ODD TRUTHS: THE BELLS THAT FOUGHT DEVILS
There was a time when church bells watched over communities, keeping lightning and devils at bay. Bell ringers were kinds of exorcists. Responsible for keeping their villages free of diabolical beings, they climbed to the top of church belfries during thunderstorms and tolled away, sounding off the battle-cry against Satan and his minions. Unsurprisingly, the unsung heroes were often the first fatalities. Their deaths did little to sway popular beliefs, which persisted well into the nineteenth century. Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia (published in 1756), includes the then fashionable variation of the bell theory:
“The thunderbolt can be broken up or turned away by the sound of several large bells or by shooting a cannon…”
Officially, Pope John XIII might have authorised the practice of naming bells in 939. The association of storms with evil spirits, however, began much earlier. Biblical stories, such as the Elijah’s weather magic duel, and Jesus’s “rebuking” of a tempest, suggested to Early Christians that holy men had the ability to bend nature to their will. Following the claims of Paul the Apostle, who stated that Satan was the “prince of the power of the air”, fathers of the church such as Thomas Aquinas and inquisitors like Heinrich Kramer professed that sorcerers and spirits who had allied themselves with the Devil could poison and shape the air.
Thus, in Medieval and Renaissance times, many were convinced that bells, christened and perched at the highest point in the atmosphere, contained the spirit of God. One of the most common accusations in witchcraft trials was the claim that witches used weather magic to produce inclement conditions which harmed crops and livestock. There were even rainmakers who specialised in meteorological manipulation. One example comes from the account of Agobard, a ninth-century bishop of Lyons. Agobard was a skeptic, but his treatise Liber in contra insulsam vulgi opinionem de grandine et tonitruis (A Book Against the Irrational Belief of the People About Hail and Thunder) mentions local folklore of Tempestarii (storm-raisers) and Magonia, a mysterious city in the clouds that is populated by “aerial sailors”.
For most communities, bells apparently helped to remedy pervasive superstition. Like swords in The Lord of the Rings and the wands in the Harry Potter world, each bell was endowed with special attributes and inscribed with a unique personality. We’ve included a few below:
(In English: “In the year 1511 once I was cast, I was given the name of Quiriace, I reign in the skies and chase clouds away, Keeping devil, thunder, and hail at bay.”)
Eventually, Benjamin Franklin and others’ advocacy made the formal practice of fighting thunderbolts with bells obsolete. The switch didn’t happen instantly, and Franklin’s supporters were occasionally accused of atheism. In 1760, the Junto, a scientific society that Franklin founded, officially affirmed that lightning and thunder were not directly caused by God. Despite the revelation, traditional opinions of lightning lasted well into the 1840s.