For most churchgoers today, the ringing of church bells serves only to call them to worship. But in centuries past, these bells were believed to protect parishoners from the ghoulies and ghosties that haunted their daily lives.
In 14th century England, ringing church bells was thought to help protect the people against the devastations of the Black Plague. That belief persisted in certain parts of England. A Dr. Francis Hering wrote in the late 17th century that the bells somehow purified the air.
In the Middle Ages, newly installed bells received gifts when they were inistalled and consecrated, and became the focus of feasting and joyful celebrations.
Not everyone, it seems, celebrated the installation of a new church bell. Witches were said to fear the bells and went to great lengths to steal them. Apparently, ghosts also were affected by the ringing of church bells. Bells rung during a funeral were thought to drive away the ghost of the person being buried.
Even today, there are stories of church bells ringing by themselves just before a catastrophic event took place. The famous French author Alexandre Dumas recorded one such story said to have happened in 1407. According to Dumas, bells were heard to ring just before an ancient Roman bridge collapsed into the Rhone River.
There may be some justification for the spontaneous ringing of church bells just before certain events take place. It is possible that some church bells might be disturbed by the rumblings of an imminent earthquake. The same might be true for awakening volcanoes.
The people of many cultures believed (and some still believe) that loud noises and raucous music drive away evil spirits and malevolent ghosts. It makes some sense, then, that church bells would have replaced the banging of drums and kettles to serve the same purpose when Christianity took over the responsibility of protecting its people from evil.