Time Past

Looking into the past is like looking through a fog: We see less clearly the things further away from us. We see dim shapes in the distance and try to puzzle out what we’re seeing. This is particularly true with the mundane things, like how we tell time. We know that electronic timepieces are only decades old; electromechanical timepieces only a few decades older, and mechanical timepieces several centuries. We know affordable clocks and watches go back more than a century, but how much further might be hazy. What did people do before that?

We’re often left with speculation. We can reason that, since most didn’t have mechanical clocks, that they had a different view of measuring time than we, and that things like punctuality only arose with affordable timepieces and the demands of industrialization. After all, if you don’t have a watch, how can you tell time? Oh, there were sundials at fixed locations, and times for prayer in abbeys and monasteries, but surely there was nothing like the modern sense of time.

Then we come across something like the ring Eleanor of Aquitaine gave her husband Henry II about 1152. Even today, the ring is a marvel. Worn on a finger, when you took it off, it allowed the wearer to tell time by the sun. You aligned it roughly to the time of year and so that the sun shone through a tiny hole, and it cast a beam on the hour marks inside the ring. This type of sundial is said to have been invented by the Benedictine Monk Hermannus Contractus in the 11th Century, but it appears to have been larger than ones made to be worn on the finger, like the one Eleanor gave her husband. And yet, while impressive in its own right, it’s why Eleanor gave him the ring that tells us something about 12th Century England. Henry II liked to hunt and was often late returning home, and Eleanor gave him the ring so that he could arrive on time. She gave him a portable sundial because he wasn’t punctual.

This throws a kink in our assumptions of the Medieval view of time, and, in turn, perhaps the attitudes from then up to our own era. If Eleanor of Aquitaine didn’t have some sense of time beyond sunrise, noon, and sunset, would she have thought her husband was late? Sundials were known in Europe from ancient times, and there are mentions of the division of time into hours. The Gospels mention both the Hebrew and Roman ways of noting hours, indicating 1st Century readers and listeners would have been familiar with them. In the 6th Century, Saint Benedict urged monks to learn how to make sundials, and the remains of some sundials constructed on the outer wall of medieval churches still survive. Some dials mark the time of prayer, but others the full hours. The very existence of sundials noting hours indicates a sense of time closer to our modern concept than we might think.

Then, as now, the concept of punctuality might have depended on the culture, and yet the remains of “mass marks” on a medieval church conveys a sense that there are moments when events must occur. Then, as now, it can vary according to the task. Anyone with a job that can’t be regimented to a tight schedule can identify with this. If your day is spent toiling in the field, the particular hour isn’t as important as it is to a monk called to prayer, but that doesn’t mean a farmer doesn’t realize that in another context precision to the hour is necessary.

This raises the question of how most people measured time when away from a sundial. Portable ring types like the one invented by Hermannus Contractus seem to have been in common use by maybe the 17th Century, and nine pocket sundials of a different type were found in the 16th Century wreck of the Mary Rose, so perhaps more than the wealthy could have owned one. Another type, dating from the 10th Century and found at Canterbury, would have been simple to whittle from wood. Other kinds of portable sundials have existed all the way back to ancient times. It’s also possible to measure the time by the angle of the sun and the length of shadows, so those in times past may have kept a closer eye on the time than we think. Certainly, Eleanor of Aquitaine expected Henry II to do so. There were technical limitations, of course, but as long as everyone agreed on the divisions of time and all technologies involved were roughly equivalent, it would work perfectly well for scheduling. At least, as long as the sun was visible.

That said, there is the Roman Catholic practice of holding three masses on Christmas Day, a tradition that dates back to the Medieval era. Then, as now, there was a Mass of the Divine Word held during the day. A Shepard’s Mass was held at dawn. But the Angel’s Mass was held at midnight. Originally, it was held when the rooster first crowed (yes, roosters do crow hours before the dawn), but by the 12th Century seems to have shifted to midnight in much of Europe. To hold a mass at midnight means that time had to be measured between sunset and dawn. Even the crowing of a rooster at night could be used as a crude means of telling time, but on a clear night there are the stars. I’ve seen a reproduction of a 16th Century pocket device that served as a star clock in the Northern Hemisphere. It was also possible to use candles as clocks. The point is that it could be done, and it seems that it was in some cases before mechanical clocks.

So, why did mechanical clocks catch on? Maybe because with them you can tell time rain or shine. If a clock rang a bell on the hour, you didn’t have to look at it to know the time. There’s an idea that mechanical town clocks and ringing the hours took the management of time away from the church, but the church had no monopoly on the sun or sundials. If there wasn’t a desire to know the hour, towns wouldn’t have put up clock towers. So it was that Eleanor of Aquitaine’s expected Henry II be punctual and gave him the means to do so.

Our assumptions about time keeping and people’s attitudes about time extends to other eras. I was surprised by the portable sundials found on the Mary Rose. But then, Jacques of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It tells of meeting a jester (motley fool) who takes a portable sundial from his bag to see the time. That alone tells such was common in the late 16th Century England. In the 18th Century, George Washington had a pocket watch, and in the 19th soldiers owned them in the American Civil War. Then there’s a reference in a 1861 issue of The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist, Volume II, pages 153-154, of a ring sundial of the type invented by Hermannus Contractus with the comment that it was “probably” once in common use. “Probably” indicates assumption, yet the two examples mentioned in 1861 were owned by the less than well off.

Like any mechanical clock, a pocket watch can be used if the sun is visible or not, and when they became affordable to practically everyone, portable sundials seem to have become rare. Poor Richard’s Almanac for 1733 notes that the times of sunrise and sunset were used to set clocks and watches, giving us a glimpse into 18th Century timekeeping. Did almanac readers rely on sundials, or did they just observe sunrise and sunset, and set their clocks accordingly?

My guess is that where there were town clocks, people set their timepieces by that. Did people in the country set their watches when they went to town and then set their clocks? Even though my grandparents likely did just that before the advent of commercial radio, I have no idea.

The truth of the matter is what you’ve just read is as much speculation as assuming people in past eras had a vastly different view of time and punctuality. Knowing more about the past might allow us to make out greater detail through the fog, but there’s no guarantee. Just knowing of the existence of portable sundials lets us know that perhaps how we think things were may not have necessarily been so.

One afternoon in my teens, I was amazed to find my father’s first truck had a radio. My father wasn’t amused at my surprise and had a pithy comment. Who knows? If a 12th Century English farmer knew of 21st Century assumptions about his era’s timekeeping, he might have said something just as scathing.