Friday, May 19, 2006

When you ring my bell...

There was an annoying disco song from the 70s where some girl kept singing over and over again, "You can ring my bell, you can ring my bell...." I wish I could forget it, but it is indelibly etched into my mind.

One day when I was in the fifth grade, our teacher was called away from the classroom. The kids sat quietly for a few minutes until we realized she had really gone far away from the classroom. First one kid and then another started whispering to a friend, and our voices grew louder, and we started talking across the room, and finally kids started laughing and joking out loud. I was teasing some girl and yelled out, "You can ring my chimes!"

Immediately, the loud speaker above the door blared out, "Who said that?"

Oh, how quickly 30 kids can drop into whitless, guilty, we've-been-caught silence. The administrative audience had been listening in on our conversation. My one remark, spoken out of pure ignorance (and repeated only because I'd heard someone else say it a few days before and thought it was a cool expression) earned me yet another trip down to the principal's office (I have many memories of those various principals and their cramped, ugly offices).

I had no idea of what that expression means. In fact, that was a bit before I entered adolescence. Of course, I'd already kissed my first girl by then. In fact, I started kissing girls a few years before, when boys still thought it was an icky thing to do (I guess it depended on the girl, but I thought Leslie Bouillion was just really cute and kissable). But chime-ringing had not yet entered into my world as anything other than a cool expression that I vaguely understood meant something like, "Make me very happy."

What's funny is that "Ring my bell" and "Ring my chime" started out with a very different meaning. It goes back to ancient Rome, prior to the scandalous age where every Roman citizen supposedly engaged in casual debauchery. The Romans were, for most of their history, a very pious, conservative people. They had high moral standards and did not approve of sexual activity outside of marriage. Now, people being what they are, I'm sure there were Romans through all generations who stretched the boundaries and occasionally crossed the lines.

But marital fidelity was, for a long time, one of the chief Roman virtues. Women, especially, were expected to remain faithful to their spouses. The primary reason for such concerns is really simple: Men want to know that the children they are raising really are theirs. Plain and simple. Whole tribes have been killed off, with the exception of young women of child-bearing age, just to ensure that other men's children did not live.

The Romans were pretty merciful to their enemies. They often hobbled men who surrendered in battle, maybe cut off a hand, turned them into slaves, and shipped them out to plantations to toil in the fields. Millions of acres of land were tilled by Roman slaves for centuries. The women were turned into domestic servants, prostitutes, and personal attendants.

However, it's often been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As the Romans became more powerful, they became more interested in abridging their strict moral standards. Adultery, while not formally accepted, became a passion of lonely wives whose husbands often spent years fighting in foreign lands or long days associating with other men (or other women) in the baths, brothels, and other places wives were not permitted to go.

Older, wealthier men often took young virgin brides, begat their children, and then left the brides to raise the kids at home. The young mothers may or may not have desired to remain virtuous, but if they were particularly beautiful they found they could curry favor and influence politics by attending the right parties. Roman emperors occasionally seduced their followers' wives. Some emperors made these wives into long-term mistresses.

The trickle-down effect ensured that as the elite members of Roman society engaged in more and more debauchery, the middle classes would experience it, too. After all, those elite members of society had to find someone to discreetly debauch with, and seducing a lonely soldier or merchant's wife or daughter might be easier than competing with an emperor or prince for elite women's attentions.

There were laws against such activities, and penalties. Men, if caught engaging in adultery, might have to pay a fine. Their wives could divorce them. Wives sometimes dumped their husbands but sometimes they just got their revenge by cheating on the cheaters. However, Roman laws were often created to ensure the integrity of Roman (male) dignity. The Romans had been humiliated many times and in many ways through history. They always came back and ensured they would not suffer similar indignities again.

So, somewhere along the way, indignant Roman husbands passed a law permitting any husband who discovered his wife's indiscretions could immediately take her to a brothel and leave her there. The wives were not only divorced by such actions, they were completely disowned. And to heap humiliation upon disgrace, they had to accept the attentions of any men who wanted to be with them. Furthermore, the men were required by the law to grasp a rope as they reached their final moment of union and pull hard. The rope would ring a loud bell, notifying the citizens that yet another unfaithful wife had performed a public service.

This penalty was left in place for several generations, but it failed to deter Roman wives from fleeing the households of their unforgiving husbands to find (temporary) love and pleasure in the arms of other men. The bells began ringing more frequently. And they rang and rang at all hours of the day and night. They kept ringing until one of the emperors, driven to distraction by the constant bell-ringing, had the bell-towers torn down.

Once I learned that bit of history behind bell-ringing, I lost all interest in the expression that I had thought so amusing when I was a naive young lad. Maybe some of those women enjoyed the life under the bells. I don't know. At some point, it had to be pretty obvious to Roman wives just what they would be enduring if they got caught committing adultery, but apparently a fair few of them took the chance anyway. That doesn't say much for the quality of their marriages.

Well, the Romans eventually turned in their empire for a set of Dark Ages and the expression "Ring my bell" evolved into something about pleasure and joy. People forgot where it came from, and maybe now they only think it came from an annoying disco song from the 70s.

On the other hand, we've incorporated bells into all aspects of our lives. We have bells on telephones, doors, animals, cars and trucks, computers, and everything else. And we make music with them. In fact, were it not for cowbells, I'd probably lose the beat for many Salsa songs while dancing. I can usually stay in time when I hear the cowbells.

Keep ringing. I'm enjoying the dance.


Post a Comment

<< Home