Skip to main content

A brief history of crotal bells

Whether a single bell jingling on its own or multiple crotals affixed en masse, the sound of a ringing crotal bell is recognized the world over, as it has been for millennia. Crotal bells in their present form have been ringing since the early Middle Ages, but archeologists trace the crotal to earlier teardrop-shaped artifacts from the late Bronze Age. It seems man has never tired of the gentle ringing of a crotal bell.

The earliest examples are thought to have been made for instrumentation – people coming together to make music. The use of crotal bells then expanded, becoming adornments to clothing (the book of Exodus tells us the robe of the high priest was adorned in bells) and later used as signaling tools on livestock. Crotals could be attached to the collars of cows, goats, and sheep to scare away predators and to aid in locating a stray. Crotals were also used in falconry, attaching to peregrine and gyrfalcon legs via a short leather leash.

An Orthodox priest carries a censer with crotal bells

Image: An Orthodox priest carries a censer or incense burner decorated with gold-tone crotal bells for a wedding procession.

Jesters and acrobats were early adopters of crotal bells in their uniforms, but the bell’s popularity as a fashion accessory become mainstream in the 14th and 15th centuries. Crotals were then brought to the New World on the ships of early European explorers and colonizers, who traded the dainty metallic objects for food, animal pelts, and other goods belonging to Native Americans and the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. 

From children’s crafts to holiday decorations, and from religious ceremonies to low-tech door bells, crotals remain entrenched in cultures around the globe.

Section image: A crotal bell is lashed onto the leg of a Harris’s hawk as it perches on a falconer’s glove.

How crotals are made

When we think of a bell, we often think of a dome or cup shape with an internal swinging clapper (other bells are struck by an external hammer). Crotals are unique in that the internal clapper is loose and not attached to any surface – allowing it to freely move and strike any of the internal walls to make the distinctive ringing sound. 

Crotal bells can be cast in brass or bronze, while many are made using flat sheet metal that is die-cut into a star or flower shape. The ‘petals’ are then pushed inwards, meeting at the center to form an enclosed sphere or acorn-like shape. Others are made in two halves before being crimped or soldered together. 

All crotals share the common structure of a hollow chamber with one, two, or three slitted perforations cast, cut, or stamped out to allow the transmission of sound. The clapper is often a pellet or pea made of brass or stone. As a hollow sphere, the loose clapper always stays within.

How do you get a crotal clapper into a round metal sphere? The earliest cast crotals were formed around a sand ball with a pellet at its core. When the metal cooled and the mold was broken away, the sand could be shaken out of the perforations, leaving the clapper bouncing around on the inside. No need to solder a joint or press the bell into shape. Today, many mass-produced crotals are stamped from flat tin and, before the petals are bent to form the spherical body, a metal clapper is dropped within.

There isn’t one single way to attach a crotal, either. A suspension loop, most often integrally cast or die-stamped, allows the crotal bell to be affixed to a leather strap, hung from a chain, or stitched onto cloth. Others are riveted in place.
Crotal bells may be plain, but they are often decorated with engravings, etchings, or cast detailing. The only limitation is the artist’s skill and imagination! Flora (like leaves or flowers), fauna (like fish scales or animal faces), and symbols of authority (like a sunburst, fleur-de-lis, or crown) are common forms of decoration. A founder’s mark or monogram may be included to indicate the proud maker.

The general shape and purpose of a crotal has remained unchanged for a thousand years – an early and lasting triumph of human ingenuity and design.

Section image: Crotal bells stacked on a red table at a market in Beijing, China.

Horse bells and sleigh bells 

The sound of sleigh bells ringing is a charming reminder that the holidays are upon us, conjuring up visions of Christmases yore. But why were crotal bells added to horses and carriages in the first place? Before motorized vehicles became mainstream, with their noisy engines and horns for signaling, horses were the main mode of transportation. On windy country lanes and narrow mountain trails, where two travelers could happen upon each other unexpectedly, bells became an indispensable tool to avoid collision. 

Similarly, horse-drawn vehicles could roll into a busy town relatively quietly, especially if it were a sleigh in snow. Hence the need for some way to alert bystanders, pedestrians, and other horse-drawn vehicles that traffic was approaching. Crotal bells could be hung on a horse’s harness or collar, or they could be mounted onto the wooden frame of the wagon. The slightest movement would set the bells gently ringing. Some merchants and delivery wagons even used the distinctive sound of their own bells to let folks know they were in the neighborhood – akin to how ice cream trucks beckon people today.

Crotal bells on horses at the Feria de Abril in Seville, Spain

Image: Calash horses adorned in colorful decorations and crotal bells stand on the street during the Feria de Abril in Seville, Spain, on April 30, 2017.

Of course, man always finds a way to show off, and the ornamentation of a horse or carriage was an easy way to display wealth, status, and power. Crotal bells flourished in intricate designs, elegant manufacturing, and rich tones. While we no longer rely on horses for our primary way to get from A to B, the enchantment of sleigh bells has remained in popular culture. Today, vintage horse bells and sleigh bells are popular collectibles.

Section image: Crotal bells adorn the collars of two horses pulling a sleigh in snow. A dome-shaped bell hangs at the lowest point of each collar.