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The common idea is that they were made beside or near the church they were going to be hung in, by itinerant bellfounders. Not just according to a Shire book, mentioned in a previous post, but also according to the BBC TV program “Tudor Monastery Farm”, or rather, someone who was doing some bell making who was featured in the program. Also someone I respect for their depth of knowledge on their own specialist topic, on a certain forum, also made the same sort of statement when I brought it up, indicating the idea is widespread.

As you know I rather like finding out if commonly held ideas are right or not. In this case, I have a much better and more interesting answer than “They were made on site”.

Firstly, the evidence for it is, when you actually look carefully, rather mixed. Trevor S. Jennings book “Temporary Site Bellfounding technology and the itinerant Bellfounder’s technique” (henceforth TSBT) lists several pages of known temporary bells, but as I pointed out in my previous post, only 37 of them seemed to be medieval, despite thousands of medieval bells surviving. A lot of those featured are either 12/13th century, or 16/17/18th century, and frequently made in places far away from towns, such as Cornwall. (of course we won’t know of all that were made 600 years ago, but it seems odd that such a small number are known of and why the odd distribution over time?)

So the question is, what other evidence exists? The answer is, shedloads!

My current source, of which I have read some parts (But it is an entire PhD thesis so rather large), is “Validating Classical multivariate models in archaeology – English medieval bellfounding as a case study”, by Alexandra Bayliss, PhD thesis for UCL college of archaeology. (you can get it for free from Ethos, the British library thesis digitization project).
This gives a great deal of information about medieval and post-medieval church bells. The important thing to realise is that thousands of them have marks on them which indicate where they were made, or who made them, or who paid for them and when they were made. Not every bell has every mark, and not every mark has been tied to evidence so we know what it meant, but the simple fact is that many of them can be connected directly to known foundries in the medieval period, and sometimes known founders too, especially in well documented places like London.

Moreover, these foundries and founders definitely were not working at the individual churches, they were making bells in a central location and the bells were being carted or taken by ship to their church. Distances of up to 50 miles were commonplace. For instance, the foundry at Norwich dominated the production of ecclesiastical bells for the surrounding area, with some overlap with Bury St Edmunds, which in turn saw competition from London.

There’s the obvious question of why do people think itinerant ones were so important when it is clear that for much of the medieval period they were not. The answer to that is I think quite simple. Firstly, not enough information about bells and their production has been put in the public domain and disseminated properly. Secondly, because many bells were actually made locally, or even in the church itself!

Because a bell pit beside or inside the church, as well as legends of the bells being made right there would be handed down and spoken about and passed on, people who took an interest almost certainly got the idea that itinerant bellfounding was really important and how things were generally done. I argue that this is wrong, albeit with some foundation to the idea.

My hypothesis is that in the early to high medieval period, they did indeed make bells locally, using experts who travelled from town to town or monastery to monastery. But then bells were, I think, comparatively rare at the time. So a few hundred bells could easily be made over time across the country. But things changed in the later 13th century onwards. The country became more prosperous, and technical ability increased. There was an increase in the use of metals in general, from pewter to copper alloys, and the chronological evidence for the distribution of English sites which have evidence for the casting of large copper alloy domestic vessels rises throughout the 12/13th centuries, peaking in the 14/15th before falling away somewhat in the 16/17th. See “Caldarium? An antimony bronze used for medieval and post-medieval cast domestic vessels” by Dungworth and Nicholas, in Historical Metallurgy, volume 38 part 1 for 2004. It also has a map of these sites, which includes such famous bell founding towns such as York, Norwich, Worcester, London and so on.

Bell being broken out of sand mould at Kentwell

Bell being broken out of sand mould at Kentwell

From this, I suggest that as the economy and technology improved in the 13/14th centuries (as well as the increased population providing a bigger market), foundries were set up in towns, where the founders could earn a living making copper alloy vessels such as cauldrons, and smaller ones such as brooches, buckles, candlesticks, evidence having been found for their manufacture in the towns. There would have been a large local market for these objects, whether selling masses of buckles to girdle and pouch makers, or cauldrons to householders. After all, it might take a month (this is a guess of a worst case scenario) to make a bell, but a lot of that time was taken up waiting for things to dry, rather than actually working on it. Bells would give you a nice wedge of cash, but there simply wouldn’t have been enough demand for bells to keep the foundry open. This would also have aided the continuation and improvement of professional skills over time.

