Tag Archives: Medieval hours

Telling The Time In The Middle Ages


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.


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



Filed under Medieval Life