The Sound of Bells

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Vieillevie, Aveyron, France, 4 bells

Recorded: WAH 28/7/01
Analysed: WAH 5/8/01

Vieillevie, France

The village of Vieillevie lies in a deep valley at the side of the River Lot between Entraygues and Conques. The church, dedicated to Saint Laurens, is of very ancient foundation and has a central tower containing four bells hung for swing chiming. The tower is visible in the centre of the picture on the left. The bells are very much in active use to mark the hours, to announce services and for the other occasional ringing which is the French custom. It is impossible to spend an hour in or near the village without being aware of their presence.

The four bells are hung from parallel beams near the top of the tower, all swinging east-west. All have canons and are hung from large wooden headstocks which counterbalance their weight, in the local style. The bells variously have motors to swing chime them, and external electric strikers activated by the clock. All have cast-in crown staples, and club-shaped iron clappers. The oldest bell bell has had a new headstock - it is clear from the colour of the wood. All four bells had a name and the date 1898 written in chalk inside, presumably when some work was done on them. Therefore, we can be certain that they have not been tuned since that date.

That the oldest bells were not destroyed or at least carted off in the French revolution we owe to the resourcefulness of the villagers of the 1790s. Alain Corbin on page 19 of his book Village Bells says: 'The old bells of Viellevie, cast in 1582, 1678, and 1718, were buried in the sands of the Lot and unearthed at the end of the Revolution'

As the bells are not intended as a peal in the English sense, the numbers I have given to them are in order from north to south across the tower.

Bell Founder Tuning
1 1678 None since 1898
2 1582 None since 1898
3 Les Dubois 1808 None since 1898
4 Joseph Decamerafe(??) 1718 None since 1898

Tuning of main partials

Bell Hum Prime Tierce Quint S'quint O'nom. Date Nom. freq.
1 -2434 -1153 -887 -604 707 1264 1678 1199
2 -2435 -1112 -873 -569 695 1249 1582 1389.5
3 -2411 -1171 -888 -523 705 1265 1808 1020.5
4 -2543 -1282 -930 -652 698 1241 1718 1401.4

(The figures in this table are all given in cents as an interval from the nominal of the bell. Pairs of values indicate a doublet.)

In the inscriptions below, a / indicates a line break. + and * are used to indicate stops of various sorts. My thanks to Jacquie and Alan Crosby for their help in translation.

Bell number 1 (1678)

Vieillevie, Bell 1 Bell 1 spectrum

This bell, as can be seen from the tuning figures and the spectrum above, is close to true-harmonic. Its hum and prime are only about 35 cents flat and 45 cents sharp respectively. It has a good strong nominal and relatively weak upper partials, but does not sound as good as its tuning figures would suggest, due probably to the loudness of the hum and prime. The photograph shows that its lip is extremely battered, probably through an attempt to tune the nominal, though just possibly through maltreatment. The bell's club clapper, counterbalanced headstock and electric striker can be also be seen. The bell's inscription reads 'STA EVROSIA CRISTI MARTIR ET SPONSA AB OMNI FULGUR ET TEMPESTATE TIBI FIDENTES / LIBERA IACOBUS FLEYS PRIOR 1678' which being translated is 'Saint Evrosia, martyr of Christ and our patron, from all thunder and tempest deliver us your faithful. Jacobus Fleys, Prior, 1678.'

Bell number 2 (1582)

Vieillevie, Bell 2 Bell 2 spectrum

This bell is the oldest bell in the tower. It has a hum which is a little flat and a prime which is nearly a semitone sharp. Both these partials are louder than the nominal and as a result its tone is a mournful clang - certainly not the best bell in the tower. Although the bell's lever has a rope attached it does not reach through the floor and I assume this bell is not currently rung. Its inscription reads 'SANCTA MARIA MATER DEI ORA PRO NOBIS LAN MIL + / VCLXXXII'. This is a standard inscription which translates as 'Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us. AD 1582'.

Bell number 3 (Dubois 1808)

Vieillevie, Bell 3 Bell 3 spectrum

This bell has the best tone in the tower. When I first heard it I assumed it was 20th century. It is in effect true-harmonic, its prime is within 30 cents of the octave, it has a good strong nominal and both its upper and lower partials are muted when struck gently by the clapper or rung by the electric striker. This is the bell on which the clock strikes the hours. When swung via the electric mechanism visible on the left of the picture, the upper partials are more strident which does harshen the tone somewhat. This bell's inscription reads 'VH LAN 1808 LAUTEUR DE MA CONSTRUCSIONT & IOSEPH DELRIEU NEGT AN CUIVRE HABITANT / DE LA VILLE DAURILLAC' and on the waist 'LES DUBOIS FONDUERS'. This in translation is 'AD 1808. The author of my construction is Joseph Delrieu, copper merchant of the town of Aurillac'. Aurillac is a large town about 50km north of Vieillevie. I have not yet been able to find any information on Dubois, the bellfounder but he certainly knew his trade.

Bell number 4 (Decamerafe 1718)

Vieillevie, Bell 4 Bell 4 spectrum

This bell is tonally quite poor. Its hum is very flat - one and a half semitones - and its prime almost a tone flat and louder than the nominal. It has a strong eleventh, quite unusual in such a small bell. It also is a very rough casting, unlike the other three bells. It hangs from two large and awkward-looking canons and its inscription comprises huge and roughly placed letters which in one place did not fit in the space available. The founder's name and the date appear to have been incised on the soundbow after the bell was cast. Its inscription reads '[heart] SALVATOR * MVNDI * CVI * FLECTITVR * OMNE * GENV / ** CALESTIVM * TERRESTRIVM * ET * INFERNORUM * AB' and on the waist continues '** OMNI * MALO * DEFENDE * NOS [heart] IOANNES * FLEYS * PRIOR * ANNO 1718'. The date 1718 is squashed in above the word ANNO. [heart] are hearts with arrows through them, a symbol in common use in the area. On the soundbow is incised 'Joseph Decamerafe de Paris me fecit 1718' in roundhand; the writing is hard to decipher. The translation of the main inscription is 'Saviour of the world, to whom bend all knees in heaven, earth and hell, from all evil defend us. Johannes Fleys Prior AD 1718'.


Two bells in this tower, numbers one and three, are close to true-harmonic. Number three in particular, like the 1870 bell at La Vinzelle a few kilometres away, has a fine tone. When continental bellfounders could produce work of this quality, why did the UK founders continue to produce old-style bells until Taylors began their investigations in the 1880s and 90s?


Last updated January 18, 2002. Site created by Bill Hibbert, Great Bookham, Surrey