Medieval Time

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the January 1982, A.S. XVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

During the Middle Ages, time for most people was a vaguely defined concept. For the peasant, the day started at sunrise and ended at sunset, with a break when the sun was overhead. The situation was not quite so simple for the church, for there were prayers to be said at certain hours and certain rituals to be performed on specified days.

In 529, St. Benedict formulated his rule that regulated a monk’s day by the canonical hours, which started at midnight and were spaces at three-hour intervals. Their names, derived from Latin, were in the following order: Matins or Nocturns, Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Note that the third hour, Prime, means first, indicating the first hour of the day or dawn. Around 1300 none was shifted to midday to become noon.

In the latter half of the period, the devotions associated with the canonical hours spread beyond the monastery walls and became associated with the Virgin Mary. Each observance of the hour, or Office, became associated with an episode in the life of the Virgin: the Annunciation, the Visitation of Elizabeth, the Nativity, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, the Flight to Egypt, and the Coronation of the Virgin. Beginning in the 13th century, these Offices were gathered into a Book of Hours, which were richly illuminated, reaching their peak in the 15th century. Besides the Office at Matins, there also was a devotion memory of the Annunciation called Angelus that was recited at 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m., and announced by the Angelus bell.

These church hours were superimposed upon a 24-hour day that dated back to Babylonian times, the division being dictated by the limited number of spaces the circular sundial face could be divided into, using elementary geometry. Because of inaccuracies in clocks, the minute hand did not appear until after 1660; the division of 60 was an extension of angular measurement.

These hours were not regular, but varied with the season, stretching with the amount of sunlight. Prime was dawn, Vespers sunset, and the rest of the hours were spaced in accordance. The first mechanical clock, using the verge and foliot system, appeared around 1290. The main form of clock until then was the clepsydra, or water clock. This new clock quickly spread throughout Europe and at first merely struck the hours. Many places, having decided that a mechanism to strike all 24 hours was too complex and costly, broke the day into two 12-hour periods. While the spring-driven clock was invented around 1400, the next big improvement in clocks was Huygens’ pendulum clock in 1673. The relentless alarm clock first appeared in the 12th century to awaken monks at the proper time for night services.

The civil calendar has its roots in Roman history. The first Roman calendar started the year on the vernal equinox, March 25. The calendar, however, had several deficiencies and in 45 B.C., Julius Caesar ordered a reform. With the exception of a few later minor modifications, the calendar took its modern form, including the leap year. To bring the calendar back into line with the seasons, about three months were added. This resulted having January 1 of the new calendar land on the old March 25. Thus, January 1 was decreed to begin the year.

The Julian calendar, while better than its predecessors, did not adequately measure the year and gained a day about every 125 years. This was to finally result in the Gregorian reform of 1582. Meanwhile, in 325, the Council of Nicaea, thinking the Romans had made an error, reset the calendar by decreeing that the vernal equinox was on March 21.

The practice of counting the years from the presumed year of Christ’s birth did not start until 523. That is when the monk Dionysius Exiguus (Denys le Petit or Denis the Little) first proposed and used it for his Easter calculations. It was little used until 731, when the Venerable Bede published his “A History of the English Church and People.” It was on Bede’s authority and reputation that this system was established.

With the fall of Rome and the rise of the Christian church, January began to lose sway as the beginning of the year. The result was that in England, during the early Middle Ages, up to six different dates were used as the start of the year. Besides January 1, there was the Preceding March 25 (Stylus Pisanus), the following March 25 (Stylus Florentinus), September 1, September 24, and December 25.

The two March and the December dates derive from the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. March marks the Annunciation, while December the Nativity. December 25 came closest to supplanting January 1 as the beginning of the year.

The September date came form the Indiction. The Indication was a 15-year cycle of tax assessment, similar to the income tax date of April 15. It came into existence in the third century out of the Eastern Roman Empire. It was originally set on September 1 but in 725 Bede recorded the date as September 24.

Such was the confusion of date and time during the Middle Ages. The penchant for punctuality found today stems from the Industrial Revolution and the factory system it engendered, for what makes the assembly line efficient is its clockwork regularity. But as it was the machine that chained us to the clock, it may also free us once again.



The Anglo-Saxon chronicle. Trans. G.N. Garmonsway. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1954.

Burke, James. Connections. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1978.

Encyclopedia Britannica Vol. 3. Ed. 1980. pp. 601-603

Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, A History of Medieval Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950.

Thorpe, James. Book of Hours: Illuminations by Simon Marmion. San Marino: Huntington Library Press, 1976.

Wright, Lawrence. Clockwork Man. New York: Horizon Press, 1968.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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