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How to Calculate Medieval Time


Medieval 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' time.

Medieval 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."

If 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.

And 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 village events.

Basically, 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.

Although 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".

If 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 Calendar.

But, of course, nothing is ever simple, and there are other things which need to be considered when trying to calculate festivals and observances.

  • Rogationtide: a moveable feast which occurs on the three days prior to Ascension
  • Rogation Sunday: the Sunday before Ascension
  • Rogation week: the week in which the Rogation Days fall
  • Corpus Christi: the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday

And 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.

Follow on to a calendar for a typical medieval year.

Finally, Church hours. People told time within the day by several means:

  • work-related time (in the time it takes me to mow half a field)
  • the passage of the sun
  • (rarely) the use of such instruments as water clocks or sun dials or hour candles
  • Church hours ...

A local church or monastery rang out the seven hours of the day

The day began with Matins, usually an hour or two before dawn.

The second of the hours was Prime - daybreak.

The third hour was Terce, set at about 9 a.m.

The fourth hour was Sext (originally midday).

The 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?).

The sixth hour was Vespers, normally early evening.

The seventh hour was Compline. Bedtime.

Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

Copyright © Sara Douglass Enterprises Pty Ltd 2006
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