The Sound of the Reformation

16th-century Clock
Striking Clock, c. 16th Century. © Trustees of the British Museum

In June’s update, I explore a fascinating object recently acquired by The British Museum: a Gothic striking clock bearing a Latin inscription closely associated with the Calvinist Reformation, ‘POST TENEBRAS LVX’. Donated in 2015, the timepiece’s origin and maker are unknown as it previously moved between two private family collections. The earlier owner was the avid clock-collector and enthusiast H.G. Hammond. The curator directs the curious reader to his Antiquarian Horology (1977) to see a similar striking clock, which shares form and structure with famous counter-models designed by the Leichti family, the most renowned clockmakers in Switzerland between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries.[1]

This time machine, dated speculatively to the sixteenth-century, boasts a four-corner steel-post frame with decorative finials spiralling from each corner and the cap of the trapped bell. A red, trompe l’oeil architectural scene with classical columns and Corinthian capitals dominates the front; positioned as the focal point at the base is a shield depicting a black double-headed eagle. It would have originally been mounted on a wall to allow the weights to drop.

Clocks were multisensory objects with no confessional bias in early modern Europe. Employed across the religious divide, they were material contributors to both Catholic and Protestant soundscapes, texts, and iconography. Although inferior in timekeeping to its ancient temporal cousin, the sundial, the clock served as an important symbol of social status in family households and individual portraits, and offered visible metaphors for spiritual realities. It could remind the viewer of approaching death, compel the owner to avoid trivialities and cultivate her soul through the remembrance of future time, when all works would be scrutinised by God on Judgment Day. It was also capable of imagining and representing complex theological doctrines such as the incarnation, when eternity intersected with time. 

The clock’s multivalent status makes it a complex memorial device. It is simultaneously a visual and aural object. The very word ‘clock’ derives from the words for ‘bell’ in old Dutch and old Northern French. The etymology reminds us of an earlier prioritising of the ear over the eye, and the hierarchy of hearing over seeing in memory practices. Clocks rang the bell on the hour. Only the hour imposed itself on the listener, chiming a specific repetition to relate the numerical hour. 

‘Seeing time’, however, required a different interaction between object and agent. It takes volition on the part of the observer to occupy the appropriate space and distance from the temporal object to gain information about time through the hour hand’s specific location on the dial. But sound does not force this kind of relationship. Sound interrupts and invades daily life with the admonition to commemorate, whether we want it to or not. To look or glance is much more like a choice, and therefore cultivates deliberate and selective memory habits.

To hear is much more passive. The involuntary reception and digestion of sound was so well perceived by medieval natural philosophers and theologians that it gave shape to the entire experience of the Eucharist. It was a commonplace to sum up the medieval rite as ‘hearing mass’. But on a practical level, sound did involve a degree of consent. Out of the many parish bells marking different points of the day, which chime would a parishioner listen to and obey? The role of volition with sound also shows how it discriminates. It reveals what happens when individual choice is available but capacity is not. The deaf or elderly could not consent to, or participate in, the bell’s voicing reminders. It is a question that has not yet been explored, but deserves inquiry: how did Reformed notions of anthropology and disability shape and inform memory cultures in early modern Europe? Were they described as separate silent communities?

Woodcut illustration titled Confector horologij (Latin) and Urmacher (German), meaning ‘The Clockmaker’. From The Book of Trades (Frankfurt, 1568)
Woodcut illustration titled Confector horologe (Latin) and Urmacher (German), meaning ‘The Clockmaker’. From The Book of Trades (Frankfurt, 1568). © Trustees of the British Museum.


Protestants, set on refashioning the body and senses in religious worship, understood how sound could divide listening communities and activate what Matthew Champion has called ‘sonic memories’. Strip gestures, remove images, and alter words in liturgy, but how do you purge and purify sound of Catholic memory? Bells were omnipresent in pre-Reformation devotion, acquiring specific names and verbs along the continuum of medieval rites. The ‘sacring bell’ rang during elevation of the bread, the death-knell signalled a death in the parish. Was it enough to update the bell’s sacred narrative for Reformed audiences but keep it ringing to the notes of a Marian chant? Or were different melodies perceived as carriers of different confessional memories? I cannot explore possible answers here. Yet sound does not seem to be as easily redirected as other material objects that were not completely eradicated, but scarred and physically rearranged in the process of oblivion to serve as symbols of Protestant triumph.

