Alle Thyng Hath Tyme: Time and Medieval Life 
by Gillian Adler and Paul Strohm.
Reaktion, 247 pp., £20, March, 978 1 78914 679 0
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How​ will we know when the world is ending? According to ‘The Pricke of Conscience’, an English poem c.1340, the apocalypse will proceed with a fortnight of terrifying signs. On the first day the sea will rise to the height of a mountain, then on the second day drain away to a trickle. There will be a hideous roaring from the ‘mast wonderful fisshes of the se’, blood gushing out of trees, men emerging from caves and raving incoherently, and then all the stars of heaven will cascade to the ground. The events of the third day may seem more benign: the sea shall ‘stand even in his cours agayn … with-outen mare rysng or fallyng’. But in the hurly-burly of apocalypse, a placid sea can be unnerving too.

The ebb and flow of water was essential to medieval understandings of time. As Chaucer put it in ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’, ‘time wol nat abide/Fro day to night it changeth as the tide.’ When he wrote those words, a mechanical clock was being built at the abbey in St Albans: it showed the time, the position of the stars and the state of the tides at London Bridge. Time was movement and flux, and the sea revealed its regular rhythm; if the tides ceased, time was out of joint. ‘What is time?’ St Augustine wondered. ‘Provided that no one asks me, I know.’ Gillian Adler and Paul Strohm explore the many answers proposed by writers, artists and visionaries in the Middle Ages. ‘Medieval people’, they write, were ‘more keenly aware of simultaneous and contending temporalities than we are, and more skilled at entertaining a wider range of temporal possibilities’. Fifteen centuries of waiting for the end made time an existential problem: how to describe it, how to measure it, how to use it? The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century devotional treatise, put the matter starkly: ‘All time is goven to thee, and it schal be askid of thee how thou hast dispended it.’

The basic saeculum of days, weeks, months and years was inherited from antiquity, but these units were shuffled into different shapes by the Christian calendar: the cycle of Advent, Nativity and Epiphany during the shortest days of the year – a time of renewal and rejoicing, according to Jacobus de Voragine – and the penitential progression between Easter and Pentecost, ‘a time of reconciliation’. The year was neatly divided by four traditional ‘quarter days’ – Annunciation (25 March), the Nativity of John the Baptist (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas – that were used as deadlines for instalments of rent and debt.

The annual religious cycle melded with older traditions of seasonal celebration, and spurred new ones too. In England the calendar of feasts came to read like a folk litany: Plough Monday, Maundy Thursday, Hocktide, May Day, Whitsun, Lammas. A well-established artistic tradition matched each season to its labours; an oil-painted ‘Calendar Dial’ c.1500 from the Low Countries organises them by month – September tilling, October wine-pressing, November butchering, December baking – proceeding counter-clockwise. ‘Thus yields the year in yesterdays many,’ the Gawain poet wrote.

The smallest unit of time, as The Cloud of Unknowing explained, was the atom, ‘so litil that, for the littilnes of it, it is undepartable’. According to a 13th-century encyclopedia, there were 47 atoms to the ounce, 12 ounces to the moment and 40 moments to the hour. At the other end of the spectrum, in Chaucer’s translation of Boethius, was ‘the endles space of eternite’. Life was lived somewhere in-between. The Northamptonshire landowner Richard Hotot gives a sense of time’s fractured geometry, dating a book to ‘the 33rd year of King Henry [III] son of King John, which is 5448 years from the beginning of the world, 1249 from the birth of Christ, 1216 from Christ’s death, 544 from the building of Peterborough, 184 from the Norman Conquest, 79 from the martyrdom of Becket and 34 from the lifting of the interdict’.

The calculation of time was crucial to daily observance. The seven and later eight liturgical hours of each day began with Matins at around 2 a.m. – for Dante the time of ‘resplendent lights before the dawn’ – and ended with Compline around 8 p.m. The intervals changed with the available daylight over the year, devotional time wrapped inside natural time. Monks and hermits were advised to pay careful attention to the lengthening or shortening days: better to recite the service too early than too late, according to a 13th-century anchoritic rule.

Each hour was marked by the ringing of church bells: everywhere, the time of day was experienced as a disturbance of sound. An injunction of the Council of Lambeth in 1281 explained that the bells were rung ‘so that the people, who do not have the time to concern themselves with the celebration of masses every day, wherever they are in their fields or houses, genuflect’. The ringing of the hours became a point of reference for other forms of temporal discipline. At Cornhill in London, no goods were to be sold after Vespers (around 6 p.m.), marked by the bell of St Thomas the Martyr of Acon; Compline, struck on the bells of St Martin’s Le Grand, marked the closure of the taverns and the city curfew.

