Ibiza History & Culture

LiveIbiza Established 1982
Ibiza Artists Anthropology Bibliomania Ecology History Features

History in Ibiza

History of Ibiza
by Emily Kaufman

The Bells of Santa María

Part One

Historical Information

Hello and welcome. This week we have the pleasure of receiving one of Ibiza's top historians, Francisco Torres Peters, as our guest at the history page. Many readers will remember our first interview with this award-winning scholar (LiveIbiza Archive article Weekly Edition 033 of Saturday 13th October 2001) in which he described the development of music during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. This week, Peters will explain the fascinating system of communication by bells that was used in Ibiza from the end of the 13th century until as recently as the 1950s.

The historical value of Santa María's Renaissance bells came into the spotlight last November when local papers announced that long-overdue repairs would be made on the cathedral's now mute bells in a specialized foundry in Germany. The news item stuck in my mind as a particularly pertinent subject for this page, and, naturally, Peters, with his life-long love of music, came to mind as the perfect source. What follows is a detailed account of the crucial role that bells played in island life during nearly seven centuries.

LiveIbiza: Why were bells such an important part of island society?

Francisco Torres Peters: Basically, because, in a rural society such as Ibiza, the tolling of bells was the only means by which public announcements could be made. Until the advent of radios and telephones, bells were used to alert people to imminent danger, to call the congregation to mass, to announce the death of an islander and to mark time. There were virtually no time-keeping devices in pre-modern Ibiza, apart from the rising and the setting of the sun. Hardly anyone had a watch or even a wall clock, especially not county folk.

LI: How far afield could the bells be heard?

FTP: In theory, across the whole island, when the weather was clear. Remember that, prior to industrialization, island life was a very silent affair. Apart from the fact that there were very few people, there were no machines to make much noise. The only urban hub was Dalt Vila, while the rest of the people lived scattered across the countryside. In any case, as I'm sure you know, Ibicencos have never been a noisy bunch. They spoke very sparingly and, then, only when necessary. If the weather was muggy or rainy, it would muffle the sound of the bells, but their pealing would always carry at least to the south-eastern quarter of the island: Sant Jordi, Jesús, Puig den Vals, the part of Sant Rafel to the east of the hill, etc.

LI: Under what circumstances, or for what purposes, were the bells rung?

FTP: Under many circumstances and for several purposes. There were two broad types of ringing: civil tolls and religious tolls. The civil tolls were rung for three purposes: 1) when it was necessary to convene the General Council, which was the island's governing body. It was made up of freely elected representatives, many of whom lived in the country and, therefore, had to be summoned to meetings using the bell system. The second civil toll was called the toque de queda or 'curfew', which warned people that the gates to the city walls would soon, close for the night. Town-dwellers who had been out in the country that day would have to conclude their business and make their way back home, or else spend the night outside the walls.

LI: Once the gates were closed was there any chance that the gatekeeper might open them to let in a latecomer?

FTP: I doubt it. Security was very tight in those days! But people had plenty of time to get back. Curfew tolls were repeated at progressive intervals so that when people heard the first toll they could begin to make their way back. A second toll was rung to remind them that evening was nigh, and a final toll was rung at sunset, after which the gates would be closed until daybreak. One interesting note is that the Spanish term for 'curfew' is still toque de queda, even though bells are no longer used to mark the hour of return.

(I could not resist looking up the etymology of the English word 'curfew', which I discovered comes from the French couvrefeu, literally 'cover fire'.)

LI: What was the third type of civil toll?

FTP: It was called avalot in Ibicenco and was used to sound the alarm of imminent danger. For example, if a pirate ship was spotted near shore, the bells were rung and, hopefully, people would be able to reach a safe place in time. All women and children were allowed to take refuge inside the city walls, whether they actually resided in Dalt Vila or not, while the men would arm themselves and try to fend off the invaders in hand to hand combat. Avalot was also rung if a forest fire broke out or some other life-threatening situation arose.

LI: How did people know which type of toll was being rung?

FTP: Each toll was unique and could be distinguished from the others. The Santa María belfry had five or six bells, depending on the time period, and each was tuned to a different note in the scale. The interplay of these tones created little songs or jingles that even children soon came to recognize. Also, the pacing of the strokes played an important part in differentiating one bell-message from another.

