Transcript for ‘Superstition’

Transcribed by Cathy Booth using, reviewed by Emily Watts

Music: [Strings and bells playing]

STEVE: Welcome to this episode of Fun with Bells. There are a number of superstitions that have accumulated over the years around bells. And in this episode, we’re going to take a look at some of them.

ROSE: Given that church bells are steeped in mysticism and folklore, it’s unsurprising that for centuries, many have believed them to have magical or healing powers. The custom of blessing or baptizing new bells before anointing them with holy oils was undertaken in order to make sure the devil would flee whenever they were sounded. The sound of church bells was said to purify the air, drive away plague, cure pestilence, lift curses, usher a departed soul to the next world and even ease the pains of childbirth. Women in childbirth were able to pay for the bells to be rung more swiftly to speed delivery. This obstetric intervention of bells could even draw angels to the birth to bless the child’s arrival. Poorer women who could not afford to pay for ringing might resort to wrapping their girdle around a church bell in order to transfer the sacred power to themselves as a sort of amulet. But there are rings of bells in London which bestow an even more distinguished quality. Those who were born within the earshot of Bow bells are said to be true cockneys. The Church of St. Mary Le Bow is one of the largest, oldest and most historic in the city, and there has been a church on that site since Saxon Times. It was said to have been destroyed by the London tornado of 1091, then rebuilt again until it was destroyed in the great fire of 1666, with the replacement being built to the designs of Christopher Wren. And it was again destroyed by a bomb dropped during the Blitz on the 10th of May 1941, when all the bells crashed to the ground. The fact that being born within the audible range of its bells made someone a true Londoner shows how important the Bow bells are. Depending on geography and wind conditions, on a typical day, the sound would carry as far as Stratford in the East and as far as Holborn in the West.

ROSE: According to Legend, in 1392, a penniless boy called Dick Whittington heard the bells as he passed the Highgate archway, making him change his mind about leaving the city. Turn again, Whittington, thou worthy citizen. Turn again, Whittington thrice Lord Mayor of London. Make a good fortune. Find a good wife. You will know happiness all through your life. Turn again. The wind must have been blowing from a southerly direction that day, and according to legend Whittington used the tune of the bells as a campaign tune for his re-election for the Office of Mayor. The clock chimes tune is known today as Whittington Chimes, it is far older than the more famous Westminster or Cambridge chimes, and in the Victorian period, Whittington chimes were used in domestic clocks. During the Second World War, the BBC broadcast recordings of Bow bells as a symbol of hope.

STEVE: Bells and thunderstorms: in medieval times, a humble, succulent Semperivivum tectorum otherwise known as Jupiter’s Beard, or House Leek, was believed to repel lightning strikes when it was grown on the rooftop of a house or a church. It was so effective that the Holy Roman Emperor decreed that each house should have at least one planted. However, in the case of churches, even the planting of House Leeks was not totally infallible. As the highest point for miles around, spires were particularly vulnerable to being struck by lightning. It was clear that another solution had to be found to supplement the power of the plant. A clue comes from many surviving early church bells, which are inscribed with the Latin: Vivos voco. Mortuos plango. Fulgura frango, which translates roughly as I call the living. I mourn the dead. I repel lightning. This describes the practice of warding off lightning strikes by ringing church bells at the approach of a storm. The religious belief was that ringing would dispel the evil spirits responsible for bringing the storm, and any local residents would gain peace of mind from hearing the bells rung safe in their houses as the distant thunder approached. The tradition was widespread across Europe as people put their faith in the sound of church bells to disperse thunder.

STEVE: But it did have the unfortunate result that a high number of bell ringers were electrocuted whilst ringing in thunderstorms. In fact, in France alone, between the years 1753 and 1789, no less than 103 bell ringers were killed as a result of holding onto wet bell ropes when the towers were struck by lightning. In an attempt to scare off the demons of the air, pulling a large metal bell in the tallest, most pointy building in town also caused the demise of no less than 120 ringers in Germany between 1870 and 1900. In 1789, the parliament of Paris enforced an edict to ban the practice in Paris altogether. But the tradition persisted in other places for many more decades until bell ringers were finally relieved of their duty to rush to ring the bells at the approach of a storm. In 1749, Benjamin Franklin invented lightning rods, which ought to have solved the problem. But curiously, many in the church believed that thunder and lightning were signs of divine anger and that it was in fact sinful to prevent their damage. Newly erected lightning rods were torn down from buildings by pious, angry parishioners, and the widespread prejudice meant that the presence of a lightning rod was even blamed for an earthquake in Boston that damaged hundreds of buildings in 1755.

