The lovely ringing of the bells in France…

August 28, 2020 at 10:11 pm 6 comments

L’Eglise St. Remy d’Essoyes

I have in the past mentioned how much I love the ringing of the church bells in France generally, and in particular the ringing of the church bells in “my” little village in Champagne.

I have also promised to expand upon this topic someday, and I have chosen today as the day to do that.

Before beginning I should probably say that there quite a few questions about this topic that I don’t yet know the answers to. And so I would invite anyone who can provide additional perspective or knowledge on the subject to please feel free to do so by commenting below.

Some of the things I wonder about are 1) Why recently the church bells in our town are ringing much more frequently than they used to–for example, every Sunday morning, not just the Sunday mornings when a mass is being celebrated here. It seems to me this started sometime into the period of confinement, or it might have even been during the beginning stages of déconfinement. In any case, lately, every Sunday morning, usually around 10:30 the bells begin to peal and they peal for a lovely 10 minutes or so. And then they peal again, maybe about 45 minutes later. 2) I would like to know how to learn more about the various patterns and meaning of the ringing. I have learned to recognize the tolling of the bells calling mourners to the church before a funeral, and I have been told that the ringing of the bells at 7 am and 7 pm each day is called “Angelus,” and that it is an ancient pattern of bell-ringing that is a call to prayer for Catholics, to pray a particular prayer commemorating the incarnation of Jesus, which includes a Hail Mary.

L’Angélus by Jean-Francois Millet. (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Before starting to write this post I looked to see who else had written on this topic to learn what I could from them. I did so a year or so ago and found this really interesting post written a few years ago by an Australian woman. I find this post interesting for the perspective and information she received from locals in the village where she was vacationing, when she asked the about the patterns of the ringing of the church bells there.

This time I found another post, this one by an American woman, also written a couple of years ago. I found this post interesting for the change of opinion this woman experienced when she first encountered the very frequent (and quite loud) ringing of the church bells in the French town she was vacationing in.

Like many people, at first she found the ringing (which continued through the night) annoying. But eventually she came to appreciate it to the extent that she actually missed the ringing of the bells when she had returned home to Huntington Beach, California.

I have never been bothered by the ringing of the bells; au contraire. I should probably add that like the husband of the woman from California, sleeping through innocent ambient background sounds is not a problem for me: therefore, the sound of bells ringing through the night does not interfere with my peaceful slumber.

But, as the Californian woman herself eventually came to feel, I find the regular ringing of the bells–not just on the hour, but on each quarter-hour also–to be comforting/grounding/orienting in a deep and fundamentally human way.

I think perhaps what bothers many people about this bell-ringing is that it is a regular and–some might feel unwelcome–imposition of the outside world into each of our individual private worlds–the one that exists in our minds. And I will readily admit that it indeed does do that.

However, far from resenting this imposition, I find it a very healthy and pleasant reminder that my own internal world, much as I value, respect, and protect it from all manner of unwelcome outside intrusions on a pretty much constant basis, does exist within a much larger world–a world formed by a local, national, international human community. In that regard, I find the ringing of the church bells, though an imposition, unlike many of the sounds that surround me daily in the 21st century, a very welcome one.

I am not a Catholic, but I feel lucky to be included in the daily reminders that Catholic churches around the world offer all within hearing that there is a power greater than and outside ourselves that we can benefit from remembering and calling upon, if we so desire; that we are surrounded by people, not only in our own local communities, but around the world who have a need for and appreciation of such reminders; and that whether we choose to listen to them or not, to appreciate them or not, these church bells, with their lovely musical sounds, will go on ringing through all manner of the chaos, worry, and strife that also surround us constantly.

I was going to say that they ring on “no matter what.” But in fact, I learned through my recent research, that the bells of France did stop ringing during World War II, from the time of the Occupation of the country until the moment of its liberation nearly five years later. That silence surely must have been a sad absence of sound for the French people: and the return of the ringing of the bells when they finally sounded again, incredibly joyful.

I wish I could share with you with the lovely sound of the ringing of the church bells in Essoyes, but my audio tech skills are just not there yet. So instead I will share with you the ringing of the bells from Sacre Coeur in Paris from a few months ago. Although one of the joys of church bells in France is that they do not all sound exactly the same, not at all; yet, in a general way, the sound is quite similar. And to me at least, deeply comforting.

Stay safe, stay well, everyone. Wear those masks, wash those hands, prenez soin de vous

Janet Hulstrand
 is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and is currently working on her next book, a literary memoir entitled “
A Long Way from Iowa.”

Entry filed under: About Essoyes, About France. Tags: , , .

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cynthia Walsh  |  August 28, 2020 at 10:57 pm

    At age 18 I spent several months in Paris and vividly remember the church bells ringing as I slept. My bedroom windows were huge and had no screens so the sound of the bells was pronounced. To this day 55 years later, when I hear church bells I am back in Paris, oh how wonderful life is!

    • 2. Janet Hulstrand  |  August 30, 2020 at 8:31 am

      Thank you for this lovely memory, Cynthia!

  • 3. cochranels  |  August 29, 2020 at 7:03 pm

    Thanks for another loving description of your village and the two other by the Australian & the American. I enjoy envisioning you at home. Louie & I certainly hope to visit Essoyes when the current unpleasantness ends 🤞😊

    • 4. Janet Hulstrand  |  August 30, 2020 at 8:33 am

      Wonderful to hear from you, Scottie! I hope the current unpleasantness will end as soon as possible, and I would so love to have a visit from you and Louie. In the meantime, take good care of yourselves and stay well!

  • 5. Jude L Sales  |  August 30, 2020 at 4:14 am

    Dear Janet–I feel almost like a lurker in that I read your posts voraciously, yet rarely do I comment. I enjoyed your ruminations on your church bells and I wonder if they are actually being pulled by people or if there is some digital master cd being programmed to play at appropriate times. My only ‘knowledge’ of bell pulling comes from Dorothy Sayers ‘Nine Tailors’ but I have been fascinated by them ever since reading it. In fact I may go back for a reread now that you have peaked my interest. So glad that you and yours are well through this long strange time–and hoping you remain well and happy. Best wishes, Jude

    • 6. Janet Hulstrand  |  August 30, 2020 at 8:41 am

      Wonderful to hear from you Jude! I think the bells are really ringing (i.e. not a recording) but I am not 100% sure about that. Something else I need to find out! I can say with assurance that it can’t be people in there pulling the bells, though. FIrst of all, it happens way too often (one ring on the quarter hour, two on the half hour, three on the three-quarters hour and of course on the hour as well). I don’t think there would be enough volunteers to support such an activity. And the church, sadly, is closed most of the time. As our local historian pointed out a few years ago during a tour of the church I attended, “il n’y a pas assez de fidèles” (there aren’t enough believers).


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