If Nobody Asks Me, I Know What Time Is …

“If nobody asks me, I know what time is, but if I am asked then I am at a loss what to say.”
St  Augustine 354 – 430 AD

Time is the one of the most elusive and mysterious concepts that philosophers and scientists have grappled with throughout the history of mankind. I am not even remotely qualified to expound on this subject and do not intend to do so. However, on the measurement of time as a practical everyday aspect of living, I do have an interest, particularly its measurement in Medieval times.

How did the poor medieval labourer or peasant know when to go to work and when to finish work? An anonymous versifier of the fifteenth century gives us a clue about one way to gage the start of day.

I have a gentle cock,
Croweth me the day
He doth me risen early
My Matins for to say.

In truth, things were not so haphazard as that. Bells from the local monastery were rung to signal the different hours of the day. The monks used sundials, hourglasses, calibrated candles and water clocks to calculate the time.

The latin system of counting the hours of the day was:-

Prime – 6 am
Tierce – 9 am
Sext – 12 noon
Nones – 3 pm

The Church designated other times for prayer:

Matins – Midnight
Lauds – Dawn
Vespers – Evening
Compline – Before Bedtime

The astrolabe was another method of calculating the hours of the day. Chaucer himself wrote a treatise, for his young son, on how to use it to tell time. Interestingly, by Chaucers time (1343 -1400), great mechanical clocks were beginning to be built all over Europe. These clocks were housed in the belfries of Churches and Cathedrals and later bell towers in city squares.

It is hard to say when the first mechanical clock was invented, but in Europe they began to appear by the late 13th Century. The earliest public tower clocks had no dials or clockface; they simply rang a bell on the hour. Some of the more elaborate ones triggered displays of animated automatons. The clockface and a single hour hand followed. Other ingenious clocks gave, not only the time, but all kinds of astronomical information.

Saint Bernardino(1380-1444) preaching in Siena before the Palazzo Publico. Notice the clock on the left hand tower. The painting is by Sano di Pietro (1406-1481)

In 1344 Jacopo Dondi installed an astronomical clock in the facade of the Palazzo de Capitano at Padua.

Clock tower, Palazzo del Capitano, Padova

In England an extraordinary astrological clock was designed by the country’s greatest medieval scientists, Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336). Son of a blacksmith, he was a brilliant mathematician and was obsessed with the practical application of science and mathematics, to the extent that he was rather neglectful of his spiritual role and later his administrative role when he became abbot of St. Albans, the principle abbey in England. It is recorded that he gave precedence to the work on his clock over the repair of the Abbey. When mildly rebuked by King Edward III, he argued that any successor of his could hire workmen to repair the abbey but only he could design and make the clock. The clock was not completed in his lifetime but design details are recorded in his Tractatus Horologii Astronomici (1327). Richard’s was not the first tower clock in England but it was the most advanced in its design.

Richard of Wallingford and Abbot of St Albans pointing to a clock. Notice marks on his face showing, the results of leprosy.


Time has always been considered a precious commodity. In the middle ages one of the greatest preachers and orators was Bertold of Regensburg (1220-1272) . Time, he said was one of the talents referred to in St. Mathews parable of the talents. It was man’s duty not to squander it.

This idea of the preciousness of time is well articulated in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales when the Host address the Company before the Lawyers Tale:

“Let’s lose as little time now as we may.
My lords, it’s time that wastes both night and day,
That robs us while we sleep without defense,
And while awake, through our own negligence.
It’s like a stream returning not again,
Descending from the mountain to the plain.
Well Seneca, like others of his measure,
Bewails the loss of time more than of treasure:
‘Of chattels there may be recovery,
But we are ruined by loss of time,’ said he.”

I just wonder if Bertold of Regensburg or Chaucer would approve of the time I spend ‘on the Internet.’ ? Probably not.  

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The World is a Haystack

“The world is a haystack, and each man plucks from it what he can.”

This is a Flemish proverb that is famously illustrated in Hieronymous Bosch’s Haywain. In the central panel of this triptych the Haywain is being pulled by demonic characters – half beast half man – towards hell.

The Haywain by Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516)

People from all walks of life are scrabbling to grab hay from the haywain, oblivious to how it is moving them inexorably towards damnation. All manner of human weakness is portrayed by Bosch: fighting, killing, gluttony and lust. People are being crushed under the wheels of the haywain; lovers and musicians on the top of the hay are so self absorbed that they cannot see what’s happening. The rich and powerful from church and state follow on their horses. An angel gazes towards Heaven where Christ looks down with what might well be interpreted as a gesture of despair at the foolishness of mankind.
What is striking in this picture is the depiction of the clergy. On the bottom right hand of the central panel a group of nuns are busily filling a large sack with hay, watched over by a fat abbess who is comfortably seated and drinking while overseeing the work. One of the rich followers behind the haywain is clearly a bishop on a white horse.

Detail from The Haywain – Nuns filling a sack with hay, watched over by the abbess

In another of Bosches works ‘Ship of Fools’ the priest and nun are very prominent. The ship (life) drifts aimlessly while the occupants are preoccupied with their own desires and diversions.

The Ship of Fools by Hieronymous Bosch (1450 – 1516)

This view of the clergy is not uncommon in medieval times.

William Langland, in his great allegorical poem, PiersPlowman, is scathing in his portrayal of of the contemporary church(14th century). He depicts friars as fraudsters and liars given to greed, drunkenness and promiscuity with courtesans and concubines.

Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales is equally cynical with his portrayal of the “fat and personable priest” who loves hunting, expensive clothes, jewellery and “a fat swan, and roasted whole.” His description of a friar is equally damning:

“He kept his tippet stuffed with pins for curls
And pocket-knives, to give to pretty girls.

He knew the taverns well in every town
And every innkeeper and barmaid too
Better than lepers, beggars and that crew,
For in so eminent a man as he
It was not fitting with the dignity
Of his position, dealing with a scum
Of wretched lepers; nothing good can come
Of dealing with the slum-and-gutter dwellers,
But only with the rich and victual sellers.”

Apart from the clergy’s hypocrisy, what irked and infuriated the peasant class in respect of them was the imposition of tithes on what little wealth they could glean from their labours. The church demanded a tenth of their crops and livestock each year. If they did not pay they could be punished by incarceration and excommunication. It is little wonder that peasants were attracted to some of the heretical teachings and their promoters who railed against the greed and mendacity of the established church.