STEVE: When the findings of rational science contradict what people would like to believe, there is often resistance. For centuries, the idea that lightning was God’s punishment persisted, raising the difficult theological question of why it was that churches were so often struck instead of dens of iniquity like taverns or houses of ill repute. Lightning rods were not only torn down by angry mobs. Many fearful priests took down their newly installed rods to forestall any violence. Even after Benjamin Franklin himself waded into the debate and spoke out against the religious misgivings, many churches still refused to install them, even though the custom of electrocuting bell ringers thankfully began to decline. Priests at the Church of San Nazaro in Brescia ignored requests to ignore such a blasphemous device and called it a heretical rod. Sadly, lightning did strike their tower as it had done many times in the past. Unfortunately, at the time, the Republic of Venice had decided to store thousands of pounds of gunpowder in the church vaults. The lightning ignited the stores, and the resulting explosion flattened about 20 percent of the city and killed over 3000 people. Thankfully, over the centuries, Franklin’s invention became a more common design feature of church towers and bell ringers were no longer used as human lightning rods.

ROSE: At Newgate Prison, public hangings were usually carried out on Mondays, when the condemned were taken by horse-drawn cart passing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on their way to the gallows at Tyburn, where eager crowds would gather to see the execution. The jail itself was notoriously grim, disease ridden and harsh, with many prisoners dying from a rampant disease known as jail fever. In fact, conditions were so dire, that in 1419 the city officials temporarily closed down the prison, which was collapsing and decaying. In 1422, the Lord Mayor Dick Whittington, pulled down the old prison and rebuilt it to house the heretics, traitors, male and female felons in luxurious new basement cells and no light or ventilation. Prisoners who had been sentenced to death were however, kept in a cellar on chains and shackles to encourage submission. The area where the condemned were kept was essentially an open sewer, receiving only a little dim light. Newgate Prison dated back as far as the 12th century and existed in various incarnations despite being burned down during the great fire of 1666 destroyed by a mob during the Gordon riots of 1780 until it attracted the attention of the reformer Elizabeth Fry. Fry was particularly concerned with the welfare of female prisoners and their children, representing evidence to the House of Commons so that improvements were made.

ROSE: Eventually, Newgate closed in 1902, making way for the Central Criminal Courts, also known as the Old Bailey, to be built on the old site. Saint Sepulchre without Newgate is today located near the Old Bailey, but during the medieval period, it was just outside the Newgate entrance leading into London with evidence of an early church there since the 1100s. As the nearest church to the prison, the clock was used to mark the time until execution. And today, apart from the ring of 12 tower bells, there is another much smaller bell on display with a rather dark history. In a glass cabinet in the south nave of Saint Sepulchre, there is a rather unremarkable looking bell designed to be rung by hand. This is in fact the Newgate Prison execution bell. At midnight on the night before a condemned prisoner was due to be taken to the gallows, the Sexton from the church would travel under the gate of the prison, holding a candle, stand outside the cell and ring the bell to wake the prisoner so they would have time to repent their sins and reflect on their crimes. The bell will be rung 12 times to try to help the prisoner, and the following advice was called out to them:

VAUGHAN: “All you that in the condemned hole do lie. Prepare you for tomorrow. You shall die. Watch all and pray the hour is drawing near that you before Almighty God will appear. Examine well yourselves, in time repent. That you not to eternal flames be sent, and when saint Sepulchre’s bell tomorrow tolls the Lord above have mercy on your soul.”

