The legend of the Easter bells that go to Rome from Good Thursday to the evening of Good Saturday is an enigma for folklorists and historians of traditions.

There exists, in the History of folklore, a mystery which has always intrigued the specialists of popular traditions.  It is the one attached to the origin of the “Easter bells”.  When, in the VIIIth Century, the Church, as a sign of mourning, forbids the ringing of the bells during the three days which precede the Festival of the Resurrection, the good people invented a very strange story.  They said:

“From Good Thursday to Good Saturday evening, the bells leave their belfries, fly away and go to Rome…”

With the knowledge that legends nearly always draw their origins from something that really happened, one could ask what strange phenomenon could have led our ancestors to imagine such a fable.  For no-one has ever seen any bells flying in the sky.

Or have they?…

Don’t laugh and let us have a look at a chronicle from the VIth Century which will perhaps furnish us with the explanation that we are seeking.

This chronicle’s author is the monk Gregoire de Tours.  Reporting all the important facts of his epoch in his Histoire des Francs, the worthy man writes that in 584,

“there appeared in the sky brilliant wheels of light which seemed to crash into each other and go past each other;  after which, they separated and disappeared into thin air”.

The following year, he notes:

“In the month of September, certain people saw some signs, that is to say, some of these wheels of light or cupolas that one is accustomed to see and which seem to run with rapidity in the sky.”

Two years later, the monk again writes:

“We saw for two nights in a row, in the middle of the sky, a sort of strongly luminous cloud which had the form of a hood.”

A cupola, a hood, those are objects which resemble bells a lot.  From there, could we not think that these mysterious apparitions, observed by the contemporaries of Gregoire de Tours, are at the origin of the popular fable?

For centuries, city and country children await the “return” of the bells which are supposed to bring them back from Rome eggs in sugar or chocolate.

But what then were these extraordinary engines which were circulating in the atmosphere?

Their description strangely resembles that of our modern UFOs some of which have, very exactly, the form of a cupola, of a hood, in a word, of a bell

Let us listen to a witness who, on 2 October 1954, saw one of these objects above Quinay-Voisin, near Melun:

“The engine passed in the sky at a fast pace.  It was coming from the North and had the form of a cupola…  It made no noise and was shiny like aluminium…  In a few seconds, it stationed over a wood.  I then saw it rocking for a long moment;  then it took off again at astounding speed and disappeared.”

Another testimony:  on 24 June 1962, around 3:00 pm, a man from a garage, who was running an errand in the vicinity of Nice, suddenly sees something luminous in the sky.  Let us listen to him:

“At first, I thought that it was round.  Then when the thing came closer, I saw that it had the form of an upside-down bowl.  This thing circled above the hill, as if it was looking to land.  Then it threw out flashes and rose vertically at great speed.  Then I lost it from sight.”

Third testimony, even more precious:  On 19 June 1971, a former American officer was driving along a road in Georgia when he noticed above a wood an enormous scintillating object slipping under the clouds.  He says:

“This object had the form of a German helmet or of a bell.  It was fairly high, but I think that its diameter could be equal to the width of a Boeing.  Intrigued, I stopped and turned off my engine.  The object continued to advance slowly without making any noise.  Then it began to circle around a point which seemed to me to be a little lake situated not far from the place where I was.  While it was circling, some red lights appeared on its sides, as if some windows were lighting up.  Then everything went out and the object suddenly took off and disappeared into some clouds.”

So, what do we conclude?

This very curious story that parents still tell children could have at its origin the apparition in the sky of a mysterious flying object.

That the men of the VIth Century had perhaps received the visit of an engine comparable to these UFOs which roam around our sky, the strange evolutions of which are periodically reported by the newspapers?

