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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Medieval Schools under Charlemagne

In the eight and early ninth century, Charlemagne had an enormous impact on education and learning. He reformed his own palace school  for  his children and other youths. Before his reign, the school taught young nobles court manners, how to fight and wage war. He introduced the liberal arts into the curriculum.
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Charlemagne 742 – 814

Charlemagne invited Paul the Deacon (an Italian Benedictine) to become head of the Palace School. He also induced Paulinus of Aquileia (theologian), and Peter of Pisa (Grammarian) to teach there. He, himself, attended lectures of Peter of Pisa.

It was after the arrival of Acuin of York to the court of Charlemagne that real educational reform began. Alcuin became Charlemagne’s advisor, teacher and minister of education.

In 787 Charlemagne issued his famous capitulary informing the Bishops and Abbots of the empire that he wished them to pursue the education of the monks and clergy with more zeal and dedication to scholarship, noting that letters he had received from various monasteries were crude and potentially a source of error in religious matters. He also made it clear that the Bishops and Abbots were to set up local schools for boys from the surrounding districts where they could be taught, at least the rudiments of general education and Christian doctrine. These schools were free.

After Charlemagne died in 814 the Empire began to slowly disintegrate and without his influence the interest in education began to diminish. Some monastic and cathedral schools remained and by the 12th century emerged as famous universities like Bologna, Paris, Montpellier and Oxford.

Medieval Spectacles

At the launch of my novel The Reluctant King an actor friend of mine, Justin Aylmer, who was dressed in medieval costume and reading extracts from the book, apologised that he had to wear glasses because they would be somewhat incongruous with his costume.  I was happy to inform him that, contrary to what many people might think, glasses or spectacles are not a modern invention.

The concept of magnification by using a lens is mentioned as far back as the 1st Century A.D.  when Seneca the Younger mentions the magnifying effects of using a  globe to read small text.

Much later, in his seven volume Book of Optics, Alhazan, born in Basra, Iraq in 965, investigated the magnifying power of the lens. Al Hazan was one of the great Arab experimentalists and a pioneer of optical science.

By the 13th Century spectacles were being manufactured in Italy. The invention of spectacles would have been an incredibly significant technological advance because it enabled scholars to continue their studies undimished by the natural deterioration of eyesight with age. Petrach, who was born in 1304 wrote: “I had … a vision that for many years was sharp. (But it failed me unexpectedly when I was over sixty, so that I was forced reluctantly to the use of spectacles.)”

We also have concrete evidence of these early spectacles in medieval paintings. It is interesting to note in these paintings that it is mainly monks and religious who wear spectacles. This is not surprising since reading and writing were almost exclusively within the competence of the church.

Panel from the Wildunger Altarpiece by Konrad von Soest (1365 – 1425) with Glasses Apostle.

Demetrius Tancredi

 

Demetrius Tancredi, Chancellor of Dredgemarsh

 

“Tancredi relished the political arena, and if, for some reason, Dredgemarsh were free of political intrigue, he, Demetrius Tancredi, would create it. It was the game itself, and not the goal that completely dominated his every waking hour. Now, late into the night, like a grand chess master, he explored the possibilities that that momentous day had brought. He wrote out his priorities for the following day and then turned to his supper of oaten cake and vernage. He took his time eating at a small stone table set in a bay window, which looked out over the northern side of the castle and its surrounding territory. The bright moon etched a stark checkerboard of black shadows across the silver domes, spires and rooftops.”  The Reluctant King Chapter 12

‘Do you think I will allow your daughter to destroy everything I have worked for?’  Chancellor Tancredi was shouting, as he stormed into Arnulf Beaufort’s dining hall
.
‘What? What are you talking about?’  Beaufort, seated alone at his dining table, spluttered, as he tried to swallow a mouthful of doucette, a favourite late afternoon indulgence of his.

‘Have you any control over her or is this a plot against me?’  Tancredi was white-faced.

‘Plot? There is no plot. We have set a day, St. Sigbert’s Day! For the marriage. It is all arranged.’