Devotional attention to time encouraged the development of devices to measure it. The most ubiquitous instrument was the sundial, mounted on most parish churches. The oldest that survives in England, the Bewcastle Cross in Cumbria, dates from the late seventh century; among the atavistic vines, animal figures and runic inscriptions there is a precise semi-circle, subdivided into quarters, with further divisions to mark the canonical hours. Later, the ‘shepherd’s dial’, an engraved cylinder mounted with a pointer to cast a shadow, made the technology portable.

The thinking man’s timepiece was the astrolabe, first developed in Greece but significantly improved by Arab astronomers and mathematicians in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The instrument comprised a stack of concentric brass plates, carved with the celestial sphere. By rotating the top plate, simulating the motion of the heavens, it was possible to take readings that could reveal the positions of stars, the distances between astral bodies and the phase of the moon. It could also be used to tell the time of day at a certain latitude, based on the altitude of the sun and the calendar date.

The astrolabe caused a stir when it became known to 12th-century Western Europeans; Abelard and Heloise named their son ‘Astrolabe’ in admiration. Two centuries later, Chaucer wrote a technical treatise on the instrument for his ten-year-old son Lewis, who had a particular ‘abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns’. Chaucer gave him an astrolabe to practise with, set up for use at the latitude of Oxford. He took it for granted that ‘every discret persone’ would want to know how to use ‘so noble an instrument’. The device was intriguing because it allowed users to make calculations about not only the present but also the future movements of the universe. Throughout the Middle Ages there was considerable learned curiosity in the capacity of the planets to influence human behaviour. The twelve signs of the zodiac could be made to correspond to the health of different parts of the body, to the rising and falling of fortune, and held out the promise – ‘blasphemous nonsense’, according to Augustine – of revealing what was to come.

For all their technical sophistication, both sundials and astrolabes relied on a clear view of the skies: the future of the universe could be obscured by something as evanescent as a cloud. The mechanical clocks that were developed in the later 13th century offered a revelatory new perspective. Rather than using a fixed point to measure time according to the movements of Creation, clocks created a regular movement all of their own, a basis for the calculation of time as an abstract property of motion. This idea had long been pursued with the flow of water – medieval water clocks continued to bear their ancient Greek name, the clepsydra, or ‘water thief’. But they became considerably more sophisticated in the Middle Ages, in concert with milling technology: the waterwheels that powered grindstones, trip-hammers and saws could also be made to beat out a rhythm for the reckoning of time. One depiction of a medieval water clock, in a French manuscript c.1250, shows a wheel of conical chambers, apparently linked together so that water would flow between them and regularise the rotation. The wheel rang a series of chimes as it turned, each chamber emptying into a bowl from a spout in the shape of a dragon.

The trouble with water-driven systems, however, is water’s volatility: it evaporates and freezes, throwing off the consistency of any movement it powers. Barring a few daring experiments with mercury, clockmakers sought a way to replicate the impulse with mechanical weights rather than fluids. In 1271 Robertus Anglicus showed that this was theoretically possible, while bemoaning the difficulty of its implementation: ‘clockmakers are trying to make a wheel, or disc, which will move exactly as the equinoctial circle does, but they can’t quite manage the job.’

The key was the invention of a device called an escapement – still the basis of mechanical watchmaking today. Its genius was to allow tiny fractions of movement to ‘escape’, little by little, producing regulated motion that can be used for calculating time. Shortly after Robertus wrote, clockmakers finally succeeded with the ‘verge and foliot’ system, credited as the first purely mechanical clock. Its workings are a minor miracle of technical elegance but fiendishly difficult to describe.

Take a weighted cord, wrapped around a drum on a horizontal spindle. If you let go of the weight, it will spin the drum until the cord drops to its full extent. An escapement allows this rotation to be controlled. In a verge and foliot system, the drum is connected to a ‘crown’ wheel, so called because of its jagged outer edge. This is set next to a vertical rod (the ‘verge’), on which are affixed two paddles (‘pallets’), one above the other on the shaft, meeting the wheel on opposite sides at different angles. On top of the verge is a horizontal beam (the ‘foliot’) hung with weights. When the weighted cord of the drum is released, the crown wheel begins to spin – but only for an instant, because one of its jagged teeth knocks against the top paddle of the verge. The weights on the foliot make this hard to push, slowing the movement of the crown wheel, until it’s gone far enough for the pallet to slip over the jag of the tooth: this is the tick. The wheel slips – but then a tooth at the bottom of the crown wheel catches on the lower paddle and repeats the process, turning the verge back the other way: the tock. The system involves two kinds of motion: the verge turning back and forth within a range of about 100°, as though shaking its head, and the crown wheel rotating discontinuously, one tooth at a time. And there you have it: the second.

