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Hallo again to all.

One of the treasures of our library is the 492-page account of a protracted legal battle about the bells of St Mark's Church, Philadelphia—or rather about the wrath those bells caused a number of that fine city's finest citizens in the mid-1870s.* The Case of Restraining the BellsAn even greater treasure is this book's foldout map, showing the addresses of people who complained about the bells. On a few recent nights when sleep did not come sweetly to us, we slogged through this campanological curiosity word for word and page for page. It'd make a fine blue-print for a churchly murder mystery, with Edgar Allan Poe's Bells as the epigraph. In the spirit of bringing forth such things, new and old, we share with you some choice excerpts from the sworn affidavits of people near to the church who sought to silence its belfry:

I have attacks of neuralgia from time to time [...] I have been almost maddened by the ringing of the bells, my whole nervous system being very much shocked by the noise and by the vibration which attends the ringing. Great prostration follows this excitement. It is preventive of conversation and very disagreeable and trying at all times, but in summer it is beyond endurance.

I consider the value of my residence greatly depreciated, and if the bells had been introduced and used in the church when the house was offered to me, I should not have purchased it for occupancy at any price. I have no idea, belief or expectation that I shall ever become so used to them as to enjoy the comfort and repose to which my family is entitled in their home.

It often happens that my baby has gone to sleep before the bells began, and then he is kept awake until the siege is over and he can be tranquilized again. He has never been able to go to sleep or to remain asleep while the bells were ringing. If he could talk he would tell the amount of irritation to which he is subjected by the bells.

Whenever I have nervous sick headache, the too-frequent result of over-taxation of the nervous system at my office, my ultimate aim is the chamber of my house. Sometimes when I have just succeeded in falling asleep I have been startled by the bells and deprived of the refreshing influence which sleep alone can give.

Map of the area of the lawsuit
Click for a larger image of the map presented in the lawsuit, which indicated the complaining houses, the 'We're okay with the bells' houses, and the houses divided about the matter.

Can you feel the mid-Victorian pain?

The unhappy meeting of nuisance laws and church bell-ringing happens when private citizens begin to expect and demand a choice about what they must hear, feel, see and smell. Private preference becomes privileged through the senses over and against common, civic, or parochial identity. If we follow the fine scholarship of Alain Corbin — whose Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th-Century French Countryside (1994) ought to be more widely known and enjoyed — the sound of ringing bells throughout the early modern day created a sense of shared time and space through a now-lost but once-pervasive soundscape. Inside and outside the home, the felt vibrations and heard tolls of bells enveloped and united all in ear-shot.

There was nothing so sophisticated or contrived as a listening process involved. Bells rang, and everyone knew them. Those who objected to bell-ringing rejected the regular, mandatory acknowledgment that they were part of a wider civic and ecclesiastical world.

And so, what were once taken-for-granted sounds became noise, nuisance, and even potential breaches of environmental protection laws. Gone is the world in which Anne Frank heard comfort and a connection with the outside world in the bells of Amsterdam's Westerkerk, or when Dorothy Sayers's Nine Tailors could be a hit for publishers and movie-houses both. Ringing bells are gone from our experience of everyday life, no matter how much we might wish otherwise; they are just beyond what we can remember, caught in the in-between world of a dream from which we have awoken but whose details we cannot quite recall.

To ring a new change on an old theme, we wonder if some dimensions of modern Anglican woe have their roots in a long retreat into private residences with private preferences, where we could formerly shut out the bells, realities, and opinions of others we did not care to hear or know. The technological changes of recent decades have brought us into more direct and efficient contact with one another, revealing levels of unlikeness we'd not expected. We can no longer live just our own churchly lives, influenced as they have been over centuries by the policies of specific missionary agencies, the ethos of a given theological college, or the long shadow of a certain bishop. Some effects of the resulting confusion are lost sleep, nervous sick headaches, high levels of irritation, disappointments about real estate — the same things that so troubled people living near the bells of St Mark's some time ago.

We live again in a time when we have not much choice about what we'd like to hear and know about our nearest siblings in the church, and so we feel sorry in a way for the suffering campanoclasts of Philadelphia c. 1875. They were undoubtedly tender souls who craved quiet and calm. But we're glad that in the end the campanophiles won, even if it took some time. The bells of St Mark's still ring, publishing good tidings to the meek, and we are happy to hear them as often as we can. We hope that you'll have the chance to hear them for yourselves ere long.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 19 July 2009

* Report of Harrison et al. vs. St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia: A Bill to Restrain the Ringing of Bells so as to Cause a Nuisance to the Occupants of the Dwellings in the Immediate Vicinity of the Church. In the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia, February, 1877.Bells on Trial, Bells Restored, by A Thomas Miller

† If you'd like to read more about the Saint Mark's Bells, download a PDF (800K) of most interesting publication — Bells on Trial, Bells Restored — by A Thomas Miller, current captain of the bell ringers at Saint Mark's Church in Philadelphia. He considers the 1870s 'Case of the Bells' and tells the story of their magnificent restoration in the late 1990s.

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