The Mystery of the Bells in Rural France by Lisa Hunt-Wotton
Far away across the fields
the tolling of the iron bell
calls the faithful to their knees
to hear the softly spoken magic spells.
This morning I marched off to have coffee at the ‘Commerce de Cafe’ armed with my computer and most importantly my english to french translator. I was determined to get to the bottom of the ‘Mystery of the Bells’. Obviously I understand the Church bells marking of the hours, but the other patterns that happen constantly in this village are baffling me. I’ve tried to do research but to no avail. It seems the patterns of the bells in community living and their understanding remains lost in Mediaeval history and mystery.
So.. back to the cafe.
Lisa: Bonjour Nellie et Stephanie, Comment allez vous? Pourrais-je s’il vous plait prendre un cafe avec du lait. Sil vous plait.
This is pretty much the extent of my French. Good morning, how are you and could I please have a coffee with milk. I then transition to my computer translator and ask Nellie if I can chat with her for a minute. She is used to these chats by now.
Lisa: Nellie, Could you please tell me why the church bells ring in different patterns.
Nellie: Why, what do you mean? (very blank French look given to me)
Lisa: Well, why at 7 am does the bell strike 7 times for the hour and then 3 x 3 and then 32 times????
Nellie: Second blank look.
Lisa: Nellie, in Australia where I live we don’t have a church in the middle of the village and we don’t ring bells all day. So I don’t really understand what they mean, can you help me?
Nellie: She now looks at me like I am an alien. What??? No Church, no church bells????
Nellie then speaks in rapid fire french to the rest of the cafe, gesturing wildly and they all burst out laughing.
They think that this Australian girl is very strange. They call me Mona Leeezsa because Lisa is a very strange and unfamiliar name in French. The old men in the village call me “Allo Allo” because I asked them one day what the Allo Allo announcements were all about (another story).
So me arriving at the cafe in the mornings goes something like this.
1: A Chorus of Bonjours?
2: Bonjour ‘Mona Leeeza’ (raucous laughing).
3: Then if the old men of the village are in the cafe……. in unison – ‘Allo Allo’ …… more laughing.
I take this all good naturally and laugh along of course. The French love to tease.
Nellie realising that I am serious then settles down to answer my many questions. Oh la la this crazy Australi woman.
So the mystery is finally resolved. These are the meanings behind the ringing of the bells according to the Village in Autignac and the other Villages around the area like Lauren’s and many others. I have also added some historical research about Bells in the South of France.
The bells are the voice of the community. They talk to us.
The bells talk about death, birth, weddings, baptisms, Easter, Christmas, funerals and special alerts. They call us to wake, to pray, to work, to arms, to feast and, in times of crisis, to come together. Above all, bells are the sound of freedom and peace as in World War II they hung silently until the day they could ring in the peace.
A typical morning in Autignac.
7 am – 7 bells to strike the hour. The marking of the hours is rooted in the daily schedule of monastic prayer.
3 x 3 to remind everyone in the community that its time to wake up.
Then 32 Bells for the morning prayer or ‘the prayer of the birds’.
Call to prayers for the day:
7.00 – Matins
12.00 – Midday Prayer
19.00 – Vespers (evening prayer – word taken from the star Venus)
This constant call to prayer is fascinating in a couple of ways. Firstly as far as I can tell, the villagers do not pray three times a day and do not attend church services. The Church services only happen on a roster basis as the priest is shared around the local villages. It seems that since the French Revolution, attendance to Church and the meaning of the bells became less a religious power and more a civic tool. The other thing that it reminds me of is the Muslim call to prayers that still exist in Muslim communities.
Last Week we had three days of extra patterns, every three hours the bells rang twice, then two beats break, then twice and so on for a minute. You do get used to the bells – I don’t even hear the ones at night anymore and we are two doors from the Church but you immediately notice a change in pattern.
I found out from Nellie that her best friends Mother had died. So the bells were letting everyone in the community know that a village woman had died. If it was a man then it would have been three bells. There was a special pattern on the day of the funeral and it then resumed to the 2 x 2 pattern for the next two days after the funeral.
Churches, with their soaring architecture and revered history, are an intrinsic part of the French culture. The parish church is situated geographically, socially and spiritually at the heart of local community in Medieval Europe. There are many villages around us that are known as Snail Villages. That means that the Church is in the centre and the Village winds around and around in a circle. The church bells lie at the heart of village life calling the community to pray three times a day and alerting the villagers to other significant moments.