Sound, perhaps more than any other medium, resists forgetting. What one listener could perceive as encouraging new devotion, another could hear and be stimulated to practise old Catholic piety under cover. Yet it also strikes me as a thing most prone to be forgotten. Sound is an extremely needy phenomenon, entirely contingent and tied to the physical plane, emerging from an instrument – shaped metal, carved wood, or even human flesh – for its very existence. Indeed, today we really can’t say that we ‘remember’ the memories that the Calvinist clock in the British Museum intended to preserve. Its inscription is in a language that only interests the specialist or the primary or secondary school student fresh with conjugations in mind before a Latin exam; it doesn’t tell time and it does not chime. We now relate to the relic, emptied of its other sensory dimensions, only as ‘imaginary listeners’. We can see how objects like these seem capable of shedding their original commemorative powers in new contexts.

But the new theology did not immediately change a context shaped by centuries of Catholic memories – memories structured around sensory perceptions to help recall and the travel across time. The ambiguity of sound is perhaps one reason why all editions of TheBook of Common Prayermention ‘bell’ only twice (the 1549 ‘Ashwednesdaie Service’ and the 1559 ‘Preface’).Forgetting the bell inside official Protestant English liturgy is a shocking elimination. The silent omission is almost loud. Prayer had been fashioned for centuries by the relationship between public sounding and collective utterance. But this does not mean that Protestantism ushered in a quiet universe and the silencing of sound, as the tradition developed its own system and programme of noises.The passing-bell was still used in Reformed funerary rites. It signaled a soul’s departure but also summoned the living to new actions and attitudes. Bells beyond the Reformation could announce solemnity but also moments of good cheer. Festive bell-ringing entered the Protestant celebratory tradition marking providential deliverances such as the Gunpowder Plot. Pre-Reformation objects such as bells were rehung in many English churches, developing the new tradition of change-ringing in the early seventeenth century. It was an expensive way to justify the reuse of Catholic objects: bell towers had to be widened, reinforced, and stabilised to support the weight of the new wheel-technology, additional bells, and longer swings. These architectural surgeries and heavy expenditures says quite a bit about the lengths Reformed parishes were willing to go to produce novel sound-patterns and cultivate ringing societies.

So the bell survived the Reformation in daily life even as its textual presence in the official English prayer book was clipped. When cultural practice conflicts with literary records it makes us stop and reflect on why this is so. I think it’s an example of how texts and material objects forget and suppress quite differently. Objects can act as physical remainders of abandoned language. Materiality has an afterlife that deleted words do not have. But strategies of forced absence in texts, whether through omission, marginalisation, or even words crossed out but left visible, can undo itself and draw attention to what is missing. It has the uncanny ability to make the absent present. The continuity of bells further conflicts with our anti-aesthetic narrative, or the assumption that the Reformation introduced widespread ambivalence to cultures of sound and noise. Matthew Milner and Richard Baum have started to revise these myths and have encouraged us to grasp the enduring preoccupation with soundscapes and sensuous ritual in post-Reformation Europe. The British Museum’s Calvinist time machine is thus an excellent site for exploring the afterlife of one of its sensory aspects that had enormous memorial responsibilities before and after the Reformation. It is the sound of the Reformation and the reformation of sound that I plan to examine further in an upcoming article.

[1] H.G. Hammond, ‘The Structural and Aesthetic Perfection of Gothic Clock Frames' in Antiquarian Horology 10:4 (1977): 336–9.

This post draws on the scholarship of Brian Cummings, Christina Faraday, and Tiffany Stern. With many thanks to Ceri Law and Alexandra Walsham for their comments and feedback.