A Question of Time...

Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton

What day is it? What year? How old are you?

These questions are not so easy as you might think--at least not if you were living in the Middle Ages. Take the first one, for example. As I sit here typing this out, it is 7:30 on a January Friday evening. For most medieval people, however, it would be Saturday evening, not Friday. Some of you may be aware of the fact that the day begins at sundown in the Jewish calendar. Same thing for the medieval day. (Ever wonder why Christmas eve is the night before Christmas day? Now you know. The evening portion was also known as the "vigil"-- so the Vigil of the Feast of St. Nicholas would be the evening of December 5, the actual Saints' Day being December 6.) Furthermore, if I were writing this in 1238 ( the right year for me), I would probably not really know exactly what time it was. The day was divided into two halves, light and dark, rather than two twelve-hour periods; thus, in winter, an "hour" would be longer at night than during the day. I would probably be aware of the seven "canonical hours" (Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline), but how these corresponded with the actual hour of the day would vary with the seasons and the length of the day. These canonical hours were selected by St. Benedict as the hours the monks would observe the daily offices: three (terce--the third hour of the morning; sext, the sixth hour, around noon; and nones--the ninth hour, in the afternoon) were the publicly announced changing of the Roman guards; and four (matins--the dawning sky; prime--sunrise; vespers--sunset; and compline--complete darkness) were tied to nature. bells at these hours to call the monks to prayer; those in towns or near a monastery would doubtless be familiar with them. You will note that it is possible to tell time in a medieval manner at Pennsic, even on a cloudy day: the "canonical hours" consist of the thrice-daily cry of the camp at 10 am, 1 pm, and 4 pm, along with the medieval hours of lightening sky, dawn, sunset, and complete darkness.

I would probably also be aware of sundials and their usefulness in daylight hours and might have marked candles to help me at night. It seems that before the introduction of mechanical clocks, the precise ordering of time by equal hours was not only impossible, it was simply not part of the way of thinking. Things do change, though. In the fourteenth century, a device called a "century clock" with bells on a regular system began to be more common, so people began to know a bit more exactly what hour it was.

What day it was also depended on what calendar you were on. Luckily for us, the changeover to the Gregorian calendar did not happen until fairly late -- 1582. But here's the rub: Are you in a Protestant or Catholic country? Only Catholic countries adopted the new calendar at this time; and in these countries in this year the day 15 October immediately followed 4 October. You have to take care in these cases. After this, what's June 1 in England is June 12 in France; eventually the Julian lag reaches thirteen days. England doesn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until the eighteenth century; a few fierce and independent Swiss cantons (where the old new year, January 13, known as "old Sylvester" is still celebrated) held out until the twentieth century, as did, of course, Russia (though the Russian Orthodox Church is still on the Julian calendar.) Could you imagine the confusion that would result if every Laurel Kingdom was on a different calendar? Attending events could be a real adventure.

Now for the fun part. What year is it? Let's say, for instance, (writing this in January) it's 1238, and we're in England. Christmas 1238 was two months ago. And 1239 starts on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation (or Lady Day, as it's called in England). The idea behind this is that if we're reckoning time from the Incarnation of Jesus, we should do it from the moment Mary became pregnant. Count back nine months from December 25...and you get March 25. Now this is just England. Other countries started their year at different points. The Holy Roman Empire used December 25 until the thirteenth century, as did France, England (before the Plantagenets), and most of Western Europe. In the early thirteenth century, Philip Augustus of France switched the beginning of the year to Easter, which adds the difficulty that the year begins on a different day every year. This seems to have really only have caught on in Paris and in court circles, but since most of our French records are products of these circles, it is important. Other dates found local favour, as R.L. Poole observes: "If we suppose a traveler sets out from Venice on March 1, 1245, the first day of the Venetian year, he would find himself in 1244 when he reached Florence; and, if after a short stay he went on to Pisa, the year 1246 would already have begun there. Continuing his journey westward, he would find himself again in 1245 when he reached Provence, and on arriving in Paris before Easter (April 16) he would once more be in 1244." To add the confusion, Spanish custom dated the beginning of the anno domini (year of grace) to 38 B.C. To find this date, add 38 to the A.D. year. This was used in Spain until the middle of the fourteenth century and in Portugal until 1420. Sometime in the sixteenth century almost everyone switched to January 1 as the beginning of the new year, which had marked the beginning of the Roman civil year and had survived long after this in Spain. Of course, Islamic custom dates the year from 622 AD (the Hegira) and features a lunar calendar. Thus, the year 86 in Muslim lands begins on January 2, 705 (modern usage); the year 87 then commences on December 23, 705. The Jewish calendar (also a lunar calendar) uses the year 3761 BC (the beginning of Mosaic law) as a start date; seven times in every nineteen years a thirteenth month of 29 days is added so that unlike the Muslim holidays, Jewish holidays are always about the same time of the year. Luckily for us, the translators of Penguin classics and other such popular sources have usually put the dates into modern usage; if they haven't, they usually let you know. Now the beginning of the anno societatis reckoning at May 1, 1966 doesn't seem so odd, does it?

How about the calendar itself? Anyone who reads Bede knows that there was a great eighth century debate about calculating the date of Easter. The results were a bunch of nifty charts designed to let one know when Easter fell in any particular year. The date of Easter was important in the determination of "movable feasts" which were counted in days after Easter. For example, Ascension day is forty days after Easter, Corpus Christi day is 54 days after, etc. Most feasts associated with particular saints were fixed, as were most of the feasts associated with the Virgin Mary. Advent was a movable feast which did not depend on Easter, but rather on Christmas day. (Pennsic is also this type of "feast"-- in practice, Pennsic seems to be arranged so that the third Saturday of the month falls in War weekend). You might be interested to know that the practice of observing "Leap Day" as February 29 is post-period; in the Middle Ages, there were two February 26th's in the Leap Year; thus the usual name for leap year in ecclesiastical calendars is annus bisextilus .

For legal and business purposes, the year was divided into quarters, just as it is today. The quarters were named for the major feast day nearest them: beginning in September with Michaelmas term (began Oct. 6), followed by Hilary term (January 20), Easter term (seventeen days after Easter), and Trinity (eight days after Trinity Sunday, which was the seventh Sunday after Easter). You will note, of course, that these quarters are not all the same length; nor was business transacted on every day. Sundays and major feast days, as well as Lent and the Advent-Christmas season, were off limits for the courts (and Parliament, later), though regular business probably was less observant of these limitations. Legal records are usually arranged by term. (Proof that quarterly reports are period, I suppose).

Now, to the final question: How old are you? It's easy if you're a male member of a royal family; these things tended to get noted. It wasn't until the advent of parish records in the fourteenth century that written track of births and christenings for even high ranking families was kept, and even into the nineteenth century there can be questions as to a particular personšs actual birthdate. This is in retrospect, of course. Medieval people probably know how old they were, though in some earlier societies (Icelandic for example) the important factor was not your chronological age, but how many winters you had survived. (One's "age" in the SCA might also be similarly described as the number of Pennsics you have attended or could have attended). We know that they must have kept track of these things, since canon and civil law proscribed certain ages for marriage (12 for girls, 14 for boys), the passage into adolescence (age 14) and the age of majority (21, often earlier in practice.) The celebration of birthdays was more a legal practice than a cause for a party, it seems -- We are completely ignorant of the birthdays of a number of major historical figures who are otherwise well attested in the documents.


Capelli, A. Cronologia, Cronographia e Calendrio Perpetuo, Milan 1988.

Cheney, C.R. Handbook of Dates for Students of English History. London, 1945.

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.