Handbells in the Church

Western civilisation has for many centuries associated the sound of bells with the Christian church. They are mentioned in the bible in Exodus as part of Hebrew worship and are shown decorating the robes of priests. In Zechariah bells are described as part of the war horses’ equipment.

The Latin word CYMBALA which comes from the Greek KUMBALON, meaning cup, was used in early times to mean both cymbals and also BELLS - hence the later confusion when it came to translating the psalms into the English as we know them today - for example in Psalm 150 - the ‘well tuned cymbals’ are the handbells.

“Praise Him with sounding cymbals; praise Him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! The ancient cymbals mentioned in Psalm 150:5-6 are said to have resembled water pitchers with wide open necks, similar to the bells of today” from Bells in Church history by Matthew D. Herrera.

“Handbells were first mentioned in Western European music literature around the 13th century. Just like in China, singers favoured bells to check intonation due to the bells’ unchangeab​le pitch. During the late middle ages and the early Renaissance, handbells were mainly used during procession​s, where their exceptional timbre was especially effective.​“ Sabine Janowitz 

In Britain the first missionaries who came to spread the Christian gospel were of the Celtic church. They brought with them their handbells to which they attached great importance. They were quite crudely made quadrangular affairs. Hundreds of years later in the middle ages the handbell had changed into a form more akin to that we now know and indeed handbells were then one of the basic musical instruments of the church of the day, pictures of them in use being included in many medieval illuminated manuscripts.

In those days handbells would be used to accompany chanting alongside stringed and wind instruments and small organs, or they might be used to play the tenor line which carried the melody.The development of the organ from the small portable affairs of the day to the enormous KING OF INSTRUMENTS we now know was probably one of the reasons handbells and the other instruments were largely relegated to cupboards and boxes at the end of the middle ages. But ringing continued to develop in the centuries that followed. The practice of change-ringing led to the development of the handbell more or less as we know it today.

By the end of last century there were numerous very large sets of handbells being used as serious musical instruments by a considerable number of groups up and down the country.