Medieval Time

*What is time? Is it an objective external fact or a human invention?

  • Is our sense of time socially conditioned? There is certainly plenty of evidence accumulating to suggest that it evolved with human society. The question is to what degree do public perceptions of time match private perceptions of time?

*Difficult to Understand Pre-Scientific Experiences and Understandings of Time: Satellites, Greenwich Mean Time, global communication systems, developments in physics and astronomy, and space travel all make it extremely difficult for people living in modern societies to understand the different perceptions and experiences of time and history endured by Pre-Scientific Europeans.

*We experience time differently. Our society regulates the passage of bodies through time differently. We measure time differently.

In this lecture I’ll be talking about the associations Medieval People associated with the the passage of time. We can look at them as a series of ‘contrasts’ in many ways:







Medieval time was at once much more “concrete” and “sacred” than it is today. What do we mean by ‘Concrete’? Well their perception of time was dominated by:

  • The seasons, important agricultural events/work-related events as they occurred locally.

*We now have a more or less abstract perception of the seasons. By contrast, a local and concrete perception of time would mark spring according to the days particular flowers appeared in the fields, or according to the period particular animals, birds insects etc. behaved in particular ways. Spring arrived at different times for the lowland peasant to the highland peasant and so on.

*Many Medieval people marked the passage of time according to both the Julian Calendar of months and highly localised Pre-Christian words for the months as concrete agricultural/ seasonal phenomenon … e.g. grape month, harvest month, jackdaw month, dove month, wolf month, hot month, month of clods etc.

*Seasons and the changing landscape enabled people to orientate themselves within the year, and told them what to do next … the landscape was the calendar for many pre-literate peoples:

When the sloe-tree is as white as a sheet,

images-9Sow your barley whether it be wet or dry


When the oak puts on his gosling grey,

‘Tis time to sow barley, night and day.


When the fern is as high as a spoon,

You may sleep an hour at noon.

  • Another aspect of Localised time was the fact that Periods of the Year were often marked by religious, legendary, historical or superstitious markers.

*On such and such a day such and such a hero, saint, etc. connected to a specific place, church, boulder, spring etc. and did such and such an action – which is celebrated ever after and which indelibly imprints the local landscape to local understandings of time.

Le Goff summarises agricultural Time:

“Farming or peasant time involved waiting, putting up with things, unchanging circumstances, starting things over again, slowness … resistance to change. It lacked events and did not need dates, or rather its dates were ones that fluctuated gently according to the rhythm of nature. For rural time was natural time. The great divisions were day, night and the seasons.”

Sacred Time

*Most religions explain time as an endless cycle of rebirth and regeneration:

  • Ancient Mayan civilisation worked on a cycle of 260 years
  • Other eastern religions work on cycles as long as 12,000 years

Cyclic time offers the hope that one will always be reborn at some point of the wheel of time, and reborn in this world. Everyone gets a second (or forty-second!) chance.

*Medieval Sacred Time/ Church Time:

*Medieval people experienced time in connection to supernatural entities of both a more or less personalized, local character (Pre-Christian or local Christian e.g. a local saint) and a universal character e.g. God (who created time across all Christendom)..

*Medieval sacred time was different to Graeco-Roman, Celtic and Germanic sacred time – which had traits associated with ‘recurring time ‘or ‘eternal return’.

*In the Medieval view, however, time belonged only to God and could only be lived out – it was continuous and linear.

*To grasp, measure or turn it to account was considered a sin.

*The Liturgical calendar of seasonal Christian religious observances reinforced this perception of time, as did the ever present ‘tolling of the bells’ to mark off mortal transitions of God’s time.

*Sacred time was tied to cycles of prayer and penance: i.e. to linear movement toward salvation. Sacred time was also tied to the liturgical calendar from Christ’s birth (Incarnation) through to ascension … Advent to Pentacost. Saints’ Feast days also marked out progressions of sacred time during the year.

*Sacred time in the Middle Ages also regulated economic activity and work rhythms.

