Folly Bells: jingle all the way

by Cynthia du Pré Argent
© 2000 Cynthia Virtue
updated 2005

Early winter: It's that time of year again, when you can't open a shop door without a string of jingle bells making you jump as they whang against the glass of the door.

 However, it's a good time to consider adding bells to your 14th-through-15th century outfits, because they're in the stores all over.
The squire from the Ellesmere ChaucerNote the bells on the belt of the squire, and the decorated hose!

On Lijsbeth, you can see the equitorial seam on the bells.  Also: it's hard to see at this size, but her houppelande is tied at several points down the front opening!

Lijsbeth van Duvenvoorde

According to the Museum of London's book Dress Acessories bells of brass, tin, copper, gunmetal and pewter have been found in deposits from the later Middle Ages.  There are household accounts of gold bells bought for clothing as well -- but these were likely melted down for something else after they went out of fashion, so it is not surprising that few, if any, have been found.

One of the bells found

Bells come in two basic forms:
  • "Clapper" or "open bell" sort, which is open at one end and has a weighted bit in the center that swings against the edge to make the sound,
  • "Rumble(r) bell" which most of us would call a "jingle bell" -- a closed shape of metal with a "pea" that moves around randomly inside to make the noise.
The closed shape can be like a modern jingle bell, with 'petals' of metal that are folded over to enclose the pea, or more like sleigh bells or morris bells, which are more spherical with an equitorial seam.  Often these latter will have decorative holes; ones on dog collars will have bone-shaped ones, for example.

bells from india
Medieval bells for clothing were of both these types, and were always fastened to some variety of clothing or fancy belt, baldric, collar, or hip-belt.   I've seen some folks who wear them on a string looped over their belt, but I think this may be unsupported by the evidence.

Many people believe that the ornate strings of gold-colored thingies depending from gold collars on the young people in the Tres Riches Heures paintings may have been gold bells.

Man with bells attached all around the belt

The drawing above right, from Dress Accessories shows "ladies and gallants engaging in various games", all but one being rumble bells:  bells on a baldric, bells suspended from a belt on silk cords, so that they are jangled by the hips, or clapper bells attached directly to a hip belt.  Both men and women of high estate wore these bells.

"The bethrothal portrait of Lysbeth van Duvenvoorde, painted c. 1430, shows her wearing a high-waisted girdle to which rumber bells were fitted by means of plied, bi-colored cords so that they jangled on her hips." See above for a small version.  Link to very large image at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

My first attemptHere is a picture of my in my first version of such a belt, over my green wool houppelande.  I used bells from a bell-wreath of the sort sold at Christmas, bought at Marshall's/TJ Maxx type store for $12, it gave me about 25 bells in bright-and-shiny, and 25 in matte gold.  These are the matte gold ones.  It wasn't nearly as noisy as I expected, unless I was dancing.

The cords are a commercial plied cord of gold and medium green, laced through the decoration on the belt, which I've had for a long time.

Should you be interested in adding bells to your wardrobe, go to a bead store that stocks sand cast brass jingle bells from India (see above).  These are most like the medieval jingle-type bells extant, in that they have leaf or herringbone patterns on the 'petals' and they are cast in one form, as are many (but not all) of the medieval examples.

Although the very shiny modern jingle bell may have been the desired end-product for the medievals, my opinion is that the shininess will make it appear too modern when wearing it with garb, and I find the Indian bells to have a sweeter tone.

baldrics of bells

Here's a picture of my husband and myself wearing our bell-baldrics. (click for larger)


Devonshire tapestries man with bells

All material ©2000 Cynthia Virtue Email Author with comments
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