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On The Case

The emergence of ringing vertigo

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1502 (Published 22 December 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1502

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John Bunyan and ringing vertigo

While I am not qualified to comment on the medical aspects of the 'ringing vertigo' discussed in Trevor Jackson's recent roundup of clinical case studies published in the Ringing World, I am not entirely sure that the experiences of John Bunyan at Elstow can be cited as evidence that the condition is an age old problem that has just not been properly discussed before.[1] Firstly, there is the problem that the paragraphs on bell-ringing in Grace Abounding were not included in the first edition of the work published in 1666. Henri Talon warns that this strange omission means that his retrospective vision could have been influenced by later fashion.[2]

We have no difficulty whatever in believing that Bunyan repented of his frivolity in going to ring the bells for service, or in simply watching the ringers - the Puritans had protested against the excess of chimes for so long that poor John could not fail to see sin in them. But it is none the less tenable that his remorse as a young man was not so dramatic as he imagined thirteen years later

Secondly, Bunyan himself makes it clear in Grace Abounding that he was not actually ringing when he experienced his terrifying symptoms: "I thought that such a practice [ringing] was but vain, and therefore forced my self to leave it, yet my mind hankered, wherefore I should go to the Steeple house, and look on: though I durst not ring."[3] He follows his account of his bell-ringing fears by explaining why he also gave up dancing: "I was a full year before I could quite leave it; but all this while, when I thought I kept this or that Commandment, or did by word or deed any thing that I thought were good, I had great peace in my Conscience, and should think with my self, God cannot chuse but be now pleased with me, yea, to relate it in mine own way, I thought no man in England could please God better than I."[4] Talon regards Bunyan's fears about ringing as absurd and groundless, "without other cause than the disorder of a fevered spirit."[5] John Brown in his life of Bunyan reflects that when a man comes "under the domination of conscience, and is a stranger to love, conscience is apt to become somewhat of a tyrant: a false standard is set up and things right enough in themselves seem to become wrong to the man."[6] Roger Sharrock notes that, like others in its genre, Grace Abounding is full of accounts of Bunyan's fearful dreams and visions: "they took on the almost tangible form of voices, blows, and buffets, and he records the sensation of being pulled and pinched by the demons sent to torment him and the menacing texts of Scripture that filled his thoughts."[7]

Rather than an early instance of 'ringing vertigo,' the experiences described in Grace Abounding would appear, therefore, to be Bunyan's over-morbid reflection on the spiritual consequences of what he came to regard as a sinful delight in bell-ringing. [8]

References:

  1. Jackson T. The emergence of ringing vertigo. BMJ 2005;331:1502-1503.
  2. Talon H. John Bunyan: the man and his works. London: Rockliff, 1951, 25-26.
  3. Bunyan J. Grace abounding to the chief of sinners, and, The pilgrim's progress from this world to that which is to come, Sharrock R, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966, pars. 33-34.
  4. Ibid., par. 35.
  5. Brown J. John Bunyan, 1628-1688: his life, time and work, London: Hulbert, 1928. Cited in: Morris E. Towers and bells of Britain. London: Hale, 1955, 173.
  6. Talon H. John Bunyan: the man and his works. London: Rockliff, 1951, 59.
  7. Sharrock R. Introduction. In: Bunyan J. The pilgrim's progress. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965, 8.
  8. Cook WT. The development of change ringing as a secular sport. In: Sanderson J, ed. Change ringing: the history of an English art, Vol. 1. Guildford: Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, 1987, 38.

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

07 January 2006
Michael Day
Research Officer
UKOLN, University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY