The bells, which are amongst the oldest sound instruments, have always been associated with Christianity from the first centuries when its influence began to spread, "proclaiming God to the horizon" (Charles Péguy). While marking out the passage of time since the Middle Ages, their primary function is liturgical: With their ringing and chiming they call the faithful to come together and pray, combining their song with the joy and suffering of the Christian community, and, just as importantly at Notre-Dame de Paris, with the key moments in the history of France.
Since the end of the 12th century, although the construction of the cathedral was then far from complete, references have been made to the ringing of the bells prior to services. This chiming was enhanced over the centuries as the life of the building and its influence developed. With eight bells in the North Tower, two great bells in the South Tower and seven bells in the spire accompanied by three for the chiming of the clock, this grouping and arrangement has formed a real sound landscape in the Paris sky since the end of the 18th century.
No idea can be formed of Quasimodo’s delight on days when the grand peal was sounded.He mounted the spiral staircase of the bell tower faster than anyone else could have descended it.[…] The first shock of the clapper and the brazen wall made the framework upon which it was mounted quiver… At length the grand peal began; the whole tower trembled; woodwork, leads, cut stones, all groaned at once…
Victor Hugo - Notre-Dame de Paris
The Revolution and its excesses did not spare Notre-Dame’s bells and the great bell Marie, which were taken down, broken and melted in 1791 and 1792. The great bell Emmanuel, the masterpiece of the group, was fortunately spared and still remains one of the most beautiful "sound vessels" in Europe, if not the most remarkable, as bell ringers, musicians and musicologists agree.
It is this same Emmanuel bell which, since 1685, at the top of the South Tower, has constantly rung out for the high points in the life of the cathedral and the main liturgical festivals, such as Christmas, Easter and the Assumption, or for major events such as the Pope’s visit. At the same time, this bell is also intimately associated with the French Nation, whose most important events it has accompanied ever since it was first cast: the Te Deum for the coronation of kings, to mark the ends of conflicts (including the two World Wars in 1918 and 1945), the funerals of French heads of state and the various dramas besetting Humanity, when prayer unites believers and men of good intentions at Notre-Dame, such as on the day after September 11, 2001…
Four bells, placed in 1856 at the top of the North Tower to replace the bells that were destroyed chime on a daily basis for services, the Angelus and the chiming of the hours. Finally, the last, unfortunately mute, element of the current sound landscape is a carillon dating from 1867, consisting of two chimes linked to the monumental clock, one placed in the spire (three bells) and the other in the actual structure of the cathedral so that it can be heard inside (three bells); a project to restore this carillon is currently being studied.