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How far does the Bell toll.
witchofnovember wrote in little_details
Time and Place: The equivalent of Early Medieval Europe, or anyplace the have bells
Googled: Big Ben, church bells, bell ranges, sound of bells, bell sound distance,temple bells...

Given a preindustrial society, so that there is a minimum of noise pollution, how far away could you hear a church bell? I'm assuming a small church bell or large farm bell about 24-36 inches tall. The only mention of the range of the church bells was that they needed to be heard on the edges of the community, but I'm not finding anything about how much area that would cover.

Would it be safe to say that the bells could be heard 5-10 miles away? A couple of hours hike?

On a quiet night (New Year before firework parties, so pre Millennium) friends could hear the bells of York Minster ringing in the new year from their house about 2Km away. This was faint, they had to go into the garden an listen for it.

According to Wikipedia, to be considered a "true" Cockney, one traditionally had to be born within earshot of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow. Before modern levels of noise pollution, areas included were the City of London, Clerkenwell, Finsbury, Shoreditch, Hoxton, Stepney, Bethnal Green, Limehouse, Mile End, Wapping, Whitechapel, Shadwell, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Surrey Quays and The Borough, with some stories having the bells audible from Highgate.

I don't know enough about London geography to work out all the distances involved, but it sounds like five or ten miles would be pretty reasonable. Here's the article if you want to see.

Thanks, down in the middle of that article it list the distances in different directions, with six miles to the east being the farthest in 2000.

I don't know about specific ranges, but if it helps, cold temperatures and overcast skies increase the volume of stuff like church bells and jets(to the general annoyance of anyone within twenty miles of an air force base).

I can hear the church-bells in my own village which is maybe 0.5 to 1 km away. I'm living in a new area of the village and the church-bells can easily be heard in the whole old part of the village, aka the village-center. The newer parts are farther away from the center.

I can't hear the church-bells of the neighbouring town which is maybe 4 km away from where I live and I can see the town's church from my balcony.

Bigger cities have bell-towers with bigger bells and more bells who can be heard farther away, but I think 10 miles (that would be 14 km) is a real stretch. Also the question would be if in an early Medieval society they would be able to produce such big bells. For example the oldest bell in the Cathedral of Cologne is from the 15th century, the oldest one in Munich's Frauenkirche from the 14th century.

I just compared the German wikipedia-entry to the English one which is a lot more extensive and has some infos about the history of bell-making, but no info about the distance bells could be heard.

Oh, another thing because that was recently in the news. If a church rings all the bells which they usually only do during special holidays then the noise can be so loud that it drowns out anything else happening in and around the church (happened during a Nazi-demonstration in the town-center in a German town: the local priest decided to ring all the bells until the Nazis left as no-one could hear them).

And a link I found, maybe you can find an answer there?

All I know is flat land carries the sound further but certain valleys are like speaker amplifiers if the bell is at one end and you are at the other.

Where I live now, I can hear the bells on the church five minutes walk away. Where I lived before, fifteen minutes walk from the same church, I couldn't hear them. There are other buildings and quite a few trees in the way; I'd expect to get better range if I had line of sight of the belfry.

Somewhere else I've lived, I could sometimes hear a bell nearly two miles away, the other side of a hill. It depended on wind direction and other weather conditions (you can get away with claiming just about any odd sound effects in fog) as to whether or not I could hear it.

During the 12th century, two Cistercian monasteries were built close by each other - Old Byland and Rievaulx. The monastery at Old Byland was eventually moved to a different location because the lay-brothers at Rievaulx could hear the bells at Old Byland and mistakenly believed they were the bells at Rievaulx. Old Byland and Rievaulx are about 1-1.5 miles distant from each other along a winding valley, which even today carries sound a considerable distance.

Geography plays a big part in how far you'll hear a bell toll. When I lived in the flattest part of East Yorkshire and if the weather was clear, I could hear the village church bell tolling from about 2 miles away. Anything further than that distance might be pushing it.

My boyfriend's mother sometimes tells the story of how her grandmother (who was born in the 1890s) told her of how they (the people of their village) had to leave whatever they were doing at that time when they heard the bell of the nearby castle, and then go to this castle and help there (socage like, I have no idea what exactly they had to do and what they called it). I checked on a map and this castle is about 2-3km (~1,5 miles) away from the village, and the area is pretty flat, but forested. No idea how big the bell of the castle is, but wiki has a picture of the castle where the bell is visible, and it looks to me as if it should be in the range you state.

Where I grew up, the closest town (with quite a few churches that regulary chimed their bells) was about 3 miles away, and I couldn't hear the bells, not even on really quiet days(/nights... like christmas for example).

