time-art - 7/17/94
"A Question of Time... " by Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester
Article on the medieval concepts of time.
NOTE: See also the files: bells-msg, sundials-msg, calenders-msg, clocks-msg,
A-Gear-o-Time-art, Watches-art, med-calender-art, Sandglass-art.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanšs Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
A Question of Time...
--- Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester
What day is it? What year? How old are you?
These questions are not so easy as you might think. Take the first
one, for example. As I sit here typing this out, it is 7:30 on a
January Friday evening. For most medieval people, however, it would
be Saturday evening, not Friday. Some of you may be aware of the fact
that the day begins at sundown in the Jewish calendar. Same thing for
the medieval day. (Ever wonder why Christmas eve is the night before
Christmas day? Now you know). Furthermore, if I were writing this in
1239 ( the right year for me), I would probably not really know
exactly what time it was. The day was divided into two halves, light
and dark, rather than two twelve-hour periods; thus, in winter, an "hour"
would be longer at night than during the day. I would probably
be aware of the seven "canonical hours" (Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext,
None, Vespers, and Compline), but how these corresponded with the
actual hour of the day would vary with the seasons and the length of
the day. These canonical hours were selected by St. Benedict as the
hours the monks would observe the daily offices: three ( terce --the
third hour of the morning; sext -- the sixth hour, around midday;
and none -- the ninth hour, in the afternoon) were the publicly
announced changing of the Roman guards, and four ( matins -- the
dawning sky; prime -- sunrise; vespers --sunset; and compline --
complete darkness) were tied to nature. Bells were rung at these
hours to call the monks to prayers; those in towns or near a
monastery would doubtless be familiar with them. You will note that
it is possible to tell time in a medieval manner at Pennsic, even on a
cloudy day: the "canonical hours" consist of the thrice-daily cry of
the camp at 10 am, 1 pm, and 4 pm (these are last year's hours), along
with the medieval hours of lightening sky, dawn, sunset, and complete darkness.
I would probably also be aware of sundials and their usefulness in
daylight hours and might have marked candles to help me at night. It
seems that before the introduction of mechanical clocks, the precise
ordering of time by equal hours was not only impossible, it was simply
not part of the way of thinking. Things do change, though. In the
fourteenth century, a device called a "century clock" with bells on a
regular system began to be more common, so people began to know a bit
more what hour it was.
What day it was also depended on what calendar you were on. Luckily
for us, the changeover to the Gregorian calendar did not happen until
fairly late -- 1582. But here's the rub: Are you in a Protestant or
Catholic country? Only Catholic countries adopted the new calendar at
this time; and in these countries in this year the day 15 October
immediately followed 4 October. You have to take care in these cases.
After this, what's June 1 in England is June 12 in France; eventually
the Julian lag reaches thirteen days. England doesn't adopt the
Gregorian calendar until the eighteenth century; a few fierce and
independent Swiss cantons (where the old new year, January 13, known
as "old Sylvester" is still celebrated) held out until the twentieth
century, as did, of course, Russia (though the Russian Orthodox Church
is still on the Julian calendar.) Could you imagine the confusion
that would result if every Laurel Kingdom was on a different calendar?
Attending events could be a real adventure.
Now for the fun part. What year is it? For me, (writing this in
January) it's 1239. Christmas 1239 was two months ago. And 1240
starts on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation (or Lady Day, as
it's called in England). The idea behind this is that if we're
reckoning time from the Incarnation of Jesus, we should do it from the
moment Mary became pregnant. Count back nine months from December
25...and you get March 25. Now this is just England. Other countries
started their year at different points. The Holy Roman Empire used
December 25 until the thirteenth century, as did France, England
(before the Plantagenets), and most of Western Europe. In the early
thirteenth century, Philip Augustus of France switched the beginning
of the year to Easter, which adds the difficulty that the year begins
on a different day every year. This seems to have really only have
caught on in Paris and in court circles, but since most of our French
records are products of these circles, it is important. Other dates
found local favour, as R.L. Poole observes: " If we suppose a traveler
sets out from Venice on March 1, 1245, the first day of the Venetian
year, he would find himself in 1244 when he reached Florence; and, if
after a short stay he went on to Pisa, the year 1246 would already
have begun there. Continuing his journey westward, he would find
himself again in 1245 when he reached Provence, and on arriving in
Paris before Easter (April 16) he would once more be in 1244." To
add the confusion, Spanish custom dated the beginning of the anno
domini (year of grace) to 38 B.C. To find this date, add 38 to the
A.D. year. This was used in Spain until the middle of the fourteenth
century and in Portugal until 1420. Sometime in the sixteenth century
almost everyone switched to January 1 as the beginning of the new
year, which had marked the beginning of the Roman civil year and had
survived long after this in Spain, as well as being generally
recognized as the beginning of the fiscal and civil year around Europe
In Christian lands, it took a couple of hundred years after the
Conversion of Rome for scholars to settle on numerical dates for the
major events of the Bible: the practice of dating from the
Incarnation of Christ ("A.D" dating) was introduced around 525 but not
immedia tely universally adopted, and the length of history was
finally determined when Bede calculated the date of creation as March
18, 3952 B.C. However, even these norms were not adopted everywhere,
as the Spanish example I just noted makes clear. We also have
Byzantine reckoning (used in all Orthodox lands) which adds 5508 onto
the A.D. date: thus 1240=6748.
