Three recreated hand-bells © National Museum of Scotland

Early Medieval Irish Hand-Bells

Hand-bells belong to a group of liturgical objects connected with the early Irish Church. Was Ireland the primary production centre? Or did Irish hand-bells just play aparticular role as significant relics?

The precise etymology of the Irish word “Cloch” or “Clog” is not known. However, it does belong, to a group of words derived from the Celtic “Clocc”: clocca (Mlat), Klok (Frisian), klokke (Danish), klocka (Swedish), cloche (French), kello (Finnish), kolokal (Russian) and glocke (German). All of these words denote the liturgical objects, which were adopted in the Early Irish Church, and which seems to have been developed, adopted and later exported from Ireland via the wandering monks and abbots. Such bells were unique status symbols for abbots, who used them to call their brethren to prayer. The question is: Was Ireland the primary production centre? Or did Irish hand-bells just play aparticular role as significant relics?

Gongs, Rattles and Bells


Bell-ringers at the funeral of Edward the Confessor. Source: The Bayeaux Tapestry/Wikipedia
Bell-ringers at the funeral of Edward the Confessor. Notice their not very prominant part. Here bells are just part of the procession. Source: The Bayeaux Tapestry/Wikipedia

Gongs, rattles and bells are repeatedly mentioned in the Torah and are attested from numerous archaeological contexts in the Middle East. In Late Antiquity they found a particular role in the tintinnabulum (or tintinnum), which was a wind chime or assemblage of bells hung from a phallic figure. Hung outside they were intended as audible decoration of gardens as well as to keep away the evil spirits. Another use of bells was found, when tubular bells or chimes – oblong, hollow instruments, moulded in iron and with rattles inside – were sewn onto clothes; fashion, which we continue to connect with the garb of medieval fools. Such chimes are known from Antiquity, but they have also been found in a Celtic context, for instance in the Dowris hoard from the late Bronze Age (c. 800 BC).


Did Romans also manufacture small bells out of beaten metal, which might be used to organise flocks of grazing animals? Were the early liturgical bells introduced as an important liturgical – audial – symbol of the shepherd leading his flock? Or were their adoption in a Christian context intended to subvert the Pagan use of bells to thwart evil spirits, offering instead the idea that they may be “called to order”?

Whichever explanation is provided, the first written evidence of hand-bells used in a liturgical context can be found in a letter written from Carthage in 535 CE. In this Ferrandus writes to Eugippius, about bells being used to beckon monks to the canonical hours. He specifically writes “sonore campana”, and we thus know bells were supposed to be used to announce the time. This use of bells is perhaps also mentioned in the writings of Benedict of Nursia (c. 540) and Gregory the Great. The reason we have to write “perhaps” is because we don’t know how these audible signs were delivered. Sounding gongs may have served the purpose as well. The terms used differ: signum, campana, clocca and glogga probably cover a diversity of artefacts and forms. How large was, for instance, the bell cast in bronze, which the Visigothic King Chindaswinthe donated to the monastery of Alcalá de Henares in 646, and which he called the “signum fusile aeneum”? According to the description, it offered a pleasant or soothing sound (demulcens auditum). At that time, bells were cast and hung, calling monastic communities to pray.

Very few medieval bells are in existence today. Most were recast while others were impounded during wars for the value of the metal and turned into canons.

The Irish Hand-Bells

Guardstone from Cardonagh c. 700. Source: Wikipedia
Guardstone from Cardonagh c. 700. Notice the man or monk carrying a book and a handbell. Source: Wikipedia

Better preserved are the smaller hand-bells. These, however, we primarily know about from an Irish context. While nearly a hundred have been preserved in Ireland, fewer have been found in a Scottish, Welsh, or Breton context, and only a few are preserved on the Continent. Such bells also figure widely within the Irish written sources from the 7th – 9th centuries. It may seem as if the Irish came up with this liturgical invention, or at least developed it. Already in the Irish Alphabet of Devotion from c. 600, the use of bells is mentioned, as they are in Adomnán’s Vita Colombae (c. 685 CE).

Early medieval hand-bells were quadrangular objects, manufactured in two ways. One type of bell was made from a single sheet of iron, which folded and riveted before being coated with bronze. This procedure was called “brazing” and was intended to make the surface continuous and create the acoustic “ringing tone”. The other production method was cast bronze. In all likelihood, the lost wax casting was used to forge them. It is believed that the cast type (700-900 CE) was secondary to the bells made from riveted metal sheets (c. 600 – 900). The riveted type is represented by 62 examples from the British Isles, with 50 from Ireland.

One of the complicated technical procedures was to get the bell “brazed”. Archaeological excavations at Clonfad in the beginning of the 21st century yielded information about how this might be achieved. After the bell had been formed from the sheets, fitted with its handle and riveted together, it was wrapped in linen, fitted with enough bronze at the lip and subsequently covered in a coil-built clay shroud. By placing the bell upside down in a glowing fire. Now the bronze melts, fitting into the thin space provided by the burning cloth. After cooling, the clay is removed, and the bell can be cleaned and polished.