LI: What were the different types of religious tolls?

FTP: There were so many that you would probably feel bored if I enumerated them all!

LI: No, I wouldn't, and neither would my readers.

FTP: Well, I'll tell you a few of the most important ones. Unlike the civil tolls, which were usually a call to action of some sort, the religious tolls were often merely reminders that a moment of inner reverence was necessary, that some aspect of faith should be reflected on and taken to heart, so as to keep the spirit strong. For example, the Chime of Souls was rung every evening so that deceased family members would be remembered and prayed for. Ave María was played three times a day, at dawn, noon and dusk, as a reminder of the Annunciation. It is still played in many local churches on the island, though not always in full. Here at Sant Jordi church, we play it only once a day at noon.

LI: You mentioned earlier that the bells called people to mass.

FTP: Yes, that was another of their many functions. Also, the type of mass was signalled by different types of pealing. If it was High Mass, such as at Christmas, the bell-ringer played a virtual concerto. There were also bells that called people to religious processions. Corpus Christi was the biggest, followed by the Easter procession and the Santa María procession on 5th August in honour of Ibiza's patron saint. There was also a very popular parade on 5th April in honour of Sant Vicent. He was a charismatic evangelist and healer from Valencia who often preached in the Balearics and was much loved by the people. (See LiveIbiza Archive article Weekly Edition 006 of Saturday 7th April 2001, Sant Vicent)

LI: Well, so far you've mentioned four religious tolls, but you haven't succeeded in boring us! You'd better try a little harder!

FTP: Very well. You asked for it. There were certain tolls meant only for the clergy. For example, in the same way that the General Council was convened by bells, so were clerical (or Chapter) meetings announced by the toll of the bell. Another clergy-specific toll was a twice-daily call to the Divine Offices, a set of prayers that were sung in Latin every morning and evening. In English, I believe you say 'evensong' and 'morning prayer'. This was an important toll, at least to the priests, because if they missed these services, they were not paid their full wage. A bookkeeper made a note of each clergy member's attendance and, if any of the Divine Offices were missed, the truant member's salary was docked accordingly.

LI: Well, I must say, it's getting more interesting as we go on. Please continue!

FTP: If you insist. One of the most dreaded knells was the death toll. There were several types of tolls in this category, marking the different stages in the dying process. When someone was in the final throes of illness, the bells were rung continuously for as long as it took the person to die. We called this the 'Toll of the End' (Toque de la Fi). Once the ill or wounded person had died, the toll changed to signal his departure from the land of the living. Finally, there was a funeral toll to call people to pay their respects if they so wished. Each of these tolls was different depending on the gender and social status of the deceased. There was generally no confusion about who had died as the bells revealed whether the person was a man, woman or child, and what station he/she had occupied in life. The death of a bishop, for example, was marked by a cacophony of sound, while the death of a slave - if he was a Christian - was chimed quickly and plainly. For lay people, there were three degrees of death tolls; the most complex obviously cost the most money, while the simplest were the least expensive. Then, on the Day of the Dead, 2nd November, the bells tolled for 24 hours, to commemorate all of the departed souls that had left their earthly life.

There was also an often used but little-known knell called Toque de Sant Sagrat or 'Knell of the Holy Saint'. It was used during storms in an attempt to calm the raging winds and eschew lightning bolts. The bell ringer was exposed to great risk at these times, as the heavy metal bells attracted lightning and could easily electrocute anyone pulling on the ropes below. What's more, the ringer had to stay up all night or until the storm abated, whichever came first. It was an act of true bravery and endurance.

LI: Well, thank you very much for leading us on this interesting journey through campanology. It's been a real pleasure.

FTP: The pleasure's been mine. Thank you for your interest. There are some other points of interest concerning the description of the bells, if you care to go a bit deeper into the subject.

LI: By all means. We'll take you up on your offer in the near future.


Next week we will devote our history page to the life and works of Don Joan Marí Cardona. Many readers will already know that this eminent historian and scholar passed away the evening of 18th January. While everyone who knew him well knew that he was quite ill, it was still a deep shock when his actual death occurred. Don Joan was my primary source of post-Conquest history and his name will be familiar to anyone who reads this page. Please join us next week for an inside look at one of Ibiza's historical giants.

Emily Kaufman