Do you have a specific bell in mind or just any? Because if you have a specific bell in mind, asking the church might be the easiest way to find an answer. If not, you could see if you find a church that fits and ask them; or ask at a bell foundry. They ought to have a good idea.

No specific bell, it's for a Doctor Who fan fic, on a sparely habited planet. The temple with the bell in question supports a small year round population but it's a festival site so some times the population and the area they cover swells.

This depends very much on the lay of the ground and what's inbetween the origin of the sound and the person hearing it. I lived in Germany for three years, and when I climbed a local rebuilt roman watchtower, I could hear the churchbells from Dillendorf about 5k away... but as soon as I was on the ground with the hills inbetween, I could just barely, barely make them out at all. From the tower I could see the Dillendorf steeple; from the ground I couldn't. And if your character is hiking in woodlands, I'd say that 5-10 miles is *definitely* too far, what with trees buffering things and so forth.

I can easily hear the bells of a church that is about three miles away, even with a lot of traffic noise.

In my town, new bells were paid for a few centuries ago by a man who was lost in the nearby hills on a bitterly cold night who heard the bells ringing and was able to follow them to civilisation. From what I know of the story, I would say he was probably around five miles away at the time.

Also, if you are indoors you probably won't hear the bells. I live a few hundred yards from our local church which has a fine peel, and even when I am in my bedroom, which is not double-glazed, I rarely hear the bells, despite knowing the practice and service times.

As someone has already said, it does depend on the weather and even wind direction, but 3-5 miles seems perfectly reasonable. I live near Highgate Hill in North London, where the bells of the city four and a half miles away are traditionally supposed to have been audible (in the Dick Whittington story). I can't say I have heard them myself, but then the traffic noise is pretty loud nowadays.

On a quiet night with the wind from the north I can hear the big bell in the town hall clock tower ringing from 4 km away, over completely flat town and harbour. On a good evening with the windows open I can hear at least 3 different and smaller church bells ring, but they're all inside 1 km, and further away churches cannot be heard. So size matters :-)


I think you also need to allow for the average parish church - unless it had a very rich patron - having only a single bell, not necessarily anything like as large and heavy as the modern bells we are now used to.

There's a very good recent book that discusses issues like this: How Early America Sounded, by Richard Cullen Rath (Cornell University Press, 2003).

In his second chapter, Rath discusses the use of bells in (mostly) seventeenth-century society, which is close enough, for your purposes. One thing that he mentions is that bells are rung differently today than they were even four hundred years ago. Today, we rig the bell so that we either pull a rope attached to or send an electronic signal to the clapper, which moves and hits the bell. Way back when, someone pulled a rope or turned a wheel attached to the bell itself, so that the bell swung back and forth in an arc, hitting the clapper at each end of the arc. As Rath points out (p, 46), this is why we say that bells "ring out" when they are rung properly.

This is an important difference. The modern way (clapper moved to hit downward-pointing bell), all the sound gets directed straight down the belfry, and the belfry serves as a baffle to muffle the sound even more. The old way (bell swung to impact stationary clapper), the bell points out the belfry, directing the sound outside. More metal vibrates (the bell being bigger than the clapper), as well. The conclusion is that the same bell, rung in the old fashion, would be louder than it would be today, rung in the modern fashion.

Rath then goes on to talk about how bells were used in such a society (his thesis, by the way, is that sound was of much more cultural importance in seventeenth-century society than we imagine), in particular for mass communication, both with human society and with the divine. Because the bell was so important, communities would tend to splurge on the biggest, loudest bells they could possibly afford, sometimes acquiring bells that were too big for the local house of worship -- the sound would literally rattle the foundation of the building, and the bell would have to be housed in a belfry separate from the church/meeting house.

As for absolute distance, Rath is a little hedgy on that, since the records on what constituted earshot of a bell seem to be unclear. He does mention that Newton, Massachusetts passed a law in 1685 mandating that all the residents live within half a mile of the bell, which would seem to indicate that Newton's bell would carry for half a mile. As a general rule, though, bigger bells over flat land will carry farther than smaller bells or forest. Maybe take a look at some drawings of old colonies and try to guesstimate how big they are -- that would be an area that would have been within earshot of the bell.

This sounds like a cool book and through the power of the internets I see that it's at the Central Library. I will take a little side trip on my way to work. Thank you for pointing it out.
I'm going to make it a fairly large bell and stick it at one end of a valley and put the listeners on a ridge above it. Hopefully it won't make too outlandish.

It's a fantastic book, and was a nominee for a folklore prize in 2004 (which is how I ended up with my copy -- a complicated chain of events involving a couple of professors at two different universities who were both on the judging committee). It doesn't have an index, which is a pain, but it makes up for it with a very broad consideration of the tri-cultural* sonic world of seventeenth-century America.

*English settlers, Native Americans, and African slaves/indentured servants.