The Art of Changes: Bell-ringing, anagrams, and the culture of combination in seventeenth-century England

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Change-ringing, a new way of ringing existing church bells based on a series of mathematical permutations, was extremely popular in seventeenth-century England and continues today. The close relationship between change-ringing and contemporary cultures of combination is established in order to address a question that has so far remained unanswered: why does change-ringing have its unusual form? Change-ringing borrowed from mathematics and linguistics, and particularly from the early modern fondness for anagrams, but went further than these other combinatorial systems in which the principle of selection drives meaning. In change-ringing, the lack of selection is precisely where meaning is located: all the bells hanging in the tower had to be used equally. In the post-Reformation church, the official uses of bells had been much curtailed. Change-ringing, and its need for so many bells, was a way of justifying the continued presence of these pre-Reformation objects into and beyond the seventeenth century.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)387–412
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


  • change-ringing in early modern England
  • uses of church bells
  • mathematical permutation
  • anagrams
  • philosophy and combination

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