It was during the fourteenth century that bells were first used in Flemish cities as a means of regulating the working day, reflecting the development of a wage economy – employers were keen to keep tabs on their employees. Bells also served as a sort of public-address system: pealing bells, for example, announced good news, tolling summoned the citizens to the main square, and a rapid sequence of bells warned of danger. By the early fifteenth century, a short peal marked the hour, and from this developed the carillon (beiaard), in which the ringing of a set of bells is triggered by the rotation of a large drum with metal pegs; the pegs pull wires attached to the clappers in the bells, just like a giant music box. Later, the mechanics were developed so that the carillon could be played by means of a keyboard, giving the player (beiaardier) the chance to improvise.
Carillon playing almost died out in the nineteenth century, when it was dismissed as being too folksy for words, but now it’s on the rebound, and several Flemish cities – including Bruges and Mechelen – have their own municipal carillon player. Belgium’s finest carillon, a fifteenth-century affair of 49 bells, is housed in Mechelen’s cathedral tower and resounds over the town on high days and holidays. There are also regular performances at the weekends and during the week in the summer.