Until today, bells have the function of announcing the time. Today they mark the hour with their hourly times from church towers and belfries, but a thousand years ago the bells of monasteries and abbeys heralded the working and prayer times. For example, Benedict of Nursia (480-547) writes in his rule about the bell as a sign (signum) announcing prayer time:
At the hour of the choral prayer, everyone, as soon as he has heard the sign, puts down everything that is in their hands and rushes to it urgently.
The bell also served to wake the monks in the morning. Benedict advises his monks to wake up as soon as possible in all dignity and modesty after the morning bell rings and to be one of the first in the chapel. Bells were the start signal for the monks’ morning race towards the chapel.
The day was divided into eight parts preceded by a prayer: Matins, Laudes, Primes, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers and Compline. There was quite a bit of bell sound in the early Middle Ages.
About Crusade and Turkish bell
Throughout the centuries, bells sometimes acquired a symbolic meaning that exceeded the announcement of working and prayer times. For example, some bells sounded to ward off impending thunderstorms. Another example is the announce of Pope Urban II (1043-1099) in 1095 that all believers should pray for the success of the first crusade while sounding the curfew, but source texts to support this historical announcement are lacking. What is certain is that four centuries later, after the fall of Constantinople, Pope Callixtus III (1378-1458) let the midday bell ring so that the Ottomans army in Hungary would be stopped by prayer: for that reason, the midday bell was also called the Turkish bell. After the Ottomans were defeated at the Battle of Belgrade in 1456, the bell continued to ring for a while to commemorate this victory. Today we often connect bells with peace, but history tells us that they were sometimes used as a propaganda tool for less peaceful goals.
Franciscan roots of the Angelus bell
After Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) returned from Egypt in 1219, he was deeply inspired by the way Muslims pray. He writes his version of the 99 names of Allah, his well-known Hymns to the Almighty. He also wants to call on Christians to pray, just as Muslims do. In his letter to the city administrators, he writes:
And pay so much honor to the Lord among the people that you have been entrusted to you that every evening a call or other sign (signum) announces the time when the All-mighty Lord God should be praised and thanked by the whole people.
In his letter to the custodes, Saint Francis expressed the same wish but specifically mentioned bell ringing (pulsantur campanae). Francis does speak explicitly about a call to praise God and not about Marian prayers, as we know it still today. Two other Franciscan friars have dedicated this call to prayer to Mary.
According to various sources, the Franciscan friar Benedetto Sinigardi of Arrezzo (1190-1282) after his return from the Holy Land would have been an avid supporter of prayer in honor of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. The prayer began with the familiar words Angelus Domini annuntiavit Mariae. Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) visited the grave of Sinigardo in 1993 and praised the place as the origin of the Angelus prayer.
The General of the Franciscans, Saint Bonaventura (1221-1274), urged his fellow brothers at the Chapter of Pisa in 1263 to pray three Ave Maria’s while the curfew sounded. This use spread very quickly through the Franciscan network of monasteries.
At the General Chapter in Pisa, it was determined that the monks in the preaching would convince the people to greet the Mother of God Mary a few times when the complete bell was sounded because it is the opinion of some solemn people that at that time Mary became Mary greeted by the angel.
This would be the origin of the Angelus prayer that has been prayed in the mornings, afternoons and evenings since the 16th century. From the 17th century, the Angelus prayer took its definitive form as we still know it today.
Angelus prayer – peace call
The Franciscan roots of the Angelus prayer frame that prayer in a connecting and open basic attitude. In dialogue with the Islamic call to prayer, the Angelus Prayer calls on praising a God who, like Mary, invites us to say ‘yes’ to the good and to receive the good in order to give it back and to pass it on and who, like Francis, to challenge us to peace.
Translated from Dutch original text.
BENEDICTUS, Regel voor monniken. 2007. (http://www.intratext.com/X/DUT0023.HTM)
FRANCISCUS VAN ASSISI, De Geschriften. Gottmer, 2004
KUMKA, E., Il capitolo generale di Pisa 1263. Decreti e significato. in: Miscellanae Francescanae. 115 (2015) III-IV, pp. 307-317.
MEREDITH, J. G., Angels and the Order of Heaven in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Cambridge University Press 2014.
PESCALI, P., Il custode di Terra Santa, ADD Editore, 2014.
ROMBOUTS, L., Zingend Brons. Davidfonds, Leuven, 2010.
SCHAUERLE, H., Angelus Domini, in: Lexikon der Marienkunde, Regensburg, 1967.