Time might seem an odd topic for a blog about history. Time, however, and the keeping and tracking of it, does have a history, and reflections on this can perhaps lead us to some insight into how we manage time now. So, this post will be a little divergent from my norm, for a start there aren’t going to be a lot of pictures, time is hard to photograph, and it is a bit more, well reflective than my posts usually are.
The first reason I decided to write this post, is because of a GLAMR (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Records) group called New Cardigans, who have a blog theme for each month and August’s was time. I’ve never written to it before because it’s never matched closely enough with my historical bent. In this case though, I’ve taken it as inspiration to do some research. The second reason is, at the moment time is a fickle beast. I live in Melbourne, which has just gone into stage 4 restrictions. This means we can’t leave the house without specific reasons, most work (including libraries) are not included in the reasons. So, I’ve packed up a significant quantity of books, journals and the like and taken them home. These restrictions are new, and while we are settling into them the best word I’ve heard to describe the experience of time is liminal. The way the sea shore is both land and sea- time has become liminal, it’s at a threshold as we wait until we can all begin moving again- and it’s a nicer word than purgatory.
Time has become to odd, dragging like a troll’s knuckles, then you look back and wonder where all the days went. The lack of definitive routine and structure is shaping how we all think, feel and experience not only the world, but the concept of time itself. It’s ironic that in this era where we can all measure time down to the millisecond, where we pride our selves in our hectic lifestyles, rushing from one thing to the next, that time seems to have ceased to have real meaning. We stand on this threshold and instead of letting it pass, I wanted to have a look at what time is and what it has meant to those in the past, to see what bearing it can have on our experience and the future.
It’s actually one of the issues I’ve had writing medieval fiction. They didn’t measure time to the second the way we do. So I had to find a heap of other words to designate small periods of time, because you can’t say ‘she waited a second’ or ‘a minute later’, or the like. I usually settled on words like ‘heartbeat’ and ‘moment,’ but I still had to go back to do a global search and remove the few that I’d missed because they were so automatic. Time also has a key role in history- as in the way we see the past. We tend to parcel it out into eras or periods, especially when looking at the Western concept of history, where one era begets another, in an inexorable linear fashion. The Ancient Greeks beget the Romans, who beget the medieval period (the ‘dark ages’ a term that is now outmoded still seem to get left by the wayside), which begets the Renaissance, which begets the Enlightenment, which begets the Industrial Revolution, which begets the modern period. This is a gross generalisation, and as I said very much a Western view- as there was plenty going on in the rest of world that this dominant historical narrative discounts completely. It also simplifies how fluid time and history are, they don’t fit neatly into little boxes. For the most part, ages and epochs tend to be named by scholars looking back- I can guarantee people weren’t wandering around Florence in the 1600s thinking- Ohh I’m living in the Renaissance (the term was probably coined by Jacob Burckhardt in the 19th century- he certainly popularised it). These broader historical narratives, that shape our idea of how time has passed in the past, also tend to discount small stories- so the history that becomes ‘fact’ is often only a facet. This leads me to consider what our ‘era’ will be, what will our ‘narrative’ be? Because, I don’t think anyone can deny that at the moment we are living history- a mainstream narrative history that will be taught in schools- the same way the Spanish Flu and the Black Death are today.
But, even living through something that we can all see is history with a capital H, it isn’t all that we experience everyday. There is so much deeper nuance to each lived day, and at the moment time is a big component of that. For me it’s been finding ways to fill it, when I’ve spent so much time not having enough time. There’s been baking, writing (including this blog), reading, walking, riding, tv show watching, much the same as everyone else. But, with this new lockdown, time seems to be spooled out in front of us, offering hope but also frustration, as the desire to fill it marks our days. So I’m turning to the past, to see how time was understood in eras where it couldn’t and wasn’t marked to the second, when it perhaps had less concrete everyday meaning.
The Ancient Greeks, did measure time, they did measure hours- in fact it was a novel concept to them. There were complaints about the introduction of the sundial because people stopped eating when they were hungry and started eating as prescribed times. Herodotus reported that the Greeks had taken the concept of the hour- splitting the day into 12 hour divisions- from the Babylonians. The night didn’t have a division for civilians, but for the military it was broken down into segments, though the length varied with the seasons. A specific division of a day was only possible with time measuring devices, such as sundials and water clocks and public variants of these were produced. It also meant that measuring time was largely an urban phenomenon.
I realise that in skipping forward now to the medieval period- which is the historical era I am most familiar with- that I am following the same prescribed historical past that I discussed earlier. However, as this is a blog about time, not a thesis or a book, some era jumping is necessary. The medieval concept of time, was very much driven by the Church. Especially in the cities where the canonical hours, could in some cases be heard in the ringing of the church bells. The church divided time into seven periods of prayer as reminders of the Passion of Christ; Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. They were roughly divided up with daylight- Compline was usually sunset, Matins sunrise, and sext midday. These ‘hours’ shifted over time and again time was measured with physical devices such as sundials and water clocks.
You can see what is thought to be an early Irish sundial in the photo below- the stick is not contemporary.
