When Michelle Garceau hears church bells, her thoughts are transported back more than 700 years to Europe, and she thinks Internet.
Yes, that’s right: Internet.
“Bells were the Internet of the Middle Ages,” notes Garceau, assistant professor of history. “Think about it. They were fast – so much faster than say, television or radio in communicating to a community – and they were something prevalent in everyone’s life.”
For Garceau, a medieval European historian, the bells are a fascinating and very much under-researched area of study. She stumbled upon the topic while investigating miracle cults in Spain and found that while there were regulations recorded about bells, there was little, if anything, about the bells’ various meanings.
“This is very much an issue of shared cultural knowledge,” Garceau explains. “For example, when we hear sirens today – from either a police car or fire truck or ambulance – we know generally what’s going on. And we didn’t read it anywhere – we just know from experience. The same would have been the case then about the bells’ meanings, which rang throughout the day, but was not always used to simply bring people to church – perhaps it was a call to arms to defend the town, or a prayer of sorts for good crops.”
To Garceau, the bells also represent a more complex understanding of medieval Spain. While church bells were a source of unity for Christians, they were also a constant reminder of a religious divide with the native Muslim and Jewish populations.
“Most people, when they look at Spain in the Middle Ages, see one or two worlds,” says Garceau, explaining that one is filled with constant conflict between the three faiths and the other, blissful harmony. “I think the take away is that neither picture is true. Remember, the Muslims and Jews not only understood the bells, they sometimes even answered their call. So, in reality, these three groups are interacting all the time, sometimes violently, sometimes nonviolently, sometimes cooperatively.”
And connecting them all, all the time: the bells – a 13th-century auditory information highway.