(The). It now means the bell tolled to announce the death of one who has died in the parish; but originally it meant the bell which announced that the person was in extremis, or passing from time into eternity.
“When a person lies in agony, the bells of the parish he belongs to are touched with the clappers until either he dies or recovers again. As soon as this sign is given, everybody in the street, as well as in the houses, falls on his knees, offering prayer for the sick person.” (See lxvii. of the Canon Law.) —Diary of the Duke of Stettin's Journey.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894
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