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« Tuna 3 / 2016

Church Bells in Medieval Tallinn

This article begins with a discussion of church bells and mechanical clocks in Tallinn based on evidence from written sources. Thereafter, a bell of the Holy Spirit Church from 1433 is examined in detail. The functions of church bells were both religious and secular: they invited people to mass and announced the canonical hours, but they were also rung at important public events, and to alert the population of fire and other accidents. The ringing of bells at funerals was costly and not affordable for everybody. Thus, the sound of the bells also reflected social hierarchies. According to a price list from St. Nicholas’ Church from about 1488, a funeral with all the bells cost 4 marks. Some important rulers, who were buried elsewhere, were commemorated with the tolling of the bells in Tallinn, e.g. the masters of the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order.

Churches, particularly parish churches, had several bells of different size and sound. Bells were named after saints or according to their size and function. For example, in the late 15th century, St. Nicholas’ Church had the Apostles’ Bell, a Great Bell, a Sunday bell and two smaller bells. The founding of a new bell for St. Olaf’s Church in 1437 is described in detail in the account book of the church, listing all the related costs: the moulds, bell metal, payment to various craftsmen and their assistants, etc.

The first mechanical clocks with a dial and hands were commissioned by the town council and installed in a centrally located church. In Riga, a clock at St. Peter’s Church is first mentioned in 1405, the one at the Holy Spirit Church of Tallinn was made in 1434. Tallinn’s parish churches acquired a clock much later: St. Nicholas’ Church in 1469 and St. Olaf’s Church in 1527–1528. The Dominican friary also had a mechanical clock.

The only surviving medieval church bell in Tallinn, cast in 1433, hung in the tower of the Holy Spirit Church until 2002 but was then destroyed by fire. Since 2013, its fragments are on display in the southern nave of the church. The bell was richly decorated: it had figural ornaments in relief and an inscription in Latin and Middle Low German: o rex * glorie * xpe * veni * cvm * pace * ave * gracia * plena * dominvs * tecvm anno domini m * cccc * xxxiii // ik ◊ sla rechte ◊ der maghet als ◊ deme ◊ knechte ◊ der ◊ vrowen ◊ als ◊ deme ◊ heren ◊ des ◊ en ◊ kan ◊ mi ◊ nemant ◊ vor ◊ keren. The last row consisted of the Crucifixion group and the bell maker’s name — merten leifert. Formerly, the master’s family name had incorrectly been read as Seifert.

Merten Leifert (Leifferdes) alias Merten Gropengeter was a coppersmith in the service of Tallinn’s Town Council in the 1430’s and 1440’s. In 1437, he cast a bell for St. Olaf’s Church. At Christmas 1446, Leifferdes became the alderman of St. Canute’s Guild, which was the highest social position for a craftsman. His son became a canon in Tallinn. Leifferdes died most likely in early 1447.

The ringing of the bells was controlled not only by the church but also by the town council, especially in turbulent times. For example, during the Reformation in 1524, the Town Council of Riga forbade the Dominicans and the Franciscans to ring their bells, in order to demonstrate the council’s power and to remove the sound of the mendicants from the sacred space of the town.