* The Clergy were MASTERS OF THE MEASUREMENT OF TIME: they controlled the symbols of time for most of the Medieval period, especially in the rural backblocks. Bells and liturgical calendars of feasts, holidays etc, controlled moral behavior.

Jewish and Christian conceptions of time are different to other religions – they link in with Judeo-Christian conceptions of History: How?

Judaism and Christianity teach a linear sense of time/history – past, present and future.

  • Time moves from the Creation (Genesis) to the Destruction (Judgement Day) of the universe.
  • Time is a measurable sequence of un-repeating events.
  • People are not reborn into this world, but move to a different world (a different existence). At the end of time the souls of the virtuous will be crowded together in the glory of God’s love.

Christian Sacred Time – SEVEN STAGES

God created the universe in 7 days

Medieval Church divided history into seven ages:medieval_christmas

1) from Adam to Noah

2) from Noah to Abraham

3) from Abraham to David

4) the Babylonian Captivity

5) from the Babylonian Captivity to the Incarnation (birth of Christ)

6) from the Incarnation to the present

7) the age of man’s heavenly rest with God.

Man’s life was also divided into 7 stages: infancy; boyhood, manhood; prime; middle age; old age.

So to a woman’s life:

Two first seven years for a rod they do whine (14),

two next as a pearl in the world they do shine (28),

two next trim beauty beginneth to swerve (42),

two next for matrons or drudges they serve (56),

two next doth crave a staff for a stay (70),

two next a bier to fetch them away (84).images-10

Church hours (Roman Hours Christianised) of the day:

Matins (midnight)

Lauds (3am)

Prime (6am)

Terce (9am)

Sext (Noon)

Nones (3pm)

Vespers (6pm)

Compline (9pm)

*Between 5,228 and 6,000 years between ADAM and Christ according to various chroniclers of the Middle Ages. The church, however, was mostly ambivalent about reckoning numbers, like peasant culture the church preferred a chronology of significant events (liturgical in character).


  • Townsfolk lived a far more regulated life than their country compatriots:
    • Church bells more likely to be rung
    • guild bells
    • curfew bells
    • bells for the night watches
    • bells to regulate working hours
    • bells for the defence of the towns etc.
  • from the late 1300s clocks were introduced as a reliable means of regulating the bells, and thus regulating the life of workers and townsfolk
  • time became even: the day was divided into 24 hours. By the fifteenth century the hour had become the basic unit of labour, previously it had been the day.

Meanwhile the vast majority of the people – the rural workers – continued to live in seasonal and Church time. Towns became isolated islands of regulated, even time in an ocean of uneven and vague time.

  • Town Time: more exact, abstract (non-concrete), secular, rational – related to the obsessions of town people. Town time was related to “labour time” in factories, “guild time” among craftspeople and “merchant time” among traders. It was in the towns that our modern idea of Productive Time was birthed.
  • 2) Merchant Time: – had to be more universal across large geographical distances and needed to be tied to ‘productivity’ – i.e. labour done in a particular amount of time … Merchant time was tied to money, interest, investment, usury, ‘capital’ – thus began the capitalist experience of time.
  • What came first: the clock or the need for a clock?



  • Peasants had little understanding of calendar years. Things happened ‘back in history’ according to the same principles they applied to seasonal or other events – e.g. ‘back then’ was when a child was young, when a fire happened etc. EVENTS defined the Year, NOT abstract numbers. However, some knowledge of the Julian calendar seems to have co-existed with an Events DRIVEN concept of time.
  • peasants rarely used abstract names for months (although they may have done in pagan Europe when the names of months closely followed the seasons). Many simply forgot the Julian names for the months – or needed to place ‘concrete names’ beside them to meaningfully understand the passage of time.
  • calendar dates, or numerical dates within months, meant very little to Medieval peasants – especially in rural areas.

Thus: the date 1 June 1261 probably meant nothing to most peasants.

imgresSo how did peasants refer to events in time past?