If all that sounds complicated, imagine trying to build such a machine to the requisite degree of uniformity in the 13th century, using hand-lathed timber geared together with wrought-iron cogs. For all their revolutionary potential, the horological technics took a while to master. Astrolabes were considerably more accurate, and were still used to set mechanical timepieces that had lost their time – Chaucer’s treatise proposed to include tables for ‘the governaunce of a clokke’.

But whatever the technical challenges, 14th-century Europe couldn’t get enough of clocks. Starting in northern Italy, they spread rapidly across the continent: by 1400 they were being built as far apart as Moscow, Santiago de Compostela and Caffa on the Black Sea coast. Local governments suffered from timepiece envy. In 1370 the small Silesian town of Schweidnitz asked a clockmaker to build ‘a clock equal to the one in Breslau or better’. The citizens of Lucca looked jealously at the clock of Pisa; those of Padua insisted theirs be as good as that in Treviso. During the rebuilding of the clock at Chartres Cathedral in 1392, the bell-casters were contracted to make the chime ‘after the manner of the clock in the Palais in Paris … the sound shall be equally as beautiful and harmonious … [and] the bell shall be heavier.’

Clockmakers, flush with commissions, let their horological imaginations run wild. They mounted every last thing they could think of on their clocks: trumpeting angels, wheels of fortune, planets and stars wheeling around in epicycles – take that, astrolabe – and panoplies of bells to add to the din of holy clanging. The still-extant clock of Wells Cathedral, constructed about 1390, is a carnival of time. A face of three concentric circles shows the 24 hours, the position of the sun and the phases of the moon, all decorated with stars, angels and depictions of the four cardinal winds. Every fifteen minutes, four knights come out to joust. Above the clock an automaton (‘Jack Blandifer’) kicks his heels on bells every quarter hour. In the 15th century an exterior clock was geared onto it: two axe-men stand and strike two more bells on the hour. Nequid pereat, runs the inscription – let nothing perish, no matter how whimsical.

Horology was hyped up on its own devilment. Coiled springs replaced weights for providing impulse to the crown wheel, allowing the manufacture of portable clocks. The fusee, a conical pulley, made it possible to equalise the spring’s torque as it released – a brilliantly elegant idea first attested around 1430 in a chamber clock belonging to Charles of Burgundy. By 1488 Ludovico Sforza could commission a pendant watch so small that it could be worn around the neck, sounding the hours with a tiny bell. In the 15th century, they were already living in the future.

Contemporaries were dazzled by the hubris. A late medieval artistic tradition showed Temperance, one of the cardinal virtues, with all the proudest symbols of the fast-moving present. She can be seen standing atop a windmill, carrying a pair of spectacles, holding a bridle between her teeth (it’s hard not to suspect some misogynistic pleasure in this) and crowned with a striking clock. Devices like this, harnessing air, light, animals and time itself, signalled the pride of living in a technological age.

The scholastic philosopher Nicholas Oresme, at the end of the 14th century, was the first writer to imagine the universe as a vast mechanical clock, in which ‘all the wheels move as harmoniously as possible.’ But the metaphor could be turned inside out: earthly clocks were made by fallible humans. The writer of ‘Dives and Pauper’, a 15th-century devotional treatise, was keen to point out that the apparent neutrality of mechanical movement was a façade: ‘in citees & townes men rule them[selves] by the clock, and yet properly to speke the clock ruleth not them but a man ruleth the clock.’

The achievement of mechanical time soon extended into the rhythms of everyday life. The French medievalist Jacques Le Goff, in an influential essay of 1970, drew a contrast between entrenched ‘Church time’ – linear, epochal, millenarian – and an emerging ‘merchant time’ which worked to the rhythms of commerce, fluctuating and discontinuous but measurable, ultimately governable. While these two temporalities could remain sufficiently distinct for merchants to pursue both profit and salvation, they might also clash: usury was condemned because interest on a loan was a charge levied on the future: the usurious merchant, trading with time, was ‘selling what does not belong to him’. Strohm and Adler offer a gentle riposte to Le Goff’s distinction. They argue that innovations in the measurement of time tended to be driven by religious institutions, and emphasise the coincidence of many rhythms of medieval temporality. There was no great mental rupture between the liturgy and the clock: a range of ideas about time were geared together in more or less orderly ways. Changes were incremental and vacillatory, playing out in the moment of these interlocking habits of thought.

