Time in the thirteenth century

 Version française ici.

Something which drives me mad when I see it on a historical TV programme or read it in a badly researched book is the transposing to the Middle Ages of modern ways of measuring time. Here’s a very quick note on the subject of time in thirteenth-century England.



There were a number of ways of measuring years. You do occasionally see them written as we would recognise them, such as  ‘1217’ (though note the year was considered to start on 25 March, not 1 January) but there were also other ways of measuring, most notably by regnal year, so we see things like ‘in the seventeenth year of the reign of King John’. To complicate matters further, medieval kings dated their reigns from the day of their coronation, not the date of their accession, so you have to be careful when ascribing dates using this method.



A table of differing systems of recording time.

British Library MS Egerton 3088, fol 114v. 



These were the same twelve months that we have now, and it was well established that there was specific work to be carried out in each season.


A picture of a man reaping, from the 'July' page of a book of hours.

British Library MS Royal 2 B II, fol 4r.


The days of the week were the same as they are now, and people in the thirteenth century were well aware of what day it was, if only so they knew whether they were allowed to eat meat or not! In terms of dates, you could use modern parlance, such as ‘the second day of April’, but in contemporary texts you also frequently see church feasts or saints’ days: ‘on the feast of St Bartholomew’, or ‘two days after the feast of Pentecost’. The former allows us to place dates with some precision, as saints’ days are the same date each year; however, with moveable feasts such as Easter and Pentecost we have to look a bit more carefully before we ascribe a date.



This is where things can go most wrong. We are used to our structured, scheduled days of twenty-four hours split with precision into minutes and seconds, but to those in the early thirteenth century this would have been an alien concept. Think about it: in a world with no clocks or watches, how would you divide time so precisely? It’s just not possible, and people didn’t try. Instead, a day in the thirteenth century consisted of twelve hours which ran from sunrise to sunset, meaning that ‘an hour’ could be longer or shorter depending on the time of year. Sext (‘the sixth hour’) was at noon; the day was further subdivided by terce (‘the third hour’) mid-morning, and nones (‘the ninth hour’) mid-afternoon.


 Canonical hour of Prime

British Library MS Egerton 1151, fol 88v.

For any division smaller than these three-hour blocks people would need to use other measures, for example ‘the time it takes to walk a mile’ or ‘the time it takes to say three paternosters’.

Something you certainly wouldn’t hear, if you arrived in England in 1217, is anyone saying ‘I’ll be there in twenty minutes’!