ROSE: The next morning as the cart. Taking the prisoner to the gallows passed the church, the Sexton would once again appear tolling the bell as they passed and praying for their soul. Although only a quarter of prisoners inside the jail survived until the date of their execution, visitors to St. Sepulchre could contemplate the terror they must have felt to hear the clang of the execution bell and also the tenor bell in the tower, striking 9:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, which was the signal for the weekly hangings to begin. In the nursery rhyme, oranges and lemons, the last few lines are thought to refer to the bells of Saint Sepulchre. Here comes the candle to light you to bed. And here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

STEVE: Ringing for the dead. Over the centuries, it’s been considered prudent to ring church bells while someone is passing into the next world in order to keep evil spirits and the devil away from the soul as it journeyed onwards. This was known as ringing the passing bell. Immediately after the person had died, a bell was rung again, this time known as the death knell. Finally, a bell was usually rung at a funeral as the coffin and mourners processed towards the church. This was known as the Lych Bell, or funeral toll. During the reign of Henry the 7th, There were statutes that regulated the death knell, and although ringing after a death became less common, it was still customary to ring the death knell as soon as notice of the deceased had reached the parish clerk. If the Sun had already set, the death knell was usually rung at an early hour the following morning. In the communications of Queen Elizabeth, the first in 1564, the use of the passing bell was indicated where any Christian body is passing that the bell be tolled and the curer to be specially called for to comfort the sick person. The type of ringing at the point of death varied in different parishes. Sometimes the age of the departed was signified by the number of strokes of the bell. Tellers were also used to indicate the gender of the deceased. Three times three blows for a man. Three times two blows for a woman. The word tellers became changed over time to tailors, and the practice became colloquially known as the nine tailors or ringing the tailors.

STEVE: The nine tailors comprise the tenor bell being tolled nine times in total, three groups of three with a long pause after each three tolls for a man and two groups of three for a woman. The six or nine tellers would be followed by further solemn tolling to indicate the age of the deceased. So if the parishioners heard two groups of three, then 56 blows, they would know that a woman aged 56 had departed this life. In small communities where everyone knew everyone else, it was a way of word quickly spreading, informing the community of who had died. The quote “Nine tailors marketh a man” is still used today. In some communities, three tellers, followed by the age, would be rung to signify the death of a child. But this was usually rung on a smaller bell, such as the treble. Whenever the tenor bell began to toll, people would stop and listen. Taking notice of the first three, listening out to find out whose soul had passed on its journey. These days, the nine tailors are still occasionally rung in some churches, or there may be local customs such as the ringing of age of the deceased at their funeral. The nine tailors, is also the name of a novel written in 1934 by Dorothy L Sayers. It’s a murder mystery with a spine chilling, if slightly unlikely conclusion.

ROSE: Although church bells were holy objects, baptized, anointed and considered sacred, they could also be punished if they were considered to have done something wrong. For example, in medieval England, bells that had fallen and killed someone were taken down, upended and filled with thorns and thistles for seven years in order to punish them for their crime. After this time, they were hoisted back to their towers and considered to have served their sentence. But in 1592 in Uglich Russia, a bell was executed and exiled. The crime was for sounding the alarm on May the 15th, 1591 after the murder of Tsarevich Dmitry, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. The alarm sounded by the bell led to a mass riot where several people, including members of the Moscow military, were killed in the crush. Because Russians believe that bells had souls and names, the bell was considered a citizen substantial, imposing, capable of being heard at a great distance. Parts of the bell were named after body parts the lip, the head, the waist, with the clapper being known as the tongue. After the crime of sounding the alarm and causing the riot, the Uglich bell, weighing 320 kilograms, was dragged to the city square, whereby a blacksmith was called to tear out the Bell’s tongue, or clapper, cut off its ears, the cannons which it hung by and then it was whipped 12 times and dragged to exile in Tobolsk Siberia. Sixty families from the city dragged the bell to its point of exile, and it took about a year. But the Uglich bell was not the only bell to face execution.

ROSE: The Novgorod Vetch Bell was pulled down from its wooden belfry in 1478 by the Grand Prince Ivan, the third of Moscow, when he conquered the town. He ordered the bells to be pulled down and tied up in ropes like a prisoner and taken away to Moscow. The Pskov bell met the same fate on the 13th of January 1510, when Grand Prince Vasilly the third of Moscow, made the local people swear allegiance to Moscow. He had the bell dragged down from its tower, where his ears were cut off and its tongue torn out. One bell in the Kremlin was even punished for waking up the tsar. In 1681, Tzar Fyodor was woken at midnight by the signal bell of the Kremlin. It enraged him so much that he had the bell torn down and exiled to a distant monastery. In 1327. The people of Tver started an uprising against the Mongol Tatar tax collectors, and many infantry were killed. In retribution for their violent uprising, the neighbouring villages were burned to the ground, the bell was ripped down from the cathedral tower, dragged to Moscow and melted down. Although church bells in England were rung in attempt to ward off plague in 1771, the plague riots of Moscow were strictly suppressed by the army before Catherine the Great used the symbolic act of executing a bell to punish the citizens disobedience.

