Tuesday Book: Those revolutionary chimes

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LIKE THE scents of flowers, the sounds of bells have the power to arouse our emotions in a unique way. Their plangent sonorities reverberate through our ancestral memories, beating out our earthly rites of passage. Bells call us to prayer and sound out the canonical hours; they toll, chime, peal and tinkle; they can warn, raise the alarm, console and reassure; they can announce celebrations, mourning or the taking up of arms; even ward off demons and subdue thunderstorms, or so our ancestors believed.

They can also torture our eardrums and drive us to distraction.

After tackling our visual and olfactory senses in earlier works, Alain Corbin, professor of contemporary history at the Sorbonne in Paris, has turned his attention to our "auditory landscape" and, specifically, to the meaning of bells in 19th-century France. In the best tradition of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou, he has documented his book with examples from hundreds of towns and villages.

These reveal how crucial bells and their bell-towers have been in the depiction of Republican France, how we "read" her landscapes, and the symbolic role they play in the idealised, sentimental image many of us have of provincial France. One has only to think of L'Angelus, Millet's famous painting of peasants in contemplation in the fields, or read Proust's description of the church of St Hilaire at Combray in Du Cote de chez Swann, to appreciate the evocative range of Corbin's thesis. What, indeed, would Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris be without bells? Bells have had their champions as well as their detractors. For some they stood as "God's sentries", for others they represented authority and were a violation of liberty. For the novelist and Christian convert, JK Huysmans, bells compensated for the dumbness of human voices that had lost the habit of prayer.

Chateaubriand, too, believed that, "in the enchanted reveries into which we are plunged by the sound of the bell of our birthplace, everything may be recovered: religion, family, fatherland, both the cradle and the grave, both the past and the future". For Baudelaire, on the other hand, the bells' loss of meaning in post-Revolutionary France made him deplore "their terrible howl - their relentless wailing".

In the early years of the Revolution, the Republic did its best to ban bell-ringing for religious purposes. An estimated 100,000 bells in 60,000 bell- towers were melted down, their metal used for cannon in what Alain Corbin calls "the desacralising of space and time". The authorities tried to convince people "that the former bell called an aristocrat to his dinner, just as much as it called a Catholic to Mass". But most villages were reluctant to surrender their bells, which were objects of affection and a symbol of the cohesion of their communities. So they hid or buried them. Even if their reluctance was usually more to do with civic pride than religious devotion, it was sufficient for the ringing of bells to have been generally reinstated by 1802.

Alain Corbin documents the entrenched rivalries and fierce disputes that arose after the territorial boundaries were redrawn under the First Empire. These frequently centred on the tensions between ecclesiastical power and secular authority brought about by the use of bells. Bells reflected the social hierarchy: certain families sponsored bells or had their names engraved on them, while the position of bell- ringer was one of immense prestige.

In some regions there were different traditions attached to the ringing of bells. In Angers, for example, the tenor bell of the cathedral would toll nine times to summon citizens to an execution; in the Loiret, bells were rung to announce the arrival of the tax collector; while in Sarralbe in the Moselle, a bell was rung whenever soup was distributed to the poor.

With the advent of the Third Republic, as religious practice declined and anti-clericalism increased, so, conversely, did the number of chapels, grottoes and calvaries grow. Bells continued to be the dominating sound in most peasants' lives, and, until the First World War l'esprit du clocher (parochialism) was more than a metaphor. "Do not mock l'esprit du clocher," urged Jules Meline, a republican deputy for the Vosges, "for it is one of the constitutional elements in the idea of the patrie."

Professor Corbin succeeds in making us reconsider the importance of the auditory against our visual senses. His seminal and scholarly study makes fascinating reading, and it has been sensitively translated into English. After reading it, you'll never be able to listen to the sound of church bells in quite the same way again.