people did not 'tell' or understand time in the same way we do.
While we are able to conceptualise past, present and future, and
understand that our present is vastly different to past societies
(even if we might not completely know those past societies), medieval
people couldn't do that. They almost literally lived in islands
of time, unable to conceptualise a world before their parents'
time, or a world beyond five or six years into the future (if
that). Why? Part of the reason lies in the kind of vehicles they
used to locate themselves within time; that is, how they 'told'
people did not use calendar dates (apart from a very few scribes).
No peasant or noble ever said, "My youngest child was born
on 15th July 1324". Instead, he or she would have said something
like, "My youngest child was born about Rogationtide in the
year that Edward was crowned king." A peasant might not even
know of the coronation, so he or she would say something like,
"My youngest was born about Rogationtide in the year that
the storm blew the church steeple off."
anyone who wants to put a precise date on that they're going to
face some headaches. First, Rogationtide is a moveable Church
festival (Church festivals are made up of both fixed and moveable
festivals or feast days); it slides all over the place from late
May to late July depending on the date of Easter. Note also that
both peasant and noble said 'about' 'about' was close enough
... so the birth could have been a few weeks to either side of
Rogationtide. We think that we might be able to locate the year
(the year that Edward was crowned king), but you must also realise
that as far as calculating official medieval time the year was
usually dated as starting on March 25th, Lady Day (or the Feast
of the Annuciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary), although popularly
New Years began on January 1st. So was the person who said their
youngest was born in the year Edward was crowned referring to
the official year ... or the popular year? Was it 1324 or 1323?
And as far as knowing the precise year the storm blew down the
church steeple, we're completely lost.
so were medieval people. The other villagers knew vaguely when
the church steeple fell down (about ten or twelve years ago, perhaps),
but no-one outside of that village knew ... so that village lived
in its own peculiar island of time in calculating time around
everyone only had a very vague idea of where they were in time
simply because they had no precise means of determining dates
as we do (calendar dating slowly became more widespread from the
sixteenth century). To locate an event in time past people had
to refer to some peculiar circumstance or happening which occurred
about the same time. For instance, try to locate an event in your
own past (at least five or six years distant) without using
calendar dates. Everything instantly becomes vague. If your
parents tried to describe to you an event that happened well before
you were born you would never be able to locate it precisely in
time, and you may not even be able to conceptualise this past
event because you have no means to locate it in time.
people had immense problems locating events in time past (and
imagine the problems trying to fix an event in time future), they
had a reasonably reliable means to locate themselves within the
yearly cycle. Firstly, they could use the seasons, secondly they
could use the agricultural cycle, but mostly people used Church
time - the yearly cycle of religious festivals and feast days.
We still do this to a limited extent now - it is not uncommon
to say, "It happened about Christmas two years ago".
you want to use traditional methods of calculation, you should
know the precise date of Easter Day for the year you want to calculate.
That's comparatively simple because of a wonderful web site that
will do it for you: Ecclesiastical
of course, nothing is ever simple, and there are other things
which need to be considered when trying to calculate festivals
a moveable feast which occurs on the three days prior to Ascension
Sunday: the Sunday before Ascension
week: the week in which the Rogation Days fall
Christi: the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday
then there were a whole variety of non-religious festivals and
agricultural lore by which people also located themselves within
the year and which must be used as well as the religious
cycle. Below is a list of the major secular festivals (although
there was often a religious element to them) and farming lore
with a brief explanation of the festivities associated with them.
Most of these festivals and/or agricultural lore were based on
ancient pagan custom and had only the thinnest veneer of Christianity.
This list also includes popular customs and weather lore. My list
is strongly weighted in favour of the English year. I have given
dates here for the otherwise dateless religious festivals - these
dates have been calculated for the English year 1379.
on to a calendar for a typical medieval year.
Church hours. People told time within the day by several means:
time (in the time it takes me to mow half a field)
passage of the sun
the use of such instruments as water clocks or sun dials or
local church or monastery rang out the seven hours of the day
day began with Matins, usually an hour or two before dawn.
second of the hours was Prime - daybreak.
third hour was Terce, set at about 9 a.m.
fourth hour was Sext (originally midday).
fifth hour was Nones, set at about 3 in the afternoon, but, between
the during the 1200s moved to 12 midday (noon) for unknown reasons
(because the monks resented waiting so long for their meal and
a break from work?).
sixth hour was Vespers, normally early evening.
seventh hour was Compline. Bedtime.