With different maps and sensors, it is still possible to explore the labyrinth of tiny regions without getting lost. At certain times of day, even if the boundaries are invisible, the approximate limits of a pays can be detected by a walker or a cyclist. The area in which a church bell can be heard more distinctly than those of other villages in the region is likely to be an area whose inhabitants had the same customs and language, the same memories and the same local saints.
Bells marked the tribal territory and gave it a voice. When the bell was being cast by a traveling founder, villagers added heirlooms to the metal – old plates, coins and candlesticks – and turned it into the beloved embodiment of the village soul. It told the time of day and announced annual events: the beginning and end of harvest, the departure of flocks for the high pastures. It warned of incursions and threats. In the 1790s, recruiting sergeants marched across the Sologne through overlapping circles of sound to find, when they arrived in each village, that all the young men had disappeared. Bells were thought to dispel the thunder and hailstorms that destroyed the crops, which explains why so many people were electrocuted at the end of a bell-rope. They chased away the witches who piloted storms clouds and summoned angels so that prayers said while the bell was ringing – as in Millet's painting L'Angélus – were more effective than in other times. In foggy weather, rescue bells were rung to guide travellers who might be lost.
The numer of bells and the size of the bell tower often give a fairly accurate measure of population density. Hardly anyone complained about excessive ringing, but there were countless complaints about bells that were too faint to be heard in the outlying field. When migrants talked nostalgically of their distant native clocher, they were referring not only to the architectural presence of a steeple in the landscape but also to its aural domain.