“When the bell is rung for the Holy Land during the celebration of mass, everyone hearing this outside the church and understanding it should bend their knees and say the Lord’s Prayer, namely Pater Noster, for the succour of the Holy Land.” (Statutes of Worcester, 1229).
In Albi which is a village not far from us, it is recorded by the bishops in 1230 that the big bell [maior campana] should be rung three times during the day, “and the people who hear it should bend their knees wherever they are.” John H. Arnold and Caroline Goodson
“Bells were meant to be audible everywhere within the bounds of the community, and it was important that no part of the territory remain deaf to the messages being rung by the bells. Indeed, it is no accident that bells are positioned at the tops of towers – from these heights, the sound waves could travel further, thus reaching more distant ears. There was also a correlation between the loudness of a bell and the extent of a parish’s territory. It was important that everyone in the community be able to hear the church bell, since the sound of church bells ringing were the authoritative auditory signals of daily life”. Village Bells: Sound & Meaning in the 19th-Century French Countryside. By Alain Corbin
Before the puffing of trains, the drone of airplanes, the noise of cars and the buzzing of radios and televisions, the countryside was a place that sounded very differently from today. In that “auditory landscape” pride of place was taken by the church bells that, from the early morning Angelus to the late night retreat, marked time and community identity.
One thing that stands out the most to me living in this community is the quietness. You may hear the voices of neighbours and the sound of the bells but that is all. It is deathly quiet. At first our ears rang with the quietness of it all. No cars, no planes, nothing, not even the constant tick, tick, of a clock. The auditory space of the village has not been changed by 19th century life. Indeed not even 21st century life. It is the thing that makes such a significant difference and why you feel so wrapped up in a time warp.
“Listening to a bell conjurs up a space that is by its nature slow, prone to conserve what lies within it, and redolent of a world in which walking was the chief mode of locomotion. Such a sound is attuned to the quiet tread of a peasant.” Alan Corbin
It makes sense then, that these very same churches are central to Easter celebrations. The tradition begins on Maundy Thursday, before Good Friday. On this day, all the bells in France remain still and silent in remembrance of Jesus’ passing.
As one might imagine, this is quite a somber remembrance, and one that’s made all the more acute because the church bells typically ring out joyously at different times of the day. To ease the discomfort or any fears of the children, parents tell them that all the church bells have flown off to Rome to visit the Pope carrying all the grief of those mourning Jesus’ crucifixion..
Luckily, this silence is fairly short lived; when Easter morning dawns, the bells ring out once more to rejoice in Jesus’ resurrection. These flying French bells then return to their steeples on Easter morning just in time to ring for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. The bells also bring back chocolate and decorated eggs just in time for children to collect when they wake up on Easter morning.Much of the French community takes joy in this, fanning out into the streets, shouting boisterous greetings to neighbors, and giving warm hugs and kisses to those they know. You may hear all sorts of Easter holiday greetings, however, the French say “Joyeuses Pâques!” (Source).
I hope that this has given you a small slice of Village life in France.
If you want to live in another place in time then this is the place to be. It is mind boggling to me that they still function the same way that they did over 800 years ago. Those in the cafe were incredulous that we didn’t live like this in Australia. “How do you know what is happening in your community?”
As I sit in the only cafe writing this the bell is tolling 12 for midday. Everyone stops now. All the tradesmen start to pour into the cafe and a couple of little boys burst in through the front door laughing. The schools close from 12 – 2.00pm so that the children can go home for lunch. Lunch is strictly between 12 – 1.30 and everyone stops and shops close. We sit down now in the lunch room with the rest of the locals and have a hearty three course meal. It is the largest meal of the day and usually taken with wine. Local wine of course from the vineyards around the village – in this area the produce rose.
Im saddened to think that in all of our western progress we have somehow lost and missed out on these intrinsic links and webs that hold community life and function together.
On the day of the funeral, quite a lot of the villagers assembled in the cafe, and in the village square. Even though they didn’t all attend the funeral there was a quiet reverence and chatter was subdued. Kisses and greetings were made, if only for 2o min or so, everyone touched base, touched each other. It was certainly a beautiful way to say good bye to a woman who had lived her 80 or so years in this village. Of course she is buried only minutes away in the village cemetery in a family plot that has been there for a couple of hundred years and holds all her ancestors.
Photos of Autignac Cemetery
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