Welcome to the discussion forum of Ða Engliscan Gesiðas for all matters relating to the history, language and culture of Anglo-Saxon England. I hope it will provide a useful source of information, stimulate research, and be of real help. Ða Engliscan Gesiðas (The English Companions) maintains a strictly neutral line on all modern and current political and religious matters and it does not follow any particular interpretation of history. Transgression of this Rule will not be tolerated. Any posts which are perceived as breaking this Rule will be deleted with immediate effect without explanation.

Author Topic: Time telling in AS England  (Read 5296 times)


  • Guest
Time telling in AS England
« on: January 26, 2012, 11:31:29 PM »
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.



  • Guest
Re: Time telling in AS England
« Reply #1 on: January 27, 2012, 06:20:38 PM »
Lots of good questions here, Horsa.

I’ll kick off by supposing that, in one’s own locality, and on any routes in and out one happened to be familiar with, one would know which way was south by the sun at midday.  Thus allowing you to guess the time of day with better than morgen/ undern accuracy going by a shadow.  Granted, of course, the sun has come out to play.

Granted, also, that all churches were oriented to face the east ( for Jerusalem) then you could tell the time by your shadow when out of your locality, too.  Also I wonder how many churches actually had bells and whether mass-priests were in the habit of ringing or singing the hours?  Lauds was at dawn in Old English times, Prime at six thirty, Tierce at eight fifteen, Sext at noon, Nones at two thirty p.m., Vespers at five, Compline at seven fifteen and Matins between midnight and one a.m.  If so, those within earshot could make use of this.

( I had to check this for my kiddies’ book.  The reason Matins gave us ‘Matinee’ is because of the temptation of sleepyheaded monks to move Matins forward and celebrate it and Lauds together, to get an uninterrupted night’s sleep.  Likewise, peckish monks kept wanting to bring the only main meal of the day forward, leaving us with their Nones at noon.  This is the sort of thing that medieval church reformers battled against, but etymology indicates that they lost the war.)

There’s also a weed called Jack-go-to-bed-at-Noon because it closes its leaves at midday.  I don’t think it’s the only plant that does such things, but my old floppy with all my ‘Wortlore’ on it got scrambled. 

I’m especially interested in the question you raise about the needs for accuracy for military purposes.  I dare say Dark Age/ Medieval warfare was often more ritualised, but “half the fun of war” ( as one source told me) is the risk of things going wrong.  Willy-nilly a medieval commander may just have time this or co-ordinate that accurately.

A notched candle is another way medieval people could have timed thing more accurately, but I’m not at all sure how that could work out on campaign…


  • Guest
Re: Time telling in AS England
« Reply #2 on: February 01, 2012, 05:39:33 PM »
I would have imagined that farmers, shepherds and people who were occasional hunters and foragers would have a vast repertoire of skills (such as those you mention) for telling the time of day, but then they'd have a whole vocabulary for communicating this which doesn't seem to have been recorded. What we're left with is the stuff that the monks were working on: an absolute and objective recording of time, that fits much better with our modern way of life which is semi-nocturnal, indoorsy, and disconnected from nature, but connected with people and events far from us.

There appear to be a large number of OE words which all can be translated by  'indefinite period of time': stund, hwíl, fæc, fyrst, þrág and tíd (which is used occasionally to translate hora).

Nature abhors a vacuum, and it would seem that language abhors a synonym. We have now, while and moment, while tide has been retooled to describe the rising and falling of the sea. I am tempted to speculate that the above words may have had specific meanings, parallel to minute, quarter of an hour, hour, etc, but based on an outdoorsy, native system of time telling.
« Last Edit: February 02, 2012, 04:34:02 PM by Horsa »