Since last week, we have a curfew. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, of course. They allow no one on the streets after 9 p.m. I’ve heard that in some villages or towns, a church bell rings at the start of the curfew. But not everywhere, though.
Church bells have long since been messengers. All my life, I’ve listened to their sound and tune, and know what the bells are telling me. A wedding, a funeral, or Sunday Mass. Seventy years ago, they rang and rang and rang when a devastating flood took place. They warned the communities along the coast: danger, the water levels are rising! Last year, during the first lockdown, the bells rang to support the doctors, nurses and all the caregivers. People opened their windows and their applause sounded in unison with the bells.
The church bell or belfry signalling a curfew is a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages, as a recent article in a Dutch online magazine reminded me. The official version is that William the Conqueror imposed the law around 1068, according to the (legal) dictionaries. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England mentions among the new Norman laws the curfeu (4 Bl. Com., 1770, pp. 412). This French term couvre/ceuvre feu means to ‘cover [the] fire’, hence curfew. People had to be inside by eight and put out the fire and candles in their wooden homes. A flame left unattended could burn down villages, so this was very much a public safety measure. And for a foreign king, it was also a practical way of preventing uprisings from hitting the streets.
Before the Normans
Yet, urban areas and their public safety issues existed long before the rise of the Normans. The trouble is the lack of information about curfews or bells during the Viking Age. A clue comes from P.H. Ditchfield, in his book of 1896, in which he mentions (without reference, alas) that William took his curfew idea from the laws of Alfred the Great. Though I looked hard, I could not find any references to curfew laws of Alfred’s time.
What we know did exist during the Viking Age, was a watchmen system. The Anglo-Saxons had tithings to ensure a group or community would look out for each other. They would bring the criminal among them to justice or face punishment as a group. They were supposed to call for help and offer help, for example, when fires hit their homes (read an article on this system on Medievalists.net or 4 Bl. Com. pp. 404). The Old Nordic laws speak of varðmaðr in Scandinavian trading towns. They were local men who watched over their community at night.
But watchmen systems are not the same as a curfew law or bell that tries to prevent the danger from occurring at all. And since William the Conqueror, curfew laws have gone in and out of fashion. With the current pandemic, it has returned as a public safety measure. Now, only an occasional church bell rings. Messages and signals are sent to the communities by mobile phone alerts and televised press conferences.