I hypothesise that there are clear advantages in having a central foundry rather than making a new one at every church which wants a bell. Obviously you don’t have to dig a new pit for the casting every time; neither do you need to build a new furnace and only use it two or three times. Furnaces after all need tonnes of stone, clay, sand, bricks etc, and need to be dried before use. Then theres the equipment for carving the mould and putting it all together, stuff which was fairly primitive by our standards but surely expensive to remake every time. Instead, you can work your assets harder and more efficiently by having one central foundry for the area. So I think the happy coincidence of increased manufacture of copper alloy objects dovetailed nicely with the demand for bells, meaning that most later medieval church bells were mostly made in towns in specific permanent foundries. That is, permanent in terms of being used for deacades or in the case of one site at Worcester, a century. This site in the Deansway wasn’t the only one used in the 300 years that bells are known to have been cast at Worcester, but it was used for a long time and indicates a continuity of use which entirely goes against the idea that bell founders were itinerant. ( See “Excavations at Deansway, Worcester, 1988-89”, Hal Dalwood and Rachel Edwards)

Kentwell furnace at full blast

Kentwell furnace at full blast

I need to check the cost of carting objects for a distance, and also what information I can find on the cost of furnace building, because I think ultimately it would show that transporting the bell wouldn’t be so expensive by comparison, and cheaper than paying for an entire new furnace and the living costs of a visitor to your church and his helpers.
It does seem that some were made locally throughout the later medieval period, for instance Bayliss wrote:
It is true, however, that a disproportionately small number of bells from northern counties can be assigned to foundries (compare Figs 1 and 229). It is unclear whether this is because of the relatively poor recording of these northern bells, most of which only appear in lists, without illustration, or whether the logistics of transporting bells in the hilly northern counties meant that the industry had to be organised differently in this
region. There do not appear to be substantial lines of related founders, such as exist in
London and some of the other provincial foundries, in York. Rather the analysis seems to
reveal a number of relatively independent workmen who cast bells. This may suggest that
a model of itinerant founders, casting in churchyards, familiar from the documentary
records of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is more appropriate for the northern counties in this period.

(From page 231 of volume 1)

and this makes sense if we consider how expensive transportation was at the time and perhaps the existence of some specific local needs. Nevertheless, I think it clear more bells were cast in central foundries at this time than before.

What then happens in the post-medieval period is also rather interesting. There is apparently a drop off in the number of sites associated with the manufacture of large copper alloy vessels as we leave the medieval period. Did England have enough bells and other objects at that time? I suppose the Reformation interfered with it, and the taking of bells from empty monasteries would have meant there was a glut on the market. That the Refomation led to a great number of 2nd hand bells being sold is stated on page 215 of “Church bells of England” by H. B. Walters, but it then says that the work of the foundries was revived under Queen Elizabeth, so that is a period of around 20 to 30 years. Perhaps between the lack of bell making work and economic changes of the century, there was less need for copper alloy objects in general.
But judging by the list in TSBT, there is an increase in local site production in the 17/early 18th centuries, which is also the period that cast iron became used for making large cooking cauldrons and other things which had previously been made of copper alloy. The net result might have been a decline in the number of bronze foundries for economic reasons, which would be reflected in the crude chart of Dungworth and Nicholas.
Further research would be required to work out the actual number and lifespan of bronze foundries in the early modern era, and whether that matches the increasing use of iron and changing fashions of objects in use.

If the number of foundries dropped, then it makes more sense to make a bell locally, because of the transportation costs and that you have the founder living with you and you can keep an eye on him better. Having said that, Jennings list of sites contains many in Devon and such out of the way places, which might be expected to use an itinerant bellfounder anyway. But this is balanced by a number cast in places like Lincoln and Oxford, which in the later medieval period had local foundries but perhaps by this time did not?

Page 215 of Church Bells of England also states that the post-reformation foundries are not easy to treat of categorically owing to their great number, wide distribution and varying duration. It should be possible to list the medieval and post-medieval foundries mentioned in the book, and compare to those mentioned by Bayliss. It might be that the greater number of short lived foundries confuses the picture and actually, thanks to the increase in bell ringing as an actual form of music, many more bells were required. A full ring needs 8 bells, whereas in medieval times they might only have had 1 or 2 in a church. So although there are more temporary sites listed in TSBT, that doesn’t necessarily represent an actual increase in use of such methods, rather, that they were part of a great expansion of bell making to suit the new fashion.

Overall, I think my idea has merit, the trick is gathering more data to show whether it does or not. Since it is about history, there are incomplete datasets and the inability to experiment upon it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t draw conclusions. More work to do then.

As an aside:
I find it fascinating how there can be such a variety of information around, and yet it is not often pulled together into ideas and articles. When it is, the resulting articles often don’t have widespread circulation, because they are printed by obscure specialist bodies or done at home and stapled together. That’s one thing that is useful about the internet, it is easier to find sources now than it used to be, as long as people refer to them and link to them. Of course the other problem is that many resources which were online 10 years ago no longer are, because someone deleted their page or lost the files. Fortunately as part of their general education responsibilities, a lot of professionals in areas of interest are putting information online.