  • generally used Church (festival) time, seasonal time e.g. the growth of a tree, or the decline of their own body.
    • None of these methods could accurately locate an event in ‘time past’. Time past can only ever be vague … “around about Lent in the year the cow fell in the pond and drowned”.
    • Perhaps the relevant family will know what year that was, maybe the village will, but no-one outside the local community will be able to locate the event in ‘time past’.
  • If peasants could not accurately locate events in time past, either to themselves or to others, then the past became difficult to conceptualise. Everything before their lives, or their parents’ lives, was easily lost.
  • This difficulty in referring to the past also meant a peasant’s own age became very vague the older s/he got.
    • there are always ‘milestone’ early in life, but these get fewer, and farther between, as a person ages.
  • The past via myths and legends? Time past was always very vague in myth and legend. Events happening a thousand years previous might seem to have taken place just before one’s parents’ time if described using myth or legend.
  • Time future? Could Medieval people conceive of their own futures? Plan for them? Could they conceive of an age beyond their own?

People lived close to the past (Roman ruins, pagan remnants, prehistoric earthworks etc.), but did they have any concept of a past, or of past societies?

  • People had a different concept of past; they believed they lived in the same Age as Christ had. (It was the scholars of the Renaissance who realised the difference and labelled periods ‘Dark Ages’, ‘Roman Age’ etc.)
  • medieval people had a concept of passing time, but not of changing times. No concept of ‘progress’.
    • note that so many aspects of life remained the same from generation to generation: work practices, clothing, festivals etc.
    • Did they have any need to ponder the differences between their society and past societies?



Conflicts Over Different Notions of Time

* In the Medieval period there were conflicts over different perceptions of time – these conflicts were linked, in turn, to the great social conflicts of the Medieval period. There was probably no one UNIFIED or DOMINANT idea of TIME or CHRONOLOGY. The medieval mind (like our modern mind) accepted multiple methods for reckoning time.

Agricultural, Seigneurial and Church Time (all more or less concrete and influenced by the seasons) predominated up until around the 13th century. After that Town and Merchant time began to take over – very much our understanding of time! Le Goff states: “Technical progress broke up traditional conceptions of time and made it discontinuous.” Time was laicized and “desacralised”.

  • town time – was in conflict with rural time especially. Work in towns was not necessarily linked to specific seasonal events, instead it was linked to endlessly repeating profitable/productive practices which workers specialized in.
  • agricultural time – more rubbery, seasonal, less exact, more tied to nature and work and to specific ‘events in nature’, to animals, plants, seasons etc. In conflict with town time.
  • peasant time – either in villages or towns was different to time as experienced by those better off economically … also different to time as experienced by the clergy.
  • seigneurial Time (bells, trumpets and horns)- regulated by collecting of dues, taxes, fines etc. also tied to ‘fighting’ AND the homage of vassals. Beginning of ‘bureaucratic time’ but in early medieval period this type of time was still firmly tied to nature … for the peasants paid fees and taxes when the crops came in! Bulk of dues to Lords had to be paid at Michaelmas (29th September) – kind of like Tax Day today.
  • Church time – Conflicts between Protestant and Catholic perceptions of time flared up in the Early Modern period … a calendar without Saints’ Days became a protestant goal. Inevitably protestant time became more secular. Conflict with ‘town time’ – especially the time of the merchants – who were ‘trading in time’.
  • merchant time – In conflict with ‘sacred time’ – time is money to the merchant – Merchants make a living off of moving goods in space and time according to the demands of capital – merchant notions of time became associated with the concept of profit.
  • male-female time – dependant upon what men and women did. Female time was more concrete (embodied) and tied to the ‘monthly’ cycle and domestic and agricultural activities. Women experienced time similar to their menfolk when their husbands were farmers, but when hubby was a merchant or townsman we can theorise a perceptual schism opening up between each gender’s experience of time.


  • On St Distaff’s Day (Jan 25) neither work nor play
  • Upon St David’s Day (March 1), put oats and barley in the clay
  • Sow beans and peas on David and Chad, Be the weather good or bad
  • Till St James Day be come and gone (July 25), You may have hope, or you may have none



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