Early Use. The use of bells as adjuncts to Christian worship was not without precedent in pre- Christian times. Among the Jews the vestment of the high priest was adorned with little bells (Ex. xxviii, 33); and among the pagans the priests of Proserpine announced the beginning of the sacrifice by ringing bells. There is no evidence of early Christian use of them to summon people to prayer; this seems to have been done by word of mouth, even as late as Tertullian and Jerome. In the Egyptian monasteries the Old Testament use of trumpets still survived, and the sound made by knocking pieces of wood together served the same purpose; this custom is still sometimes used in the Roman Catholic Church on the last three days of Holy Week, when the ringing of bells is forbidden [and survives in some places in the East]. The first positive evidence of the use of bells in connection with Christian worship is found in Gregory of Tours (d. 595), who speaks of them as being rung at the beginning of the liturgy and the canonical hours. From the seventh century on, bells are often mentioned in the inventories of Western churches, and by 800 they were so common as to be found even in village churches. A capitulary of Charlemagne (801) prescribes that priests shall ring their bells at the accustomed hours of the day and night. In the ninth century some Eastern instances occur; thus Orso I, Doge of Venice, presented twelve bells to the Byzantine emperor, who placed them in a tower near St. Sophia. But outside of Russia they never attained the same importance as in the West. The Mohammedans usually removed them in the countries they conquered; and Zwingli attempted to abolish their use in Switzerland, though most of the Reformers only protested against superstition in the use of them, especially their consecration.
Material and Form. Walafrid Strabo distinguishes two classes of bells in his time, vasa productilia and fusilia, wrought and cast. Of the now rare examples of the former class the best known is the "Saufang" at Cologne, so called because the legend ran that it had been dug up by pigs about 613; it is made of three plates of iron fastened together with copper nails. Similar and perhaps older examples are in the Edinburgh Museum. For the casting of bells a mixture of copper and tin was employed in the Middle Ages; afterward lead, zinc, iron, and antimony were used with copper. At present the best bell-metal is supposed to be a mixture of 77 to 80 per cent. of good copper with 20 to 23 percent of pure tin. The earliest cast bells resemble cow-bells in form, though there are some shaped more like a beehive or a pear. Their dimensions are small.
Inscriptions. As far as can be judged from the extant examples, the custom of putting inscriptions on bells does not go further back than the twelfth century, and is by no means general even then. On cast bells the inscriptions are rarely incised; where this occurs, it is a sign of antiquity. Later they are more commonly raised, and in either Roman or Gothic capitals down to the end of the fourteenth century; then small letters were used until about 1550, and since then more modern types of letters have been usual, except in recent deliberate imitations of the old style. Until well into the fourteenth century Latin was the regular language; then the vernacular came into use. The earliest inscriptions were short; from the end of the sixteenth century much longer ones became usual, frequently almost filling the surface of the bell. They are mostly pious dedications or prayers, or declarations of the purpose of the bell, such as Funera plango, fulgura frango, sabbata pango; excito lentos, dissipo ventos, paco cruentos. Besides inscriptions, the sides of bells were adorned with pictures, coats of arms, seals, and various symbols, among the oldest being, besides the cross, the dove with the olive-branch, and the Agnus Dei.
Benedition. As early as the Frankish sacramentaries and the Pontifical of Egbert special formulas for the benediction of bells are mentioned. This practise was connected in those days with superstitious notions, so that Charlemagne was obliged to regulate it in 789. But the formulas of benediction themselves attributed a quasimagical effect to the bells thus consecrated. According to present Roman Catholic usage, the blessing of bells is an episcopal prerogative, though priests may exercise it in case of necessity with the pope's permission. The ceremonies somewhat resemble those of baptism, which has given rise to the practise of naming bells, and in the Middle Ages of appointing sponsors for them, from whom rich christening gifts were expected. The Schmalkald Articles declared bitterly against these practises as "popish jugglery" and "a mockery of holy baptism."
Present Use. The main use of bells has always been to announce the time of public worship. It is also a common Roman Catholic practise to ring the church bell at the consecration in the mass, as in some Protestant localities at the Lord's Prayer after the sermon, that those who are absent may unite themselves in spirit with the congregation. During the mass, moreover, a small bell (called the "Sanctus" or "sacring" bell) is rung at the specially solemn parts--the Sanctus, the beginning of the canon, the consecration, and the Domine, non sum dignus. Bells have been rung also at certain regular times to call to mind some mystery, as the passion and death or the incarnation of Christ (see ANGELUS), or to bid to prayer for sinners, for the faithful departed, or for peace. The ringing of joyous peals at marriages, and the announcement of a death by solemn tolling (originally intended to move the hearers to prayer for the soul, either before or after death) are ancient practises; the latter existed, at least in the monasteries, in the time of Bede. In some parts of England a special bell was tolled with a similar intention before the execution of a criminal.