Resurrecting the Art of Manual Bellringing in Spain’s Vall d’en Bas

In the picturesque village of Joanetes, nestled in the verdant hills of Garrotxa, Catalonia, a group of dedicated individuals is working tirelessly to revive the fading tradition of manual bellringing. Led by Xavier Pallàs, the founder and director of the Vall d’en Bas School of Bell Ringers, these 18 students are determined to restore the dynamic songs and messaging powers of church bells that have been lost over the past century.

Church bells, once a vital means of communication before the advent of modern technology, have been replaced by mechanical tolling devices in many Catholic and Protestant churches across Western Europe. However, Pallàs and his students believe that the richness of sound and the ability to convey specific messages can only be achieved through manual bellringing.

Pallàs, who witnessed the dire state of automized church bell towers in the region, embarked on a mission to train new bellringers and preserve this intangible cultural heritage. His efforts were recognized by UNESCO, which added manual bellringing in Spain to its compendium of humanity’s intangible cultural heritage two years ago.

The Vall d’en Bas School of Bell Ringers, officially recognized by the ISCREB theology school in Barcelona, recently concluded its bellringing course. The diverse group of students, ranging from engineers to retirees, spent months researching old chiming sequences, documenting their origins, and learning to play them. They even sought out old bellringers or their family members to record their knowledge, ensuring the preservation of this ancient tradition.

For the students, the tolling of church bells became a deeply personal experience. Roser Sauri, who works in artificial intelligence, reconnected with her childhood by recovering and playing the chiming sequence that had resonated in her grandfather’s village during his baptism. The students practiced tolling sequences for various purposes, including calls to Mass, weather warnings, and even announcements for the village militia.

The emotional and physical demands of manual bellringing were evident as the students took turns tolling the bells. Juan Carles Osuna, a church mural painter, described the experience as an honor and a way to honor both humans and God. The human touch, with its hesitations and variations, added an element of emotion and authenticity that automated systems could never replicate.

Pallàs acknowledges that his dream of having a bellringer for every bell tower may be utopian. However, the promising start of the school, with a full class for the upcoming fall and a waiting list of 60 people, indicates a growing interest in the revival of this ancient art. Graduating students like Sauri and Osuna hope to continue playing at their local parishes or assist in converting belfries into systems that allow manual ringing.

Pallàs believes that the recovery of bell ringing can help strengthen communities in an era of rapid technological, economic, and political change. The tolling of church bells, with its ability to reach everyone within a local community, can serve as a unifying force during significant moments such as deaths or celebrations. It has the power to mark the rituals that communities need to connect and come together.