Of course, Islamic custom dates the year from 622 AD (the Hegira) and
features a lunar calendar. Thus, the year 86 in Muslim lands begins
on January 2, 705 (modern usage); the year 87 then commences on
December 23, 705. The Jewish calendar (also a lunar calendar) uses the
year 3761 BC (the beginning of Mosaic law) as a start date; seven
times in every nineteen years a thirteenth month of 29 days is added
so that unlike the Muslim holidays, Jewish holidays are always about
the same time of the year. Luckily for us, the translators of
Penguin classics and other such popular sources have usually put the
dates into modern usage; if they haven't, they usually let you know.
Now the beginning of the anno societatis reckoning at May 1, 1966
doesn't seem so odd, does it?
How about the calendar itself? Anyone who reads Bede knows that there
was a great eighth century debate about calculating the date of
Easter. The results were a bunch of nifty charts designed to let one
know when Easter fell in any particular year. The date of Easter was
important in the determination of "movable feasts" which were counted
in days after Easter. For example, Ascension day is forty days after
Easter, Corpus Christi day is 54 days after, etc. Most feasts
associated with particular saints were fixed, as were most of the
feasts associated with the Virgin Mary. Advent was a movable feast
which did not depend on Easter, but rather on Christmas day. (Pennsic
is also this type of "feast"-- in practice, Pennsic seems to be
arranged so that the third Saturday of the month falls in War
weekend). You might be interested to know that the practice of
observing "Leap Day" as February 29 is post-period; in the Middle
Ages, there were two February 26th's in the Leap Year; thus the usual
name for leap year in ecclesiastical calendars is annus bisextilus .
What to call the actual days of the month? Roman practice had based
dates around three dates in each month: the Kalends (always the first
day of the month), the Nones (either the seventh or the ninth day),
and the Ides (the thirteenth or the fifteenth day, depending on the
month). Dates were always reckoned as days before one of these
"landmarks", and Roman practice was to begin counting with the day you
were currently on: thus, April 28 was considered four days before
the Kalends of May, not three (as we would reckon). This system
continued to be used throughout the Middle Ages, but in the North
(particularly in Germany and Norman holdings), a new system began to
appear in the twelfth century: namely, numbering the days of the
month, the practice we still follow today. This practice only slowly
caught on; local practices still focused mainly on saint's days,
though this could become confusing as one traveled from place to
place, where different saints were revered. In this part of the
world, our SCA calendar is built around a number of "feasts": Locally
in Ealdormere, we have Coronet, Investiture, Murder Melee, Feast of
the Hare, Lady Mary Tourney, and Ealdormere Arts and Sciences as
major "feasts". Throughout the Middle, Crown Tourney, Coronation,
and Pennsic are major feasts. Traveling to the East Kingdom would see
different "feast days" in celebration, except for Pennsic. Perhaps
the only "feast" shared by the Society as a whole is Twelfth Night.
For legal and business purposes, the year was divided into quarters,
just as it is today. The quarters were named for the major feast day
nearest them: beginning in September with Michaelmas term (began Oct.
6), followed by Hilary term (January 20), Easter term (seventeen days
after Easter), and Trinity (eight days after Trinity Sunday, which
was the seventh Sunday after Easter). You will note, of course, that
these quarters are not all the same length; nor was business
transacted on every day. Sundays and major feast days, as well as
Lent and the Advent-Christmas season, were off limits for the courts
(and Parliament, later), though regular business probably was less
observant of these limitations. Legal records are usually arranged by
term. (Proof that quarterly reports are period, I suppose).
Now, to the final question: How old are you? It's easy if you're a
male member of a royal family; these things tended to get noted. It
wasn't until the advent of parish records in the fourteenth century
that written track of births and christenings for even high ranking
families was kept, and even into the nineteenth century there can be
questions as to a particular person's actual birthdate. This is in
retrospect, of course. Medieval people probably know how old they
were, though in some earlier societies (Icelandic for example) the
important factor was not your chronological age, but how many winters
you had survived. (One's "age" in the SCA might also be similarly
described as the number of Pennsics you have attended or could have
attended). We know that they must have kept track of these things,
since canon and civil law proscribed certain ages for marriage (12 for
girls, 14 for boys), the passage into adolescence (age 14) and the age
of majority (21, often earlier in practice.) The celebration of
birthdays was more a legal practice than a cause for a party, it seems
-- We are completely ignorant of the birthdays of a number of major
historical figures who are otherwise well attested in the documents.
Borst, Arno. _The Ordering of Time _. Chicago, 1993.
Capelli, A. _Cronologia, Cronographia e Calendrio Perpetuo_, Milan 1988.
Cheney, C.R. _Handbook of Dates for Students of English History_.
Copyright 1994 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.
Copyright © Mark S. Harris (Lord Stefan li Rous)
All Rights Reserved
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