Of course, there was a time when belfries simply refused to stay in one place.

I assume they were on wheels, because these tall structures began their lives as siege engines. They would be hammered together by some army or other at the site of a siege, to scale an unscalable wall on a great fortress. Inside, if they were really accomplished belfries, there might be bowmen; or, a slightly more bizarre option, men with long pikes.

Tall towers on wheels and pointed sticks: the stuff of war all over the world.

A belfry was named , not after the bells it has housed for centuries, but rather comes from an old French word, berfrei. That in its turn is a mix of two Germanic words: *bergan “to protect”, and *frithuz “peace”. When you’re taller than everyone else, even if it’s only standing on a structure your mates hammered together five minutes earlier, it is a distinct advantage.

At some point, they stopped throwing them together and putting wheels on, and began to build them in the centre of settlements as a vantage point, a land-lubbing crow’s nest.

We have to be broad-brush about dates and purposes here: Beijing’s bell tower was built in 1272, under Kubla Khan, as The Tower of Orderly Administration, a time-keeper for the cities masses. Ghent’s was begun in 1313, served time both as a fortified watch tower and treasury. Valencia’s stunning Micalet was built not by the church but by the local gentry, who were in a hurry to show might in the face of the Moors in 1350.

When one sees something one does not like, one must sound an alarm. And so it became customary to have a bell up there with you when you were watching for mishaps. I have heard that they didn’t use them much because flags were far better for communicating over distance: but this may be pure speculation. They liked the bell, and the bell stayed.

Over time, man has come to the conclusion that a defensive tower, once it has shed its wheels, should be an object of posturing splendour to all who behold it.

Belfries are everywhere: UNESCO’s World Heritage sites list 33 of special interest in Belgium alone, and 23 in France. The leaning tower of Pizza is a member of this gentleman’s club. And women may say size is immaterial, but even they must acknowledge that some of the Italian belfries are handsome to the point of seduction.

Take Venice, for example. A stiff Victorian travel guide of the type so popular at the time cites the belfry- or more musically, campanile – of St Marks. It is reached by a narrow staircase, it seems, according to a Handbook For Travellers in Northern Italy, published in 1866.

“The belfry, with an open loggia of four arches in each face, was built in 1510, the whole being surmounted by a lofty pyramid. The prospect hence is magnificent. A watchmen is stationed in the belfry, who at stated times rings the great bell. The height of the campanile is 323 feet…and the angel surmounting the tower, and serving as a weather-cock, is said to be 30 feet high.”

I can almost see the angel’s view of the roofs and gleaming waters of the Doge’s city.

You can tell the mettle of a city by the size of its belfry, those old wives tales say.

Today, through, a belfry has bludgeoned its way into the front of our consciousness. It is frontline news, and thousands of YouTubers have been hitting on footage of its mediaeval stonework all day.

Because what man has put up, nature can vanquish in a few short seconds.

The town of Lorca, in the Mercia region of Spain, has an ancient history. Remains have been found from as far back as the Bronze age. The Romans tramped the town and Visigoths made it theirs. It became a perilous border city when Castile squared up to Moorish Granada, and belfries became imperatives. Our subject has been cited as mediaeval. I have been poring at footage all day to fathom which church it belongs to and so far, I have drawn a blank.

But I know the appearance of the church very well by now. It could withstand centuries of humanity, but it could no more resist 5.2 on the Richter scale, just six miles underground, than a feather could withstand a boulder. It owes its moments of world-wide fame to a news crew standing nearby, who happened to capture its headlong descent, and who almost became victims themselves.

On a scale of national disasters it is not of epic proportions: but those seismic waves, who can be blamed on no-one, have rent apart many lives, and the history of centuries.

Man may posture. But after all, it is only swagger. A belfry provided intelligence against one’s foes. But our geophysicists struggle still to find a vantage point  from which to see these catastrophic events as they loom on the temporal horizon.

When one sees something one does not like, one must sound an alarm. And I have no doubt, even in the face of events such as these, our scientists will continue to try.


22 thoughts on “Belfry

  1. In addition to the military applications, such towers fit into the general effort of humanity to lift ourselves up. Think of the story of the Tower of Babel, church steeples, the Twin Towers, and on and on. Perhaps even the Saturn V rocket belongs in this discussion. Humanity keeps rising, no matter how many times we get knocked down or pull ourselves down.

    1. Hello Greg! Brilliant comment, thank you: there are those who use a metaphorical tower to puff themselves up in the eyes of others: and then there are those who build in order to follow the dreams and aspirations which make us most ourselves. We are part of creation and it is within us to quest. Saturn V – that’s inspired 🙂

  2. Thanks, Kate. I hadn’t heard about the quake yet. We rarely have news on during the day.

    Despite the serious bent of the post, I had to chuckle at:

    And women may say size is immaterial, but even they must acknowledge that some of the Italian belfries are handsome to the point of seduction.

    Here’s hoping that things quiet down in Lorca.

  3. This global shrug that Mother Earth is giving is quite frightening. I do hope that the Lorca belfry can be reconstructed.

  4. Interesting, Kate…actuallly, I knew of this (not the belfry) but the quake, as a library patron called to find out the locale of it all. Seems her internet was down and she has a good friend in Spain. Now, to be a bit silly…why do I read your post and hear in my head “bats in the belfry…” anyone…..

  5. I did hear of the quake, Kate, but so busy this week and tired when I got home that I didn’t see this. It has been a season around the globe for quakes, hasn’t it? Such interesting “stuff” about belfries.

    1. They are amazing, the stuff of a Grand Tour, Penny! Hope you get a rest this weekend, before the next week kicks off . LOVE those forget-me-nots over at yours. They are some of my favourite flowers and our garden is full of them 🙂

  6. Good stuff Kate although I have to join the others in wondering about the shaking and the stirring. I was told while I was in Peru that we should anticipate a strong quake in the Missouri region of the US this year. Hoping that all the rest of the activity has released the pressure.

  7. I’m reminded of birds sounding their warning calls – living belfries (and by “a defensive tower, once it has shed its wheels, should be an object of posturing splendour to all who behold it.”, of ageing men in their open-top sports cars)

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