The canonical hours were by no means exact, but they were a beginning of a structure of a day. It is also worth noting that church bells rang for just about everything, and each city and in fact each church in each city would have had a different way of ringing the hours.
Time wouldn’t begin truly dictating life until a more accurate form of measurement could be invented. Where and when the first mechanical clocks were invented is a matter for debate. In looking at England, mechanical clocks definitely existed by the 1300s because Norwich Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedrals had them installed between 1321 and 1324, you can see Lincoln Cathedral in the photo below.
Prior to mechanical clocks, time measuring relied either on weather dependant devices like sundials or water clocks, which worked by water (or another liquid) pouring from one container to another and in some cases lifting a weight- these were not workable long term. There is, however, no specific time when a mechanical clock was invented. There sadly isn’t a surviving chronicle proclaiming ‘eureka- today we invented the mechanical clock’- we do know a little about how they worked though. The earliest worked on a system of cogs, didn’t have a face and were simply made to strike the hour. In the video below you can see the rediscovery of what is thought to possibly be the earliest surviving mechanical clock in Salisbury Cathedral
You can see Salisbury Cathedral in the photo below. It is incidentally home of one of the original 1215 copies of the Magna Carta.
So, with the introduction of the mechanical clock, time began to be able to to be more measured, and therefore it began to have a tighter control on our lives. As time went on, pardon the pun, the big shift in time measurement becoming a civil rather than church concept was driven by the rise of the merchant classes. Being able to account for time, became valuable monetarily and by the 15th century clocks were moving from the public sphere into the private sphere. Towns also began to exert control on populaces through time. Municipal signal systems operated through bell towers, denoting things such as curfews (another concept we are becoming uncomfortably familiar with), town assemblies, proclamations and the like. Town bell towers began to take on civic identity with towns being known by their bell towers, and to destroy a bell tower was to destroy part of the identity of the town. So time played out on the civic and the individual stage.
A more modern concept of time keeping, began with the recognition of the monetary value of time, but also as time began to standardised, especially across public clocks in the cities and towns. As clocks became for accurate, time became more standardised and smaller measures of time could be recorded and adhered to. Clocks themselves also became smaller- it is possible that Richard III owned something that resembled what we would now see as a watch. It is also possible that he had a clock at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, which would have chimed the hours- how useful it would have been on the field of battle I’m not entirely sure, it certainly didn’t bring Richard III victory.
Once time became money, it became important in guilds, determining who had spent more time doing what and if we jump rapidly through the epochs we hit the concept of world time. Up until the 18th century time had been standardised geographically, lots of areas had their own times because there wasn’t such wide communications that broader standardisation was needed. Towns having their own times, known as burgher times, clung on in some places until the international Meridian Conference in 1884. The purpose of The Meridian Conference, held in Washington, was to set a universal day and fix the prime meridian. The need for this world wide consensus came about because of the industrial revolution, with shipping and train travel meaning that consistency in time was essential for commercial and personal purposes. The resolutions that the conference adopted were:
- That it is the opinion of this Congress that it is desirable to adopt a single prime meridian for all nations, in place of the multiplicity of initial meridians which now exist.
- That the Conference proposes to the Governments here represented the adoption of the meridian passing through the centre of the transit instrument at the Observatory of Greenwich as the initial meridian for longitude.
- That from this meridian longitude shall be counted in two directions up to 180 degrees, east longitude being plus and west longitude minus.
- That the Conference proposes the adoption of a universal day for all purposes for which it may be found convenient, and which shall not interfere with the use of local or standard time where desirable.
- That this universal day is to be a mean solar day; is to begin for all the world at the moment of mean midnight of the initial meridian, coinciding with the beginning of the civil day and date of that meridian; and is to be counted from zero up to twenty-four hours.
- That the Conference expresses the hope that as soon as may be practicable the astronomical and nautical days will be arranged everywhere to begin at midnight.
- That the Conference expresses the hope that the technical studies designed to regulate and extend the application of the decimal system to the division of angular space and of time shall be resumed, so as to permit the extension of this application to all cases in which it presents real advantages.
This is where Greenwich Mean Time was adopted, as the standard starting point for every time zone on the time zone map. I’m not going to go into detail about Greenwich Mean Time, you can find out more about it here https://greenwichmeantime.com/what-is-gmt/
So, we began with musing about liminal time in a Pandemic, and we have ended with the standardisation of time on an international scale. We now all have phones, or watches or even smart watches that let us know exactly what time it is all the time. We might find our lives governed by time, but it is worth remembering that time is a concept that took a conference to agree on international standards. So in this odd space, where time seems to both stretch and to snap, to be infinite and meaningless, but also corralled into minutes and seconds, that ultimately time is a human concept that we could, in theory, let go. Maybe a pandemic where we can’t run around and live our hectic lives, is a good spot to take a step back and see time as something to be appreciated rather than to be filled. Regardless, this has not been by any means an exhaustive history of time, but I hope it has given you something to think about, and that you’ve had the time to think it.
History of the Hour: Clocks and modern temporal orders by Gerhard Dohrn-Van Rossum
Time and Clocks in the Middle Ages http://www.r3.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/2007_03.pdf
The photos are all mine.