alarm bell

Bell tower

A tower which contains one or more bells, or which is obviously designed to hold bells (even if it has none), is a bell tower. Most commonly, it is part of a church; but when attached to a city hall or other civic building (especially in continental Europe), it is often named belfry. (Elsewhere, the term "belfry" refers strictly to the part of the tower which contains the bells. Thus some bell towers have no belfry.) The occasional free standing bell tower may also be referred to by its Italian name, campanile. Old bell towers may be kept for their historic or iconic value, though in countries with a strong campanological tradition they often continue to serve their original purposes as well; a few new towers are built every year for similar reasons.


The bell is rung to signify the time, for special events such as weddings and funerals, or especially in old days to sound a civil defense or fire alarm.

Bell towers may also contain carillons or chimes, musical instruments traditionally composed of large bells which are sounded by cables, chains, or cords connected to a keyboard. These can be found in many churches in Europe and America and at some college and university campuses. In modern constructions that do not qualify as carillons, rather than using heavy bells the sound may be produced by the striking of small metal rods whose vibrations are amplified electronically and sounded through loudspeakers. Simulated carillon systems have also used recordings or samplings of bells onto tape, compact disc, or memory chips.


Historic belfries exist throughout Europe, from Ireland to Russia. Bruges, Ypres, Ghent, Lille, Tournai and Douai have famous examples. Not all are on a large scale; the "bell" tower of Katúň, in Slovakia, is typical of the many more modest structures which were once common in country areas. In the Middle Ages, cities sometimes kept their important documents in belfries.

In 1999 thirty-two Belgian belfries were added to the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites. In 2005 this list was extended with one Belgian and twenty-three French belfries and is since known as Belfries of Belgium and France. Most of these were attached to civil buildings, mainly city halls, as symbols of the greater power the cities in the region got in the Middle Ages; a small number of buildings not connected with a belfry, such as bell towers of—or with their—churches, occur also on this same list (details).

Etymology: belfry

The word belfry comes from Old French berfrei which is derived from Germanic bergan "to protect" and frithuz "peace"; that is, it was originally a watch tower providing protection against hostile incursions. These towers usually contained an alarm bell or bells, thus Middle English speakers thought berfrei had something to do with bells: they altered it to belfry, an interesting example of the process of folk etymology. Today's Dutch belfort seems to combine the bell with the stronghold.


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