Time and Clocks in the Middle Ages

Medieval Clock

Time and Clocks in the Middle Ages

By Elizabeth York Enstam

Ricardian Register, Vol. 37:1 (2007)

Medieval Clock
Medieval Clock

Introduction: What is told by hands, measured in sand, and announced with bells? The answer to the children’s riddle, of course, is time.

But time is it self a riddle, expressed in mathematics and astronomy, described with songs and poetic metaphors, and remembered through the old sayings of folk wisdom. Time is money to us Americans, so we try to make it, save it, and use it well. Once in awhile, we man – age to gain time, though more of ten it seems, we spend it, waste it, and lose it. Like tide, time waits for no man (or woman, for that matter) and on occasion, it just runs out. Time is never neutral, apparently, but always either on our side or against us. When time moves, it mostly seems to fly, un less it creeps in a petty pace from day to day or just stands still. Some say time can heal all wounds and on occasion, that time will tell. Each January 1, time is a new born baby boy, and he grows very quickly, by December 31, into an Old Father — who, it so happens, has a daughter named Truth.

Searching for the truth about time has been a complicated business, and basically, the earth is the reason. With a 23.45-degree tilt to its axis, the earth takes an un even number of days to complete its slightly elliptical or bit around the sun. For many centuries, these irregularities — the tilted axis, the less-than-round or bit, the 365.25636-day year — have complicated the search for accurate ways to measure time. After the invention of any number of ingenious de vices and instruments, only in the latter half of the twentieth century did scientists develop the atomic clock, which runs endlessly and precisely in exact time — and periodically must be reset, be cause the regular, perfect changing of its digits gets out of sync with the imperfect, irregular course of the earth. With constant vigilance, then, we achieve what previous civilizations did not. Our time pieces can reflect the solar system’s movements, but much of what we know about measuring time comes down to us from the distant past, from the ancient world by way of the European Middle Ages.

York, England, is a particularly convenient place to study the ways medieval people measured and thought about time. A good deal of dependable, basic evidence has survived about this city’s past, and those documents give in sight into how English urban dwellers organized their days. For time and York, perhaps the best introduction is Chris Humphrey’s essay in the book he also edited, Medieval Concepts of Time. Among other sources, Humphrey quotes the actual work contract be tween York Minster and the masons who were building the cathedral in the latter half of the fourteenth century.

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