Still, it’s hard to resist Le Goff’s sense of the coincidence between attempts to measure time precisely and attempts to govern people. After the plagues of the 14th century greatly reduced available manpower, labour time was ever more tightly regulated. As early as 1355 the town of Aire-sur-la-Lys in Artois built a belfry specifically to chime the working hours of the cloth trade, ‘which require[s] several workers each day to go and come to work at certain hours’. In 1395 the provost of Paris issued an ordinance against craftworkers who ‘want to start and stop work at certain hours, while they are being paid by the day as though they were on the job the whole day long’.

A set of regulations for the carpenters and masons of the English bastion at Calais gives an idea of what employers expected. During the summer they were to be at work by 7.30 a.m. to get things ready, before taking an hour for breakfast; they worked from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., took a long lunch, and worked again from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. They had an hour’s drink break, and then worked from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. During the winter, hours were shortened, but a worker was ‘to abide and labour as long as the day light will serve hym’. Anyone who didn’t keep to the schedule was fined a penny, two pence if they lost a whole hour.

In the classical tradition, time had often been figured as edax rerum, the devourer of things. By the later Middle Ages it was a commodity, something that could itself be consumed – and wasted. The Paris theologian Jean Gerson grouched against the idleness of talk: ‘nothing is more harmful to mental peace and contemplation, nothing more wasteful of that most precious thing, time … from morning until night, the day is slowly eaten up.’ In one text of Piers Plowman, moralising reaches its zenith: wasting time ‘is most i-hated upon erth of hem that ben in Hevene’.

There was much disagreement about how best to spend this scarce resource. The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the most explicit commentary on labour time in the New Testament, proved a headscratcher for medieval exegetes: the worker who began at dawn was paid the same as the one who began in the afternoon. Why should ‘the lass in werke to take more … the lenger, the lass’, the Pearl poet asked, and answered: ‘the grace of God is gret inoghe [great enough],’ a gift that couldn’t be calculated by the wretched balance sheets of humankind. The point, according to the Norfolk mystic Margery Kempe, was to lose yourself so thoroughly in holy contemplation that the passage of time became immaterial. In prayer, Kempe found that some five or six hours had passed in what felt like just an hour: ‘the time went away sche wist not how.’ Yet she was punctilious when it came to her fits of divinely inspired weeping: first once a month, then once a week, then daily, then between seven and fourteen times in a single day. ‘God wolde visiten hir, sumtime in the cherch, sumtime in the strete, sumtime in the chawmbre … [and] sche knew nevir [the] time ne owir whan thei schulde com.’

When, when? The dials and the clocks, the busyness of the trinkets, only served to underscore the listlessness of the world, the atmosphere of stagnation that Johan Huizinga famously evoked in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919). It was hard not to look askance at the good old days. The poet John Gower ruminated on a passage from the Book of Daniel, in which Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a ‘wonder strange ymage’, a figurine with a head of gold, a breast of silver, legs of steel, and feet of steel and clay, that ‘mygte … wel noght stonde longe’. Each material represented an era in the history of man, descending from the ‘golden age’ of Babylon to the admixture of the present. In ancient Israel this figure was an omen, but in England in 1390 it made for an exaggerated sigh, betokening ‘how the world schal change/And waxe lasse worth and lasse/Til it to noght al overpasse.’

People have always imagined that the world was ending, and medieval poets anticipated the enormous condescension of the Anthropocene – so they once were, so we shall be. One of Chaucer’s shorter poems imagines the ‘blisful lyf’ led by ‘peples in the former age’, before even the discipline of settled agriculture: dwelling in caves and woods, sleeping on grass and leaves (not even aware of the existence of featherbeds), eating hawthorn berries and beechmast, living without money or war. ‘Cursed was the tyme, I dare wel seye/That men first dide her swety bysinesse,’ digging up the metals from which they would wreak civilisation on themselves. And for what? ‘Allas, allas … in our days nis but covetyse … Poyson, manslawhtre, and mordre in sondry wyse.’

Perhaps we are just living in the dead space after the end of the medieval future. The fifteen signs of the apocalypse were there for all to see – how many antipopes, how many floods, how many earthquakes would it take to convince us? – and now the world really is ending. During the reign of the Antichrist, it was foretold, ‘the years will be shortened like months, the months like weeks, the week like days, the days like hours and an hour like a moment.’ It was in the 14th century that Middle English developed a new vocabulary for the sense of hurry: ‘rushing’, ‘whirring’, ‘hastening’. Tick tock, tick tock. Time speeding up. Running out.

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