Telling the Time

Telling the time in the medieval and Renaissance period was not easy. Time was not a fixed construct. What day it was and when the day began, what year it was and when the year began all varied.

Therefore giving the time when writing stories before clocks or timepieces were in common use is a challenge. You cannot say, “Let’s meet here at 6 o’clock.” People would have had no idea how to do that. You might have got away with “Let’s meet here at sundown, ” but someone would be waiting longer than the other and probably getting crosser and crosser.

According to Wikipedia, in the 13th century, large tower clocks were built in some European town squares, cathedrals, and monasteries. They kept time by using the verge escapement in the mechanical clock to drive the foliot, a primitive type of balance wheel causing it to oscillate back and forth. The foliot was a horizontal bar with weights near the ends, and the rate of the clock could be adjusted by moving the weights in or out on the bar. They were very inaccurate though they improved over time. It wasn’t until the introduction of the balance spring in the 1660s that a breakthrough in accuracy was possible.

Mechanical Clocks for Telling the Time

Verge escapement for early mechanical clock – Wikipedia
Verge escapement for early mechanical clock – Wikipedia

However, during the period clockmakers [Swiss and German, I think] invented both table clocks and watches. They were enormously costly and therefore available only to the rich. In my current novel, one character gives another a table clock as a very special gift.

All this to say that the concept of days broken down in 24 hours and divided into two 12 hour periods did exist. But clocks were not in common use, and most people did not live within hearing of clock towers. Therefore, most people arranged their days using the liturgical or canonical hours of matins and lauds, prime, tierce, sext, nones, vespers, and compline. Set apart for prayer and devotion, church bells signalled these eight periods of the day. The actual times for these devotions changed with the time of year.

Time Measurement Devices

It was only after this that the riddle, “What is told by hands, measured in sand, and announced with bells?” could even be conceived.

Until then time–the answer–was not measured by hands on clock faces.

The other three common devices for measuring time were:

  • the hour candle marked with rings each ring indicating an hour of time.
  • the hourglass
  • the sundial

For more on this fascinating subject, read the article in Tudor times on this very topic.

Source: Tudor Times | Telling the Time

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