Telling The Time In The Middle Ages

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In the fourteenth century there were no appointments for which you had to be on time. No one had to meet their manager at 10.00 a.m. or needed to get to the hospital for a 9.20 a.m. slot. The only thing you could really be late for was mass.

This isn’t to say that telling the time was unimportant. The medieval day was strictly ordered. Church bells sounded out the canonical hours and, provided you weren’t on a journey, you would rarely be beyond the limit of hearing them. I can hear the chimes of bells which are over a mile away from my house. In the silence of the medieval world, the sound would be heard from much further away.

Whilst the hours of daylight could be divided with some accuracy, no one really had any idea what time it was after dark. If you woke up in the winter you had no way of telling whether it was three hours after you had gone to bed or nine.

The fourteenth century saw many changes with regard to telling the time, but they built on what had gone before. The first known mechanical clock, powered by water, was made in China towards the end of the eleventh century. It was two centuries before a similar device appeared in Europe.

I used to think that European clocks were developed to help monks keep to the liturgical hours, but they had been managing perfectly well without elaborate timepieces for centuries. It was astronomers who needed the (relative) accuracy that clocks could give them, for tracking the movement of the planets. Water driven clocks were not enough and a weight-driven clock was developed in the second quarter of the fourteenth century.

Early clocks had no face or hands and did not ring bells. They alerted a bell ringer to the need to pull the bellrope. In 1335 a clock was built in Milan which rang the bell itself. These clocks were encased in large metal frames and housed in towers. Once they were capable of striking the bell themselves the bell could be struck every hour, even though there was no agreement about how long an hour was.

Edward III installed clocks in his palaces in the 1350s and 1360s. They were the first working mechanical clocks in England.

Clocks were made by blacksmiths. By 1370 there were at least thirty in Europe, but timekeeping was a secondary concern for all of them.  They were astronomical clocks, usually showing the phases of the moon and other important astronomical events.

It was not unusual for these clocks to gain or lose many minutes in one day, but it was not a problem. For most people the days were still divided into twelve long hours of daylight in the summer and twelve short hours in the winter, with the length of the hour varying constantly over the course of a year.

The measurement of time was governed by local conditions. In some places the day started at midnight, in others at midday, in others at sunrise (the most common) and others at sunset. Of course, this was only confusing if you travelled from place to place. If you stayed put, you and all your neighbours used the same system.

Gradually the length of an hour became more regulated, as the day was divided into twenty-four equal parts – in towns at least. Mechanical clocks led to this, in part.

Everyone told the time by looking at where buildings or trees cast their shadows. As clocks spread, it became normal for people to have two ways of talking about time. There was clock time and solar time. They started saying ‘of the clock’ (o’clock) to differentiate between the two.

The divisions of the day established by the church were those used by everyone. Most people got up at daybreak, which was prime, or the first hour. The third hour, terce, was about halfway between daybreak and noon. Sext, or noon, was the sixth hour. The ninth hour, nones, was about halfway bewteen noon and sunset. Vespers was the twelfth hour, or sunset. Church bells were rung at these times. Even if the timing of the bells differed from village to village, they regulated daily life for everyone who could hear them.

Sources:

The Senses in Late Medieval England – C.M. Woolgar

Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel – Frances and Joseph Gies

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed. Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

34 Comments

Filed under Medieval Life

34 responses to “Telling The Time In The Middle Ages

  1. Good post, and it make me want to tear my hair. The idea that an hour isn’t a fixed length of time is shocking to a modern sensibility, but it’s good to be destabilized now and then.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating post, as ever, April. Thank you.I knew telling the hour had varied throughout the country before railway time but had not thought how church bells might have helped marked it before.

    Like

  3. Bryntin

    Dammit, Relativity is hard to understand now, what must it have been like then?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. lydiaschoch

    I had the same response, Ellen. I’m a very punctual person, so this imprecise way of keeping track of time would irritate me.

    Although I do really like the idea of beginning the day when the sun rises. That makes more sense to me than beginning in the middle of the night.

    Thanks for sharing this post with us, April. As always, I learned a lot from you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for your research and delightful way of reporting on it. This was very interesting 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This was a really interesting post April. I had no idea about hours varying in length. Nor about some of the other facts either.

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  7. Brilliantly researched and interesting, as usual. So they hadn’t managed to miniaturise and find a way to stop the flame going out on Alfred’s famous candle, then?! 🙂 You mention the sound of bells travelling farther in the middle ages, because it was generally quieter. Over on ABAB recently, it is pointed out that 21st century noise pollution is threatening the number of Cockneys born within the sound of Bow Bells – because they can’t hear them…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Our cats supposedly cannot read clocks, yet they can get time correct down to a few minutes and wait for canned food at the same time every day. Maybe if we didn’t have mechanical clocks, we’d learn to hear our own internal ones better, who knows. I know that the only time I’m not hyperconscious of time is when I’m writing, though I have several clocks in my office. The idea of clocks “being wrong,” even if only by a few minutes, makes me feel very … itchy…

    Love your posts, April,
    A

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Alex. I can’t speak to cats’ time telling abilities. Mine always thought she was going to be fed when I reached for a tin opener, regardless of the time of day.

      I also don’t like the idea of clocks being wrong. When I commuted by rail I learned that the particular digital device I carried with me was two minutes out. I couldn’t correct it, so I had to remember every time I looked at it, or risk missing my train, which only ran every half hour.

      I’m glad you’re still enjoying the posts.

      Like

  9. The time thing fascinates me, too, and like Alex I tend to think that if we weren’t surrounded by mechanical or digital time tellers, we’d probably be much better at listening to our own internal clocks.
    Though at the same time I feel naked without my wristwatch!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. When I moved back to the Netherlands last year, I ended up with a house near a church, which rings its bells every fifteen minutes. Two more blocks away is a mosque that is not allowed to sound the call to prayer. Having returned from Istanbul, it was strange to me. My husband explained: the church bells are allowed to ring as they ring to indicate time. Well okay then!

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    • I find the bells of clock towers comforting. I live between two and hear one or the other depending on the direction of the wind. Don’t mosques amplify the calls to prayer? That might also be the reason for banning them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Most sounds are banned. The question was more: why are the church bells allowed?

        The call to prayer is most definitely amplified. On vacation, it’s an exotic experience. For day-to-day living, it’s annoying (just my personal opinion)

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        • I’m glad they are. People here who try to get them silenced (and there are many) are usually told that they knew the bells were there when they moved into the house. They’re told the same when they complain about school playgrounds. It might be different in the Netherlands.

          Liked by 1 person

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  13. Thank you for this concise explanation. I am currently reading Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror and the Light,” the third in her Wolf Hall trilogy and one sentence gave me pause. Lord Cromwell gestures to the closed door behind which the emperor’s ambassador is conversing with Lady Mary and he says, “I think that’s ten minutes.” Then he proceeds in to stop the conversation. I was wondering how he knew! I wasn’t aware that mechanical clocks were so widespread already in the 1500s. A web search led me to you. I am much obliged.

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