Ratchet, or cog rattle


rattleOrigin: the lower Amblève region, late nineteenth to early 20th century.  Board in lime or poplar wood; shaft supports in beech wood; handle, shaft and cogwheel in oak.

Ratchets, or cog rattles, come in various forms.  This is the most common type, with a handle and a board scraped by a toothed cogwheel when the ratchet is twirled around by hand.

The ratchet has many names, varying in different regions, and even from village to village. In Wallonia, some of the many names are: Brouya, carakète, cratchot, crinnète, rèkèkèk, rahia, tarata, ratata and tartèle. Flemish names include rekketekketek, rakkenjak, krakere, krekel and ratelaar.  All or almost all of the names are onomatopoeic.

This ratchet was purchased in Louvigné (Sprimont) where it was formerly used in place of the church bells to call the faithful to church during the last few days leading up to Easter Sunday (Holy Week).  Then, as now, the church bells fell silent from the Gloria on Maundy Thursday until the Gloria of the Easter service. Bells were seen as an instrument with a particularly beneficial sound: they are the voice of God, the sound of the divine protection of the community.  However, from Maundy Thursday to Good Saturday Christians remember the passion and the death of Christ, God is symbolically absent from the world, and for three days of mourning and grief, death and evil seem to have had the last word!  The bells therefore mourn in sympathy and are silent.  This gave rise to countless traditional stories of the bells going on a journey, for example to Rome, and returning in triumph during the Easter night to announce the resurrection of Christ.  In the past, bell ropes were even drawn up into the bell towers during this period to prevent pranksters from sounding the bells.

It is important to understand this state of mind in order to understand the ratchet's significance in the former sound universe.  For three days leading up to Easter, during the agonizing silence of the bells, church services were still announced throughout the day.  Groups of boys, usually choirboys, walked the streets singing chants to announce the services, interspersed with the whirling of their ratchets, as you can hear in the musical extract. They make a harsh staccato noise, the complete opposite of the bells.  The discordant sound of the ratchet is the sound of death.  Some church ratchets are even painted completely black and decorated with a silvery tassel like a catafalque!

On Easter Sunday, their work over, the same boys ran one last time through the streets, this time with a small bell.  They carried buckets full of water, blessed that morning by the priest, which they distributed on the doorsteps. In return, they were given eggs or a little money in payment for their services.  This booty was carefully divided between them according to age and amount of service over the three days, according to complex childish rules...  This tradition has now almost completely disappeared, although it is still maintained in a few Belgian villages, for example in the Bertrix region (Luxemburg province).

Through the centuries, the ratchet or cog rattle has also been used in many non-religious contexts.  From the announcement of lepers in the Middle Ages, through to street peddlers and bird-scarers; from the warning of gas attacks in the world wars of 20th century, up until the present day, when football supporters still use football rattles to make themselves heard.

Stéphane Colin

translation Fiona Shotter


Children with ratchets, 1970s, Musée de la Vie régionale, Cerfontaine