ROSE: Its tongue was ripped out and it hung silent in the Tzar’s tower until 1803, before being sent to the Kremlin arsenal. It comes as a relief that none of these legends of executed or exiled belles speak of any punishment for the bell ringers themselves. And if you’re wondering what happened to the Uglich bell dragged for a year into remote Siberia. By the time it reached Tobolsk in 1593, it was locked in a cell and inscribed with the following words: the first inanimate exile from Uglich. Many years later, it was found hung in the bell tower of the St. Sophia Cathedral, where it’s sharp, loud sound was used as a fire alarm. In 1869. The bell was investigated and found to weigh 319 kilograms, but it was covered in marks and abrasions, indicating that it had been repeatedly lowered, raised and transported. In 1892 Emperor Alexander, the third marked 300 years of the bells exile by pardoning it. A delegation from Uglich returned the bell to its original home, where it has remained ever since.

STEVE: Bell ringing and disease: leprosy is a very old disease caused by long term bacterial infection. It leads to damage of the respiratory tract, skin, eyes and nervous system. It spread between people where there is extensive contact, although a large percentage of the world’s population nowadays have some natural resistance to it. Like a lot of contagious illnesses, immune function plays a role in how easily someone contracts leprosy. Poverty and deprivation are big compounding factors. In the Middle Ages, there was considerable misunderstanding, and leprosy stigma was rife with lepers expelled from society with widespread superstition that lepers were being punished for sins or moral transgressions. They were thought of as unclean, untrustworthy or morally corrupt. Lepers often lost their work as the disease became apparent, and they were forced to beg for alms. With the ongoing poverty of living as an outcast, hastening their decline. lepers were forbidden from touching anything that others might touch, from washing in a public stream, eating or drinking in the company of others, walking in narrow lanes or standing upwind of anyone in case a miasma of bad air transmitted the disease. A leper’s bell or clapper was carried routinely or sewed into clothes. These small bells were rung to attract charitable gifts from strangers, but also to signal their presence and warn others to stay clear of the approaching threat. Lepers’ bells were made of wood or beaten metal with rattles inside. Eventually, a law was passed stating that lepers should be housed in hostels on the outskirts of towns where they could be cared for by religious orders.

STEVE: Some thought lepers as divine, reasoning that rather than fearing contagion, Jesus had freely touched lepers and helped them, and that their suffering was similar to Christ’s and that living through purgatory on Earth would ensure a fast route to heaven after death. But at the turn of the 16th century, leprosy abruptly and inexplicably receded over most of the continent. It is thought that the European population evolved immune resistance and that today about 95 percent of Europeans have natural immunity to leprosy. There’s also the plague when the Black Death hit Europe in the 14th century, spread by infected rat fleas, people panicked as the epidemic swept through using talismans, bloodletting, concoctions, charms and aromatic oils as protection, covering their noses and mouths to prevent infected air. This was the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history. And these really were unprecedented times. With between 30 to 50 percent chance of dying within two weeks of contracting the plague and 200 million deaths across Eurasia, the church turned to using bells again, believing that ringing the church bells would drive the disease away. So what other illnesses are bells thought to help? There are reports that drinking from an upturned bell can cure stuttering, that grease from a church bell can treat ringworm, and that for most diseases, if in doubt, it was always worth ringing the church bells.

Music: [String music playing]

STEVE: This superstition edition of Fun with Bells was researched, written and produced by Rose Nightingale. Additional readings were by Vaughan Jones, who also arranged and played the music, and Steve Johnson, who contributed to the technical production of this episode. It was a Ninja Aardvark production for Fun with Bells. The executive producer was Cathy Booth.

Music: [Music fades]