Doorbells of the early medieval Dordogne

[This is the unrelated second part of the post I wrote over last Christmas holidays about interesting stuff in the Beaulieu-en-Limousin cartulary. The first part is here.]

Saint-Michel des Bannières, Lot, from afar

If this isn’t the place, it’s not far off: Saint-Michel des Bannières, Lot, France, pretty close to Bio, one of the hamlets where what I’m discussing is documented

The other interesting thing that I’ve found in [the editor’s introduction to the cartulary], though, is nothing like as debated [as the debate over fear of the Year 1000] and far more mundane. Deloche [the editor] was quite keen on protochronism for the Limousin, largely directed at studies based on Paris and the locality, but this is a thing he seems to have thought quite normal but which I’ve never seen before. While talking about ceremonies of property transfer, he says:

[Symbolic transfer] took place by means of a bellpull that the donor offered the recipient, at the door of the house, per cordam signi et hostium domus

This he quotes from an 887 document, although it also occurs in an 881 one in a bit more detail.1 Now, I’m really not sure that it means what Deloche thought it meant. There’s nothing about bells in the Latin and I would, unguided, have read the first phrase there as referring to a seal tie or something like that, and the second is only really explicable in the variant Deloche reports from the 881 instance, “ostium de domo”, but it is quite hard to think what else a cord “of the sign and doors of the house” could be. Something here at a door has a string on it. Presumably it makes something happen when people pull on it. Is there any earlier evidence for how this would have been done? The doorbell seems like a device someone should have come up with 887, but it doesn’t seem to fit with how we imagine medieval homes, does it? You don’t expect to get to the front door of a farm before someone spots you walking through the yard…

1. M. Deloche (ed.), Cartulaire de l’Abbaye de Beaulieu (en Limousin) (Paris 1869), doc. no. CLXIII, discussed (and misquoted) p. XCII whence quote; also instanced in doc. no. CLXXIII, where it comes up in a longer list of tokens that were offered, “per cordam de signo et hostium de domo et cespitem de terra sive ramum de arboribus”.

4 responses to “Doorbells of the early medieval Dordogne

  1. Allan McKinley

    Probably worth noting nowadays if you are visiting a farm, other than early or late or when yardwork us being done, the yard is normally empty. Work is mainly in the fields or the house/office. I doubt that is a new phenomenon.

  2. Doors are a symbolic place, so I first though in jewish mezuzhot, Only to discover later that this ‘investiture’ method is explained in : Gatterer, Johann Christoph : 1798 : “Abriss der Diplomatik” p.91-92. Unfourtunately my german is even more limited than my english and some words are not properly translated, so I am not really sure about how to interpret this cordam signi

    • That’s interesting, thankyou! He had exactly our quote, but didn’t attribute it, and his one cite is from Marmoutier, which suggests a bit more of a spread. He also thought it meant ‘doorbell’ (Glockenseile, ‘bell-rope’), but I still see no sign of an actual bell in these examples, although I note that he compared it to investiture with the clapper of a bell (annulum de campana). This is the point at which it’s necessary to go back to Giry or Bresslau, really, and the time to do that is not now, but at least I now know to look for it elsewhere!

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