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Friday, 23 September 2011

Time is not measured by Rollex in previous eras

Time Generally

      Time for most people was measured by the Church.  The year was governed by a combination of religious festivals and farming expediency; the religious festivals usually coinciding with farming needs. Calendars were just being introduced but the idea of most people dating anything ‘the umpteenth of whatever’ was totally alien.  Dating was by festivals and saints’ days. It is possible to find a saint for every day, but most did not go in for quite so sad a depth of hagiography; but might date a letter, say, ‘Wednesday following the day of St Wilfrid’.  Major saints had a vigil held before their feast, which was a fast day; there are complex rules governing how these move if they fall on Sunday or another major feast.  (Anyone who is interested should look up Father John Wooley online for a comprehensive discussion. Note; the vigil ran to sundown, which was when the next day started: even as Sabbath started at sundown on Saturday.

The days were divided according to the church offices and the prayers that were said at the following times – themselves dependant on time of year in some cases:

Matins midnight
Lauds sunrise
Prime 6-30 am
Terce 9-00 am
Sext noon
Nones 3-00 pm
Vespers sunset or 6-00 pm ish
Compline 9-00 pm ish aka bedtime

The farmworker’s day was determined as it always has been by the time of year; he worked from dawn until dusk. The hardest work of the year was during harvest, when the day was very long too; in winter there were less tasks to do on the land save marling it but the few animals that were not slaughtered still had to be cared for, and there was repair to tools and fences.

The year was divided into quarters as I have mentioned in the section on finances in the Renaissance, concerning pay by the quarter. 
Quarter days:
Lady Day, 25th March, held as New Year’s day until 1751 and the reason for the superstition of cleaning the grate completely on New Year’s eve [it makes sense at the end of spring to be without a fire where it does not do so in the middle of winter]
Midsummer Day 24th June St John’s feast day
Michaelmas Day 29th September
Christmas Day 25th December

Country folk were still calculating by the quarter day up to the second world war in some places.

Even in the Regency time was not as all-important as it is now.  Time nowadays is measured in nanoseconds and consumes all our lives.  Then the nearest quarter hour was good enough – and likely to be different in every village or at every church steeple by which gentlemen set their watches.  Accurate chronometers for the use of sailors had been invented in 1750 for the purposes of calculating longitude at sea, but pocket watches were not of that degree of accuracy, and nor did this particularly matter.  Especially as the time from one place to the next might be anything up to an hour different.
Country wide timekeeping only became important with the widespread use of railways; when ‘railway time’ was adhered to as the standard.
No Regency buck is going to look at his watch and say ‘it is three seventeen’; for one thing that means of expressing the time is modern, and for another it would not occur to him to be that accurate – unless he was trying to break a record driving from London to Brighton, when he would probably start on the hour or half hour in any case.  He would for every day purposes say either ‘it’s about quarter past three’ or if he was trying to hurry up the females in his life ‘hurry up, it’s coming up twenty past three already’.

Moon phases as they relate to time of rising and setting.

Nothing irritates me much more than to read things like ‘the sickle moon was just rising as they went to Almack’s’
The rising and setting times of the moon are determined by the phases and though that may vary by some hours in general the following is true.

The New Moon or dark of the moon rises very early in the morning, between the late early hours and early morning and sets in the early evening.  This is only really noticeable when there is the first sliver of new moon visible.

First Quarter  rises quite early in the morning and sets sometime at or after midnight.

Full Moon rises early evening, sets very, very early in the morning

Third Quarter rises after midnight and sets  during the first part of the morning

During each of these phases of course the time shifts slightly each day. 

The Jordanian astronomical society have a calculator which will calculate times of rising and setting any month of any year you want for total accuracy; it is called Accurate Time and there are a number of versions that can be downloaded. 


  1. This is a wonderful essay about the perception of time--and this is basically, as you point out, the way anyone living in a rural setting, would have understood time almost up to the end of the nineteenth century..not just in Renaissance England, but in many parts of rural France and rural Germany..

    The only thing I'd add, however, is that political dating did integrate elements of a non-religious, secular calender--before the fourteenth century, some state records use "ides" and "kalends" which can be real confusing--there are archival handbooks that you have to refer to in order to check the date according to a modern calendar--and then many of the civic and monarchical records would start their years at different times--March 25 in Venice, for example...

    This was just great--this is more than a mere repository--it is a RESOURCE!!


  2. March 25th was indeed the New Year in Felicia's time, and if you think about it that makes sense of the custom of clearing the hearth completely and cleaning it out and cleaning through the house on New Year's Eve. NOT very practical on 31st January but in Spring, indeed the precursor to spring cleaning and eminently sensible. The change [back] to January 1st happened in 1752, to the disruption of genealogy researchers who can find what appear to be discrepancies in the dates of their ancestors; married in April 1560 say, first child born February 1560. This is actually 10 months later..... 1561 not beginning until March 25th. The OLD new year - to Felicia - had been 1st January, up to the 12th century, and like the Ides and Kalends Clio mentions - thanks, Clio, I did not realise they were used so late - is in the Roman tradition, January named for Janus the god of beginnings and transitions who had two faces, looking forward and back.