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Merchant Time, Church Time, COVID Time

By Ken Mondschein

As the pandemic comes rolling into its final phases, we need to ask the question: Will we ever use time in the same way again?

Our sense of time is fundamentally social. While the pandemic has made distance learning and work-from-home the rule—and with it the expectation that we should be available nearly around-the clock—the idea that we needed to be at work or class at 9 AM, or that the workday ends at 5 PM, was ultimately only convention.

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This regime came about as a result of industrialization: In his famous 1967 article “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” British historian E. P. Thompson contrasted the “natural” rhythms of the countryside with those of the factory. In the “putting-out system,” for instance, a merchant might drop off wool at one farmstead to be spun into thread, drop off thread to be woven into cloth at another, et cetera. The families would do the work at their own pace in between other tasks, and the boss would return at a later date to exchange the finished work for coin. Working by the factory clock, which Karl Marx once called the first application of industrial machinery, “from which the whole theory of production of regular motion was developed,” is something entirely different. The gold retirement pocket watch is symbolic in more ways than one.

However, we shouldn’t be too eager to idealize a supposed time of pre-industrial freedom, since the roots of industrial time are ultimately medieval. In his 1960 essay “Church Time and Merchant’s Time,” Jacques Le Goff argued that this use of regular hours came about as part of late medieval merchants to measure and regulate labor and investment—an insight confirmed by Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum his magisterial 1992 book The History of the Hour. For instance, a 1384 regulation of the Parisian cloth-cutters’ guild set out workday regulations: Half the year, they were required to go to work from 12 o’clock at night until daylight, and then had a break at 9 AM. They had another one-hour break at 1 PM, and then they worked to sundown. The rest of the year, they worked from sun-up to 9 AM, then had a one-hour break, and then worked to 1 PM, when they had another break. They then worked until sundown.

One thing that time-discipline did before the pandemic is that it nearly divided our worlds into public spheres and private spheres. When we were “on the clock,” we left our homes and went to a workshop or office or a school building where we were expected to perform certain tasks, wear certain clothes, and behave in a certain way.

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Today, our homes are both our workplaces and our classrooms—a trend that the pandemic has only accelerated. Webcams reach into our spare bedrooms, our kitchens, and our living rooms. The minutiae of how we run our families, decorate our homes, speak to our partners and children, and, indeed, all the thousand-and-one indignities of domestic life are bare for all to see. Even if keep these things hidden from social media, they cannot be hidden from our coworkers. This has especially strong repercussions for women’s labor—women being the ones who capitalism charged with running the domestic sphere, a fact that did not change when they began working for wages.

By merging the domestic sphere with that of production, we are not returning to some supposed pre-industrial era of freedom and self-direction. Rather, we are doing the opposite—bringing the supervisor’s eye into our homes and entering a new era, one in which the domestic and the public are merged under the panoptic gaze of the shop boss.

Ken Mondschein is a scholar, writer, college professor, fencing master, and occasional jouster. Ken’s latest book is On Time: A History of Western TimekeepingClick here to visit his website.

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Top Image: Glassmakers at work in the 15th century – British Library MS Additional 24189 f. 16 

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