Tempus Fugit: The Middle Ages and Time

By Danièle Cybulskie

Because it seemed to get away from me last week, I’ve decided to write this week’s blog on time.

Like most things, the measurement of time followed the lead of the church. The day was divided into many intervals in order for the devout to ensure they were praying round the clock. These times for prayer not only included daytime, but also night. Since it’s particularly helpful, I’m lifting this note straight out of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to give you a sense of how the day was divided (the bold font is mine, to accommodate formatting issues):


Matins – Between 2:30 and 3:00 in the morning.
Lauds – Between 5:00 and 6:00 in the morning, in order to end at dawn.
Prime – Around 7:30, shortly before daybreak.
Terce – Around 9:00.
Sext – Noon (in a monastery where the monks did not work in the fields, it was also the hour of the midday meal in winter).
Nones – Between 2:00 and 3:00 in the afternoon.
Vespers – Around 4:30, at sunset (the Rule prescribes eating supper before dark).
Compline – Around 6:00 (before 7:00, the monks go to bed).

Eco’s times reflect winter in northern Italy (and follow the Benedictine Rule), but this should give you a good idea of how many times monks and nuns were called to pray, and how many times their bells would ring out throughout the day and night.


If you needed to know the time between bells, there were several ways to find out.


Although I’ve put it first, because it seems to be the most obvious, this was actually a later invention than the other clocks. Here is a picture (said to be the earliest) from the 14th Century:

Hourglass - Temperance bearing an hourglass; detail Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good Government, 1338
Temperance bearing an hourglass; detail Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government, 1338


Another seemingly obvious addition, but sundials were not just the fixed, garden items we imagine today. In fact, sundials were some of the earliest portable timekeepers – watches, if you will. Here is an image of a pocket sundial.

Pocket sundial (date unknown), Museum of the History of Science Oxford
ocket sundial (date unknown), Museum of the History of Science Oxford

And here are a few other designs. (Apparently, you can buy them online, if they strike your fancy.)



Because the burning of a candle is a fairly predictable thing, people could measure time by marking candles by the hour. When a candle had burned down to a certain mark, that many hours had passed. Here is a picture of a timekeeping candle:

candle clock - photo from Wikicommons
Candle clock – photo from Wikicommons

Water Clocks

Water clocks work by the flow of water moving from one container into another. Beyond this potentially working a bit like an hourglass, water was also used for its ability to move mechanisms.

Water-powered automatic castle clock of Al-Jazari, 12th century.
Water-powered automatic castle clock of Al-Jazari, 12th century.

Mechanical Clocks

Here’s where I profess my ignorance. Mechanical clocks started to appear around the 13th Century, but their workings are a little mysterious. Were they water clocks? Were they wound? These questions are beyond my knowledge. Nevertheless, here is a 14th-Century illustration of what appears to be a mechanical clock from St. Albans Abbey:

Richard of Wallingford pointing to a clock, his gift to St Albans Abbey
Richard of Wallingford pointing to a clock, his gift to St Albans Abbey

With all these options, here’s hoping I will be able to keep time as well as medieval people in future.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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Top Image: Medieval Clock in Prague