Bells probably represent the sound that is considered most characteristic for the medieval sonic environment (also called: soundmark). In the Middle Ages, bells were omnipresent and omni-audible. Bells represent an era, or so it is generally believed.
True, the role of bells in medieval society was much larger than it is today, and we cannot fully grasp its dominant influence on daily medieval lives. Every church had its own bells, used in different patterns on different occasions. These occasions did not only relate to religious practises, such as announcing the beginning and ending of liturgical celebrations. Bells were also chimed to structure a town’s social life, for instance to announce the opening and closing of the city gate, or to warn inhabitants for fire. In some medieval cities, like Florence, the various churches adjusted their bell chiming, which resulted in a distinct daily sonic pattern that moved around in space, dictating the daily rhythm to the entire community. Bells indeed must have had a tremendous impact on the medieval soundscape.
Yet, this does not necessarily mean that bells were the most present or best audible sound of the Middle Ages. Church bells can easily produce sounds with an intensity of up to 110 or 120dB. This is the equivalent of modern factory noise or an airplane. However, bells were not perceived at close distance. A church tower bell that is perceived on street level, produces an average intensity of only 70dB. This falls within a range of intensities that is nowadays considered normal; both a ringing telephone and average city traffic are louder than 70dB. When it comes to the actual sound level, bells were seemingly not that intense. It is therefore questionable whether they might be called a soundmark of the Middle Ages.
Interestingly, the perception of sound is not only influenced by its quantifiable characteristics, but also by its social impact. Research has demonstrated that the actual sound intensity, measured in dB, does not necessarily match the perceived intensity. One of the studies executed within the World Soundscape Project (Simon Fraser University, 1972-1976) aimed to make a profile of the acoustic community of the small village of Skruv, Sweden, by measuring sound intensities as well as questioning inhabitants on their sonic environment. Repeatedly, the church bells were considered the loudest and best audible sound, although measurements proved otherwise.
Sounds are perceived socially. The church bells of Skruv were considered the most important sound within the community, leading the members of that community to perceive them as loud. Likewise, it is probable that medieval people perceived bell sounds as much louder than they in fact are, because their social impact was huge. Based on this assumption, bells may very well be named a soundmark of, at least, the medieval European city.
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– Atkinson, Niall, “Sonic Armatures. Constructing an Acoustic Regime in Renaissance Florence.” Senses & Society 7 (2012) 1, p.39-52
– Corbin, Alain, Les cloches de la terre: Paysage sonore et culture sensible dans les campagnes au xixe siècle. Paris: Éditions Albin Michel (1994)
– Truax, Barry, Acoustic Communication: Second Edition. Westport: Ablex publishing (2001), esp. p. 85