatural. In as many as a quarter of my books, there are references to the idea that bells have the power to drive away demons and abate storms.

The English version of this Latin poem, A Help to Discourse, shows the general sentiment…

Behold my uses are not small
That, God to prayse, Assemblyes call:
That breake the Thunder, wayle the Dead,
And cleanse the Ayre of Tempests bred;
With feare keepe off the Fiends of Hell,
And all by virtue of my Knell.

A similar poem was inscribed on a bell at St. George’s church in Hagenau, and the Latin inscription Fulgur arcens et daemones malignos can be found on a bell at Erfurt Cathedral.

In fact, as late as 1862, a folklorist named Heanley collected an account from the Vicar of Upton Grey: “when the time came for the tolling of the Passing Bell, instead of the sexton tolling only the big Tenor Bell… he tolled all the bells one after another, with say, two dozen tolls for each… when I enquired the reason, I got this 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.’ Just as in Lucerne… I have heard all the bells of the Cathedral there clanged together when a thunderstorm was raging, to banish the evil spirits that were supposed to be causing it.”

The power of bells to banish demons and drive away storms is brought together in the 1566 pamphlet about Black Shuck. The author describes his parishioners huddling in the church and preparing to ring the bells out of fear of a storm that turns out to be a demon in the form of lightning, before the devil-dog bursts through the roof, destroying a section of wall.

In Metz of 1488, the Chronicler of the city wrote of the community’s reaction to strange patch of June weather: “it was scarcely hot for two days before a storm came again. They had to keep on ringing the bells night and day, and large hailstones fell in the territory of Corney and Nouvion on 28 June and did great damage.”

Exorcism via bells was used slightly more innovatively in Anglo-Saxon medicine, where fever and other illnesses were explicitly described as being a form of demonic possession. Here we have the tradition of using a church bell to drink especially prepared herbs and water. We also see the same tradition in County Clare, where various were held to possess curative powers.

Also in County Clare we see a more unusual power for a bell in the Clog-an-oir, a golden bell at Dysart that was said to cause horrible convulsions in anyone who had lied or committed perjury in its presence.

The source of this folklore is hard to find. Enlightenment rationalists theorised that the sound itself set up a wave that abated the storm, and guns are used for similar purposes in other parts of Europe, however the only solid mention of the significance of bell ringing by a church authority I could find came from Bishop Jacobus da Voragine: “the cross is borne and the clocks and bells be sounded and rung; the banners be borne and in some churches a dragon with a great tail is born… for whereas the kings have in battle their trumpets and banners… right so the King of heaven has his signs… and the evil spirits that be in the region of the air doubt very much when they hear the trumpets of God when the bells be rung… and cease the moving of tempests.”

Bells were even baptised by being dedicated and blessed with psalms, and then consecrated with salt and holy water and blessed thus, “Let this bell be sanctified and consecrated, O Lord, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost”, with the bell’s baptism even requiring sponsors and a name. In one English Parish in 1499 “the great bell Harry” had three God Parents.

4 Comments

Filed under English Folklore, Irish Folklore, Religion and the Occult, Strange History, The Devil, Whole Article

4 responses to “Bells as a Defence Against the Supernatural

  1. In his orchestral piece of music titled “Night on the Bald Mountain”, Camille Saint-Sens depicts the devil himself holding a sabbath at the top of a bare mountain. As you may have heard, the piece is written as a succession of ominous themes played as high-tempoed dances. However, at the end of the piece, and as morning comes, the music calms down, gradually shifting into a hopeful, lighter theme, marking the end of the devilish night.
    The interesting point in that transition is that it is really started by a sudden silence in the wild dances, interrupted by bells ringing. By the introduction of bells right in the middle of the main devilish theme, which sound as if they were forcing the music to calm down, Saint-Sens seems to use the very same symbolism than that, which you describe in your article here: The power of church bells against devilish things.

    This transition was very clearly insisted on in Disney’s 1940 Fantasia movie, in the next-to-last piece that was based on Saint-Sens’ Night piece: with each bell ringing, the giant devil depicted on top of Bald Mountain cringes a little more, as if each bell’s ringing was a powerful blow directed at him, until he finally merges with the mountain itself as the morning sun rises.

    It seems to me that Saint-Sens introduction of bells in that context, at the end of his sabbath’s music, is an indication that the symbolic power of church bells against evil things was something still in the mind of late XIXth century auditors.
    But this is just an assumption.

    Interesting read, as usual.

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    • You know, I love Night on the Bald Mountain, but I hadn’t connected that! Interesting…

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      • John Richards

        There are echoes of this sentiment of bells driving out demons in Spider-Man 3. When Peter Parker has come to the conclusion that the alien symbiote (which fell from the heavens!) is not good for him, he goes inside a bell tower, and there the bells provide him with the ability to expunge the symbiote from his body.

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      • It’s true: the whole spawn arc has huge Faustian undertones! It falls from the heavens, he makes a deal that seems only beneficial, but in fact he’s losing his personality/soul, and yes — bells eventually drive the possession (ahem!) entity out of his body.

        I miss Sam Raimi. I thought the films were good and quite popular at the time, but apparently everyone dislikes them (then again, I actually liked Suicide Squad, but I shouldn’t say that or I’ll be buried with invective…)

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