We know not the day nor the hour
Time telling in Anglo Saxon England
OE Tima, tid, stund
translation time time/hour period of time?
German zeit stund
translation time hour
Swedish timme tid stund.
translation hour time period of time
So I was thinking on these cognates. You have these cognate words that denote concepts around time, yet each language has chosen a different word to denote the concept of an hour, and English, of course, plumped for a loan.
This suggests to me that the concept of the hour and probably also the concept of the day broken down into 24 equal parts is a loan concept, for which a loan word is needed or a retooled native word. In which case, how did the pre-conquest English talk about time. I wonder if, as an agrarian society, they didn’t really need the concept of a standard hour. It’s hard to estimate time anyway so the time of day (as in mid-morning, midday, afternoon etc.) would suffice and, indeed, OE seems to have more of these words than modern English does (see below).
This subject came up on the Facebook group Old English where I post under the preposterous pseudonym, Phil. One poster summarizes Bede in his De Temporibus. Bede divides the day into 24 hours - hora. Then we have the punctus of 15 mins and the minutum of 1.5 minutes. He also mentions Byrhtferhth who, in his Enchiridon divides the day up just as Bede, on whom he based his work, but uses the word tid consistently for hour. And I’ve read this in other places as a translation for hour such as the parable of the workers of the vineyard in the phrase “eleventh hour”. He also uses the word punctus to mean the amount of time it takes for the sundial to move on.
Another poster gives an alternative system which he claims to have got from Wiktionary, so perhaps this information is not totally reliable. The day is divided into 8 stunde, and as such would appear to be a completely native invention. Interestingly, each of these stunde has its own name: uhta, morgen, undern, middaeg, gelontendaeg, aefn, niht, ond midniht. Was it systematized like this, or was this just the more expanded system of morning afternoon evening that a people would have if they didn’t have access to clocks, but spent a lot of time outside, and were used to guessing the time of day by the position of the sun (even in cloudy weather)?
Apparently, sundials were fairly widespread throughout pre-conquest England, and Alfred invented a candle to tell the time. However, were these time measuring devices like modern clocks on churches and in town squares or were they more similar in terms of the cultural perception, to modern day anemometers - a scientific device that didn’t mean much to your average lay person.
I imagine the latter. I imagine that the pre-conquest English would have gone by the position of the sun rather than faff around with scientific measuring devices. Indeed, clocks didn’t become widespread until industrialisation and the railways, and even then it was a long time before they added a minute hand.
However, one of the posters on the Facebook group took issue with this saying that military leaders would need a much better system than the times of the day than the stund mentioned above. Certainly modern military leaders need to synchronize watches and have people know the time down to the minute or even second, but would mediaeval warsmiths? Warfare, while nasty, was more ritualized then than it is now. Didn't they wait at a field until everyone turned up and then started all at once (I'm showing my ignorance of mediaeval warfare here). If they did need better time telling strategies, did they each bring their candles, waterclocks, and/or portable sundials with them, or did they just make do with their observation of the passage of the sun? “They’re marching on us, hlaford and they’ll be here between undern and middæg”
For some reason I’m skeptical that anyone but the most educated monks used the 24 hour division of the day. That’s possibly because of the existence of scientific treatises on time which suggest that it wasn’t common knowledge, and that horae and puncti occur so seldom in English texts.