The Sense of Time in Anglo-Saxon England

The Sense of Time in Anglo-Saxon England

By Roy Liuzza

Bulletin on the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, Vol. 89:2 (2012/13)

Sundial at the Church of St John the Baptist, Pampisford, Cambridgeshire. Photo by Nige Brown / Flickr
Sundial at the Church of St John the Baptist, Pampisford, Cambridgeshire. Photo by Nige Brown / Flickr

Abstract: Long before the invention of the mechanical clock, the monastic computes offered a model of time that was visible, durable, portable and objectifiable. The development of ‘temporal literacy’ among the Anglo-Saxons involved not only the measurement of time but also the ways in which the technologies used to measure and record time — from sundials and church bells to calendars and chronicles — worked to create and reorder cultural capital, and add new scope and range to the life of the imagination. Techniques of time measurement are deeply implicated in historical consciousness and the assertion of identity; this paper proposes some avenues of exploration for this topic among the Anglo-Saxons.

Introduction: One of the more impressive aspects of Beowulf is its rich sense of time. Characters in the poem are constantly aware of past generations of ancestors and heroes. There is a kind of prehistory in the poem, the time in which the dragon’s treasure was buried and ancient weapons were made, and an even more ancient past of which the characters are unaware, the beginnings of biblical history in which Cain killed Abel and was cursed by God. Various future events that take place outside the poem are hinted at; in ten breathtaking lines (ll. 2200–9) the poem races forward fifty years and suddenly Beowulf is an old man, and the narrative of the events of the years in between is fragmented, haunting, and only gradually revealed. The interweaving of these temporal layers gives the poem a deeply tragic sense of time, where the past is restless, demanding, pressing against the present — buried feelings and buried things are dug up, and ultimately bring to shattering ruin whatever one has managed to build up during brief moments of peace and strength.

But for all its obsession with time and memory, there is little indication of exactly when the action is taking place — all we know is that it happens in gēardagum, ‘days of yore’, the heroic equivalent of ‘once upon a time’. Indications of great lengths of time in Beowulf  are usually good round numbers. Grendel preys on the Danes twelf wintra tīd, ‘twelve winters’ time’ (l. 147); Beowulf rules for fīfig wintra, ‘fifty winters’ (l. 2209), as does Hrothgar, although he calls it hund missēra, ‘a hundred half- years’ (l. 1769). Grendel’s mother holds her cave under the mere for the same ‘hundred half- years’ (l. 1498), a coincidence that suggests that the number sim-ply means ‘a long time’. Smaller units of time are noted more precisely; Beowulf is under water in Grendel’s mere until nōn dæges, or the ninth hour, the middle of the afternoon (l. 1600); the dragon’s preferred hour is ūht, the hour before dawn, the time of monastic vigils (the dragon is called eald ūhtsceaða in l. 2271 and ealdes ūhtflogan in l. 2760).

This conjunction of a vague roundness in larger units of time and a precision in smaller ones is found in many narratives, and presumably occurs as much for dramatic reasons as for historical ones — it serves the story to have us vividly imagine the time of day but only hazily picture the larger spans of years. But rather than speculate on its causes, I mention this difference in the texture of the temporal language of Beowulf as one instance of how the Anglo- Saxons talked about the passage of time. In this essay I would like to consider a few other texts, less poetic but I think not less important, that measure, describe or record time, and ask what we might learn from them about how the Anglo-Saxons imagined themselves in the temporal world, the large sweep of history, as well as the small repetitions of daily life.

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