The Sounds of (Machine) Silence

Byland Abbey

While I was out walking on a quiet Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, plotting out my sequel to The Protector, I was startled by a sudden, loud noise.  It was one of those industrial sized lawn-mowers being driven off a truck and about to cut a postage-stamp-sized patch of grass.  It ripped me out of the fifteenth century with a snap.   I was struck by two things—first by the totally inappropriate size of the appliance being used in relation to the area to be mowed and second by how loud the dang thing was!

At that moment, it hit me that this sound, like a lot of other noises we take for granted today, was totally unknown back in fifteenth century.  What must it have been like to live in those pre-industrial times with no cars and trucks; no radios, TVs or cell-phones; and no lawn-mowers or snow blowers?  While I will admit that these machines have made our lives much more convenient, what have they cost us in terms of peace and quiet?

Of course, it wasn’t totally peaceful or quiet, even then.  People are inherently noisy, verbally and otherwise.  They talk, they shout, they laugh, they sing and make a variety of other sounds.  To be sure, some places were noisier than others in the Middle Ages, especially busy cities and towns.   Narrow, confined streets with their overhanging eaves reverberated with the din of heralds, hawkers and merchants, all shouting for attention.   For those caught in one of the pitched battles of the Wars of the Roses, the tumult was even louder and often horrific—trumpet blasts, the clash of metal on metal, the boom of canon, the cries of the wounded and dying.  Fortunately, even in those days, battles were comparatively rare, and most people did not live in busy cities.

Of course, there were other non-human sounds.  Animals make many noises, and there were probably more of them around back then.  Roosters crow, dogs bark, horses neigh.  Birds chirp, trill and tweet in spring; insects hum and buzz in fall.  People likely paid more attention to these sounds when there was little other noise to distract them.  Inanimate nature can also be quite loud with her high winds, heavy rains and rolling thunder.    Machines weren’t totally lacking either though their sounds were more gentle back then.  There was the plip-plop of mill wheels grinding grain, the click of looms making cloth, or the creaks and thuds of cranes loading and unloading merchant vessels.  There were musical instruments too:  organs in large churches; harps, rebecs and dulcimers in noble houses where music and dancing providing much of the entertainment.

Still, apart from these, there must have been a prevailing quiet, especially in the countryside, that we can hardly imagine today.  Though I would not change places with them, I sometimes envy those folks who did not have to hear all of the machine noises that assault our senses.  As a writer, I am fortunate that I get to go back and inhabit those supposedly halcyon days, if only in my imagination, and I try to include many of the sounds of those times in my books.  Of course, the people I am writing about didn’t know anything else.

Yet every now and again, I am reminded that perhaps they were not so different from us when it comes to unwanted noises.  One of the most common, and it would seem more pleasant, sounds of that era were church bells, ubiquitous in towns and not at all uncommon in the countryside.  People kept time by those bells peeling out the canonical hours.   But in 1143 there was a conflict between the monks of two abbeys—Byland and Rievaulx–in the desolate wilds of England’s north Yorkshire.  These monasteries were located less than two miles apart, close enough that the two communities could hear each other’s bells at all hours “which was not fitting and could by no means be endured.”  Such was the monks’ consternation that Byland Abbey was forced to relocate four years later.  Even the sound of church bells can pall, it seems, when one doesn’t want to hear them.

Categories: Backstage

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