Famous Hand-Bells

The oldest bell preserved is the Cloc ind Édachta, the Bell of St. Patrick, now in the National Museum of England; or rather, thus the story goes. Mentioned in the Annals of Ulster under the year 552, it was said to be part of the relics removed from his tomb sixty years after his death. The bell is described as the “bell of the testament” and was grouped together with his staff and gospels (the Book of Armagh) before they were seemingly dispersed. The whole story in the Annals, though, is in all likelihood nothing but a late elaboration of an invention of tradition, which was carried out at Armagh in the beginning of the 9th century. According to this, the Cloc ind Édachta and the other relics were claimed to have been brought to Armagh. Here the cloc became enshrined in a specially designed reliquary, a bell shrine. The shrine dated to 1091 – 1105 was commissioned by Domhnall Ua Lochlainn, King of Ireland, 1094 – 1121. His descendants continued in the role as keepers of the bell into the 19th century. The shrine was decorated in the (Viking) Urne style with a Gaelic inscription, which reads “U Inmainen” – “who with his sons enriched it”.

Columbanus with his symbols: Staff, hand-bell and book of Gospels Fresco of Saint Columbanus in Brugnato Cathedral. Source: Wikipedia/Davide Papalini
Columbanus with his symbols: Staff, hand-bell and book of Gospels Fresco of Saint Columbanus in Brugnato Cathedral. Source: Wikipedia/Davide Papalini

The bell, itself, is simple in design, although oddly made of two sheets riveted together and coated with bronze. According to the website of the Museum, it is dated to the 8th to 9th century. This date reflects the cautious approach towards such relics usually voiced by curators, who wish to rid such artefacts of their aura. The fact is, nobody knows. Metal objects are notoriously difficult to date. It might be earlier. What we do know, however, is that it was not the only bell, which was heralded as having belonged to St. Patrick. Other sources recount stories about the Findfaídech, the sweet-sounding bell, and the Bernán, the gapped bell of St. Brigit. What we also know is that the written evidence of the coupling of bells and the saint is rather late, mainly from the 7th – 9th century (the Liber Angeli from Armagh and the Vita Tripartite Sancti Patricii).

Another famous bell is the one, which tradition tells us was left by Columbanus at St. Gallen when he moved on to Bobbio. St. Gall (Gallen or Gallus) c. 550 – 646, was a disciple of St. Columbanus, the Irish Saint, who ended up in Bobbio after having founded monasteries at Luxeuil in Gaul and St. Gallen.

Reflecting upon these two bells, it is apparent that they foremost functioned as relics. This reliquary character was the subject of a thesis by Sarah Erskine, who carefully sifted the stories of the Early Irish Saints and their relics, among which were the Irish hand-bells. Their symbolic function, and the miracles, they wrought, might shed some further light on the fact that the hand-bells primarily survived in an Irish context. Elsewhere in Europe, hand-bells – as opposed to the large church-bells – were seemingly considered more mundane. Perhaps, they existed in great numbers on the continent, but have now been lost, because they were not invested with any symbolic or miraculous aura? As they apparently came to be in Ireland.


Reconstructed hand-bells from the National Museum of Scotland.


Resounding Communities: The History and Meaning of Medieval Church Bells.
By John H. Arnold and Caroloine Goodson
In: Viator (2012), Vol 43., No. 1, pp. 99 – 130

On Bells and Bell-Towers: origins and evolutions in Italy and Britain, AD 700 -1200
By Neil Christie
In Church Archaeology (2004), Vol. 5, pp. 13 – 30

The Relic Cult of St. Patrick Between the Seventh and the Late Twelfth Centuries in its European Contexts: a focus on the lives.
By Sarah Christine Erskine
Phd Thesis, University of Glasgow 2012

Les cloches: construction, sens, perception d’un son. Quelques réflexions à partir des témoinages archéologiques des “foursà cloches”.
By Elisabetta Neri
In: Cahiers de civilisation médiévale (2012), Vol 55, pp. 573 – 496

For whom the Bell Tolls: the monastic site at Clonfad 3, Co. Westmath
By Paul Stevens
In: Creative Minds: Production, Manufacturing and Invention in Ancient Ireland. Proceedings of a Public Seminar on Archaeological Discoveries on National Road Schemes, August 2009. Edited by M. Stanley, E. Danaher and J. Eogan


Ireland in the medieval world, AD 400–1000. Landscape, kingship and religion
By Edel Bhreathnach
Four Courts Press 2014
ISBN: 978-1-84682-342-8







Echoes of the Past: recreating Medieval hand-bells

National Museums Scotland

Echoes of the Past: recreating Medieval hand-bells from National Museums Scotland on Vimeo.









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