‘Arranged, ha! Have you any idea of what your daughter is up to?’”
The Reluctant King Chapter 21

At that moment in time, he was once again the wretched child who was forced into slavery in a fuller’s yard after his father and mother died of plague. He felt again the awful shame of his ragged clothes, impregnated with the wash of piss and fuller’s earth. He could hear the jeering of other children; ‘piss pot, piss pot, greasy Tancredi’s a piss pot.’ The muscular spasm under his left eye pulled his face into a grotesque rictus of hatred and he sank to his knees in the foul water.”
The Reluctant King Chapter 21

‘My hour has come, Dredgemarsh’s hour has come,’ he whispered into the night air. ‘He must die, for all our sakes. There is no other way.’ He mounted and turned towards the castle. Over and over he rehearsed the details of the plan he had been incubating all that day. When it all fell into place, he gave a little gasp of delight at his own cleverness. As he approached the portal gate he felt he could sense the very walls, stones and paths of Dredgemarsh welcoming him, their new master.”
The Reluctant King Chapter 22

 

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Francis Burstboil, Scullery Boy

Francis Burstboil - Dredgemarsh Scullery Boy

“Verm Bludvile had tied him to one of the decaying pillars in the storeroom of the Hall of Echoes. The empty crates that once held an abundance of candles were strewn around the floor. Bludvile sat on one of them, directly in front of Burstboil, observing him with unnerving curiosity. The petrified boy could not meet that terrible gaze, and tried to look elsewhere. His stomach churned. There   beside the crate, on which this monster sat, were the grisly remains of Sling, tail and head. The boy spewed. The contents of his bowels turned to liquid and flowed down his trembling shanks.”

The Reluctant King
Chapter 6

“It is impossible to fathom the human spirit; its amazing force, and equally, its amazing weakness and susceptibility. Verm Bludvile epitomised the force, the fanatical focusing of every facet of being on a single purpose, while the bedraggled and terrified scullery boy was, as it were, a blank page, upon which Verm could imprint anything he wished. It was a strange and fortuitous accident for Verm that this pathetic and weak-minded boy should fall into his clutches. It was stranger still that Verm, only recently come to self-awareness himself, could exert so much influence on another  human, even of the calibre of  Burstboil. Yet, that is what happened. Perhaps it was that the boy never got over the fright of that first terrifying encounter. Suffice it to say Verm had found himself a willing disciple and a slave.”

The Reluctant King
Chapter 7

‘Oh Mistress Crumble I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ he began to mumble. He wished himself back in the Dredgemarsh kitchens, scrubbing floors and being ordered about by everyone save the kitchen cat. He longed for the reassurance of a stinging slap across the ear from Bella Crumble. The image was bliss and his mind focused and froze on that image. Thus he remained, only dimly conscious of the shadows that pressed and converged in an ever-tightening circle around him. The puny kitchen boy was suspended in a crucible of terror that threatened to shatter his mind like glass. His only means of defence was physical and mental paralysis. Somewhere deep within him, these primitive mechanisms were triggered.

The Reluctant King
Chapter 15

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Dredgemarsh : The Reluctant King

Axletree Press will be shortly publishing my first ebook of the Dredgemarsh series called The Reluctant King.  I can’t remember when or why I started this series of three books, but it was at least 12 years ago if not more. Dredgemarsh is a gothic kingdom ruled by the Greyfell dynastey. The first book covers the early history of Cesare Greyfell, the reluctant king, who through inexperience and youthful indifference has jeopardised his life, lost his kingdom and the young woman, Lucretia Beaufort, whom he loves.
His only hope of redemption lies in the most unlikely place and with the most unlikely people: the Dredgemarsh kitchen staff led by Cookmeister Lazarus Clutchbolt.

Below are my drawings of Cesare Greyfell and Lucretia Beaufort. I will be adding to them throughout the coming months.

Cesare Greyfell, King of Dredgemarsh

“ … the real cause of the sadness in his heart flared painfully into consciousness. He could picture her now with startling clarity: Lucretia Beaufort, strolling along the bank of the Yayla river with her companion Celeste, while he, hidden, feeling guilty, but unable to take his eyes off her, watched from Hazel Wood where he rambled each evening with old Thunder. Her laughter, her sweet rippling laughter, tormented him. He pictured again the exquisite curve of her breasts and hips under the clinging samite caftan that she wore with such casual grace. A hot flush suffused his whole body. He felt dizzy and angry; angry that she could make him feel like that, angry at her apparent happiness that had nothing to do with him. He despised himself for that selfish impulse.”
Chapter 1
The Reluctant King

Lucretia Beaufort

“She knew; felt it in the deepest recesses of her heart that Cesare was hurt. She saw frantic membersof the royal party racing across the Vildpline from Grak’s forest. He was not with them. They were waving their arms and calling out long before they reached the castle or could be understood by anyone. Her heart began to beat so fast she thought it might burst. ‘No! … this cannot happen,’ She  was talking out loud without knowing it. Her eyes glistened with the onset of tears and she wished time would stand still, wished that those frantic men would never reach the castle; her mind filling with an unreasonable hate for them because they were  returning and he was not.”
Chapter 10
The Reluctant King