In Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the loud ringing of the cathedral bells has turned Quasimodo, the bell-ringer, deaf. Some of you will no doubt have seen Charles Laughton hamming it up inimitably in the 1939 film. I love the sound of church bells pealing, although I must admit I wouldn’t like to live next door to them. This week, news reports revealed that a part-time resident of a village in Vienne is taking the commune to court because he finds the church bells too loud.
As ever, this snippet inspired me to look closer to home for stories about local bells.
Le casque de Saint-Grat
Saint-Grat is a hamlet just over the Aveyron border from us. It’s a tranquil place with a fortified church, a witness to more turbulent times. Today, you wouldn’t guess that this small village was once an important pilgrimage site for people suffering from mental illness.
Some saints were particularly prized for their role in curing illnesses. Saint Grat was no exception. From the Middle Ages until the 19th century, people suffering from various forms of psychosis visited the village to seek respite from their disorder.
During a period of prayer known as une neuvaine (novena), it’s said that the afflicted person bore heavy chains and had to wear la cloche (the bell) or le casque (helmet) of Saint-Grat on his or her head. This was a bell-shaped metal helmet 35 cm high. Some say this was a real bell with the clapper removed. Others say it was a piece of armour dating from the 10th century. The object is apparently displayed in the church at Saint-Grat, but since it’s always locked, I’ve never seen it.
I should think wearing this item for any length of time would be enough to drive you mad, if you weren’t already.
Le carillon de Villefranche-de-Rouergue
If you’ve ever visited the Thursday market in Villefranche, one of the best in the region, you will have heard the carillon chiming in the collégiale’s (cathedral) bell-tower.
Before I researched this post, I didn’t realise that a carillon is actually a musical instrument. It’s a series of bells, each tuned to a particular note, attached to a kind of keyboard, which is operated with wooden levers.
The Villefranche carillon can be operated manually or automatically. It consists of 48 bells, of which seven date back to 1819. The rest were installed from 1936. The carillon was introduced after that date.
Another snippet I didn’t know is that each bell has a designated godmother or godfather, whose name is inscribed on it.
The collégiale has a separate clock bell. The bell-tower itself was restored quite recently. You can climb up to the top and revel in the view over the jumbled roofs of Villefranche: something we have yet to do after 22 years here.
The only recording of the carillon I was able to find is a rendering of a pilgrimage song by one of the carilloneurs. Villefranche is on one of the Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle routes.
Public address system
In the days before social media, church bells had other functions in addition to calling people to prayer, ringing the death knell or pealing the hour. (In some places, the bell rang the hour twice so that people working in the fields wouldn’t miss it). The tocsin rang a fast, single-note chime in times of crisis or danger, for example war or brush fires.
Church bells in France announced the mobilisation order in August 1914. At the end of World War 1 in November 1918, all the bells rang simultaneously at the moment the Armistice was signed.
And, of course, in times of war, church bells were prime candidates for melting down into a new incarnation as cannons or ammunition: a far cry from their original purpose.
Do you know of carillons in France worth a visit, especially down here in the SW?
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