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Village Bells: Sound & Meaning in the 19th-Century French Countryside.

Village Bells: Sound & Meaning in the 19th-Century French Countryside. By Alain Corbin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. xx plus 4l6pp. $35.00).

Before the puffing of trains, the drone of airplanes, and the buzzing of radios and televisions, the countryside was a place that sounded very differently from today. In that "auditory landscape" pride of place was taken by the church bells that, from the early morning Angelus to the late night retreat, marked time and community identity.

From this premise, Alain Corbin begins a fascinating journey through the world of sounds from the Revolution to the early twentieth century. At the beginning of this period, bells assumed great significance in the rural community. The process by which it was cast or recast by itinerant bell-makers made the bell a special product of mysterious rituals until the 1860s. After that date, bells were increasingly cast in factories, and the decline of the itinerant bell caster, the absence of risk of failure that factory-casting meant, and the disappearance of the collective rituals that accompanied village casting made them less able to arouse popular emotions. In Corbin's words, "everything in this sphere ... suffered a drastic impoverishment" after the 1860s. (p. 92).

But at the same time the "auditory space" of the village was not affected by the changes of the nineteenth century. Bells continued to "conjure up a space that is by its nature slow, prone to conserve what lies within it, and redolent of a world in which walking was the chief mode of locomotion." (p. 96). In one of its most pervasive uses, timekeeping, the ringing of bells resisted attempts at standardization up to at least the eve of the first World War, and the many conflicts generated by other customary uses throughout the nineteenth century are testimony to the inability of the state to regulate these practices completely. Different ways of ringing bells also called people to assemble, sounded alarms, and were a part of the rejoicing for victory in battle, the birth of an heir to the throne, or the end of a war.

Bells were therefore important markers of time for those who lived in the countryside; they also helped to mark the territory of the local community. Such an important part of peoples' lives generated many conflicts. As early as the Revolution, bells received attention from the authorities. They were removed or destroyed in the event of invasion or defeat, or as punishment. There were also attempts to curb their power to move and to deafen. All of these, however, met local resistance. Disputes over bells were also an important part of conflicts between rural communities until around the 1860s. The abduction of bells served as a means of gaining control over a rival community, since it threatened the "prestige, reputation, and honor of the community" (p.46) that lost its bells, Initially, these abductions contested the ownership of bells that had been removed or hidden during the revolutionary era; later, changes in communal boundaries or disagreements within communes could be their basis. As in the case of t he dispute in Mirmande (Dr[hat{o}]me) between 1845 and 1850 that Corbin follows in detail (pp. 62-70), these involved issues from local territorial conflicts to national concerns about the relative strength of political parties.

Rewinding the clock, choosing the bell ringer, locking the tower, and the use of bells during festivals and rites of passage could also generate conflicts. Corbin distinguishes between those over who would decide when bells would be rung at rites such as funerals, and those over integration into the nation, such as the anniversary of the execution of Louis XVI during the Restoration or, later, the f[hat{e}]te nationale of the 14th of July. These disputes assumed significance because of the sacralizing ability of bells; their desacralization in the late nineteenth century after numerous disputes between parish priests and mayors, and then the consolidation of their religious function at the expense of their ability to resonate more broadly in the rural community, led to a collapse of the meaning of bells in the early part of this century. It was not that they became silent, for village bells were of better quality and rang more loudly at the end of the century than at the beginning. Rather, Corbin argues, "the ir meaning seemed to fall away ... a whole range of auditory messages were increasingly disqualified" after l860.(p. 307)

Corbin's book imaginatively approaches the transformation of rural France in the nineteenth century from this perspective of auditory culture. While he occasionally, and disconcertingly, reverts to the idea of a timeless "France profonde" that has shaped so much rural history, he adds additional weight to the argument that the changes that occurred in rural France in the second half of the century were more complicated than a simple passage of "peasants into Frenchman.".
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Lehning, James R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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