In this case, the “Easter bells” would have entered into our traditions because of an object in the form of a cupola which perhaps came from another world and had caused the men of the year 584 to marvel…

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Guy Breton, whose work I have translated, underlines that this explanation is only an hypothesis which he submits to the folklorists, nothing more…

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Flying bells are very often in legends and popular tales.  In all of the world’s folklores, bells have a magical character.  We see them as special objects – almost living beings – since we baptise them.  And we lend them strange faculties:  they ring on their own to announce a catastrophe, they make storms flee, they stop hail.  Finally – and we come back to our subject – they roam around the sky at fantastic speeds.  In certain tales, they are described, brilliant or glowing red, flying over fields or villages.  In others, they stop for a few instants in a point in the air before taking off again like a flash of lightning…  Which is, according to the witnesses cited by the newspapers, one of the characteristics of our modern UFOs.

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There is an enormous amount of apparitions of unidentified celestial objects in the Middle Ages.  The chronicles are full of them.  They speak of mysterious round objects, flying shields, lances of fire, in other words, objects whose description again corresponds with what we read today in the press…  Listen to what Gregoire de Tours wrote in 590:

“During this year, a light so bright shone in the night that one could believe that it was noon;  one saw as well globes of fire travelling often across the sky at nighttime and illuminating the world.”

Here is what the chronicler Matthieu de Paris writes in his Historia Anglorum, on the subject of a phenomenon which occurred at twilight on 24 July 1239:

“While the stars were not yet lit and while the sky was still very light, serene and brilliant, a great star appeared like a torch.  It rose from the South and climbed in the sky emitting a very big light.  When it was high in the sky, it turned toward the North, slowly, as if it wanted to occupy a position in the sky.  But when it was about in the middle of the firmament, in our boreal hemisphere, it left behind it some smoke and some sparks.  This had the form of a big head, the front part was sparkling and the back part was emitting smoke and flashes…”

For the date 1290, one finds in the chronicles of William of Newburgh this text:

“As Abbot Henry, Prior of Byland Abbey, in England, was about to read the “Benedicite”, Joannes, one of the friars, came to announce that a prodigy was showing outside.  Everyone then went outside and there they saw a big silver thing, round like a disc, fly slowly above them, provoking the most lively terror…”

Thirty years later, Robert of Reading, who was a Benedictin at Saint Peter of Westminster, notes in his chronicle that in 1322,

“in the early hours of the night of 4 November a pillar of fire the size of a little boat, of pale colour, was seen in the sky above Uxbridge (Middlesex);  it rose to the South, crossed the sky in a slow, majestuous movement and left towards the North.  At the front of the pillar, a bright red flame was burning throwing out great rays of light.  Its speed increased and it disappeared into space…  Several witnesses saw a sort of collision and a noise like a fearsome combat was heard.”

Phenomena of this kind are signalled throughout the whole of Europe.  In Sicily, the Minor Brothers of Ragusa watched, on 8 January 1388, the passage of several “very luminous and aligned” objects above their convent.  And the Cronica Albertina indicates that in 1394,

“the second day of the month of September, at the second hour of the night, appeared to some men who were on the public square of Forli and to others, in other places assembled, a great asud [name given at the time to celestial objects] which traversed the sky very slowly and which stayed in space the time of two Pater Nosters, and which was as long as one step, and which, at its disappearance – the men who were on the square reported it – gave out an odour of burning wood, and we heard other people who assured that the said asud on fire travelled through the air in its own fashion, but after it remained motionless for a bit of time in space, and after this time it disappeared little by little leaving in its place a sort of cloud, and the rest of the vapours had taken the form of serpents, a rather admirable thing.”

Finally, here is another text that Guy Breton found in the Memoires of a bourgeois from Arras written by Jacques Duclerq, Counseller to Philippe le Bon.  He writes:

“In the night of the All Saints [31 October night] 1461, was noticed in the sky an ardent thing, like a very long bar of iron, very fat like half a moon.  For a quarter of an hour, we could see very clearly.  And then, suddenly, this strange thing twisted and climbed into the skies.  Each remained stunned by it.”

You see, the sky of the Middle Ages is criss-crossed by unidentified flying objects…  It is possible that these mysterious apparitions have given birth to other myths.  Which would perhaps explain why, when the Church forbade the ringing of the bells for three days, the good people found it quite natural to tell their children that the bells – which had the form of some of these objects circulating in the sky – had flown away.  And as they could imagine them better close to the Pope, they added that they had left for Rome…

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