Ringing the changes: early bellringing books in the University Library

The University Library is home to many rare books on bellringing and the fact that most are kept in the Music Department reminds us of the musical nature of this great English tradition. The ringing of bells has been practiced for over five thousand years by many cultures, but developments in the hanging of tower bells in England in the early seventeenth century gave far better control over their movement and allowed a number of bells to be rung together in controlled patterns. Since that time, bells have had a special significance in our own land, which Handel called “the ringing isle”.

Tintinnalogia MR652.e.65.1


It is not known exactly when change-ringing began, but a comment in the earliest English book on the subject (Tintinnalogia, 1668) suggests that changes were first rung in the 1610s: “…within these fifty or sixty years last past, changes were not known, or thought possible to be rang” (p. 2). The physical technique of ringing is rather complicated to explain in this post, but is explained here.  Changes vary the order in which the bells are rung; to begin with, tuned bells are rung down the scale in ‘rounds’, beginning with the treble (the lightest bell) and ending with the tenor (the heaviest). The pattern (with six bells) is 123456 and each such sequence is known as a row or change. The position in which a bell rings can change once with each row, varying the order in which the notes sound out until the bells return to the starting point. Ringers learn methods – distinct patterns – and calls made by a conductor vary and extend these patterns, allowing thousands of changes to be rung without repeating one row. More than 5000 changes is generally known as a peal (this takes about 3 hours of continuous ringing) and in 2007 a peal of 72,000 changes was rung on handbells (by a band of Cambridge ringers) in 24 hours and 9 minutes, the longest ever recorded. One of the introductory poems in Tintinnalogia asks “What musick is there that compar’d may be, to well-tun’d bells enchanting melody” and goes on to compare the ringing of changes with the rhythms of contemporary music and dancing: “But when they chance to change, ‘tis as a dance, they foot a galliard, à la mode de France” (leaf A3r). Furthermore, some of the terminology used in ringing, including treble, tenor and conductor, remind us of music. The Library’s copy of Tintinnalogia was presented, with most of the Library’s other early English ringing books, by the Cambridge University Guild of Change Ringers in 1942. It is a book of exceedingly great rarity, with just a handful of copies known to survive.

Clavis Campanalogia MR652.e.65.2

Clavis Campanalogia

In 1677 the text was updated by Fabian Stedman, under the title Campanalogia, or the art of ringing improved. The Library’s copy of the first edition [MR652.e.65.2], which also arrived in 1942, was previously owned by the Revd. Henry Ellacombe, a great nineteenth-century authority on ringing. Both books are instruction manuals, explaining the physical processes and theory of ringing and giving different methods for ringers to learn; the great rarity of most editions is probably the result of their being carried about in ringers’ pockets and read until they fell apart. Two more editions of Campanalogia appeared by the end of the century, in 1680 and 1698, and there were five more in the eighteenth century. The 1698 edition was unknown until a copy appeared in the Macclesfield Library, sold at Sotheby’s in 2005 (lot 1935, 25/26 October 2005), and more as yet unrecorded editions may surface. Campanalogia remained the only English book on ringing until the appearance in 1788 of Clavis Campanalogia [MR652.d.75.1], published by Thomas Blakemore and the Cambridge bookseller John Bowtell, both of whom were ringers.

A garland of bellsMR652.e.80.1

A Garland of Bells

The nineteenth century saw the appearance of a multitude of instructional books on ringing, including William Shipway’s Campanalogia of 1814 [MR652.d.80.2] and Charles Troyte’s Change ringing of 1869 [M652.d.85.4]. But ringing and bells inspired other kinds of literature too, including the anonymously compiled Garland of Bells, a collection of verse printed in Newcastle in 1815. There are also children’s books themed around ringing, including Charles Sumner Harington’s Changes upon church bells of 1868 [141.1.260], kept not in the Music Department but on the seventeenth (top) floor of the Library tower. It contains twelve short stories of a moral and improving nature, each narrated by a bell. In A chime from Chichester Cathedral one of the bells tells us that upon him are cast the words “Be meek and lowly to hear the word of God”. The book was printed in Edinburgh and published in London but most of the locations mentioned in the stories are villages near Eastbourne. Early children’s books can be notoriously rare and this first edition is recorded in only four British libraries (all Copyright libraries), in addition to my own copy, which sits alongside the otherwise unrecorded ‘new edition’ of 1876, also printed by James Nisbet. The appearance of bells in a variety of different kinds of literature points to the important place they have held and continue to hold in our national life.

Liam Sims
Rare Books Department
University Library

About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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