Of Campanology

Layout 1Of Campanology and Cucumber Sandwiches

By Kristen Frederickson

I am an ardent fan of nearly everything about my adopted homeland of England. That charming, pointless little “u” in “colour,” the fact that the Queen sends out a birthday greeting to people who live to the age of 100, the endless debate about the relative merits of grey versus red squirrels, the queue for the sake of the queue: I love it all. More meaningful than these rather silly things is the deep cultural commitment to tradition that infuses English life, a belief that there is value in carrying the ways of the past into the present even when there are notably more convenient modern approaches. I love this about Englishness, and one of my favourite (there’s that “u” again) examples is campanology.

I realize that campanology is not an ordinary word in most people’s vocabularies. In fact, I would venture to say that many people do not know what the word means. It refers to the art of bell-ringing, also known as “change-ringing,” in English churches. Change-ringing was made popular in the 17th century in England, the Restoration period, by two campanologists, Richard Duckworth and Fabian Stedman. The bells and their patterns, the number of tollings and the time of day they were tolled were as clear to the parishioners as a shouted message: it is time for services, someone has died, he was 43 years old, a flood is coming and you must bring your valuables to the church: all this and much more was communicated by the ringing of church bells. And until the invention of electrical and battery-operated methods for ringing in the very near past, there was only one way for the bells to send their message, and that was by the strenuous, rhythmical pulling of human arms.

Some people find the non-musical, mathematical patterns of English change-ringing to be the shortest distance between now and a blinding headache. I, however, love the sound of bells, and feel that there is a certain magic to coming upon an English country church when a peal is being rung.

I came to my obscure love of change-ringing via the masterful detective stories of Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), who in turn loved bells. She was, to my mind, the most brilliant English mystery novelist of all time, and life in the 20th century was greatly enhanced by her invention of the brilliant Golden Age detective Lord Peter Wimsey. His finest hour may well have been in “The Nine Tailors,” a murder mystery all about… change-ringing….

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