The Change Ringers

I knew nothing about campanology a month ago. But I was at the library looking for a good mystery when I came across Dorothy Sayers’ shelf. I had read Sayers years before, but hadn’t visited her books recently. I took home The Nine Tailors, and it was a good choice for more reasons than one. On top of being a top flight mystery (Sayers was one of the best, in literary opinion), it introduced me to change ringing, the fascinating skill of bell ringing that originated in English church towers centuries ago.

The story takes place in a fictitious English village and revolves around an old church and its bells. For plot details, you’ll have to read the book, but what fascinated me and encouraged further reading were the bells of the church and the mathematical patterns of change ringing which were described in the book. Here is video of the ringers at Westminster Abbey.


Good old Wiki has this to say about change ringing.

Change ringing is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns called “changes”. It differs from many other forms of campanology (such as carillon ringing) in that no attempt is made to produce a conventional melody.

Today, change ringing can be found all over the world, performed in a variety of media; but it remains most popular in the context where, in the 17th century, it developed: English churches. These typically contain a few large bells rigged to swing freely: a ring of bells. The considerable inertias involved mean that each bell usually requires its own ringer. Thus, contrasted with a carillon, in which a large number of bells are struck by hammers, all tied in to a central framework so that one carillonneur can control them all, a set of such bells is comparatively unwieldy— hence the emergence of permutations rather than melody as an organizing principle.

For more details on those permutations and all the other fascinating details of the complex skill, read the summary here or watch this instructional video with samples.

Here are a few more clips of bell ringers in English churches who, like those for centuries, ring out jubilant peals for weddings and festival Sundays and also toll the sad last bells for the dead. In past centuries, these church bells were a way of communicating and uniting a community in both joy and sorrow, because Christian churches were then the center of life in England. Change ringing is a little slice of Western history that I am pleased to learn more about.



Here is an interesting video clip about an Irish church’s carillon, which takes an entirely different skill. A church near where I used to live had a carillon play. I remember vividly hearing wonderful hymns like “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and “Come Thou Fount” and “Nearer My God to Thee” ringing out through the evening air. It was lovely.


4 thoughts on “The Change Ringers

  1. Carol says:

    So interesting! And it was exciting for me personally as I am part English and Welsh-Irish. Thanks for sharing part of my cultural heritage with me! Every day is an opportunity to learn something new!

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