It’s pretty hard not to know what the time is these days. If your watch, phone, or computer can’t tell you, your fridge probably can. Medieval people did not have ready access to such gadgetry, but they did still need to know about time.

One of the more notable changes in the approach to time through the Middle Ages, was that up until the 14th century, days (and nights) were measured in temporal hours (when the hours of available daylight were divided into 12, and thus hours varied in length between seasons), but this then shifted to equal hours, with 24 units of time that were all the same length.

Time in the Medieval World, edited by Dr Chris Humphrey and Professor Mark Ormrod, is a great read if you want to track the changing face of time through the medieval period. It details how people did need to know what time it was for their day-to-day activities, particularly in urban contexts.

The sound of medieval life

Church bells provided the rhythm of the day, alerting people to the regular religious services that occurred at set times, but also for secular life. Dr Humphrey tells us that in York, for instance, an ordinance of 1301 dictated that no fish could be sold between vespers being struck at the church of St Michael on Ouse Bridge on one day and prime being struck at the Minster on the following one.

Dr Humphrey, who has called time on academia and gone on to launch a careers consultancy for post-PhD researchers called Jobs on Toast, also notes that "the widespread introduction of mechanical clocks into Europe in the 14th century laid the foundations for our modern sense of time".

I asked him to elaborate on that and he emailed me to say:

“While mechanical clocks were introduced in the 14th century, there wasn’t a uniform take-up of clock-time by all people or institutions. It seems so natural to us now that everyone should use clock-time - but just imagine a medieval town, with its competing bells and chimes ringing out, some sounding the monastic hours, some sounding out clock hours. Looking at the evidence from civic records, it appears that citizens in towns were adopting clock-based time as a part of broader strengthening of their own civic identity, prestige and control.”

The significance of clocks is a theme further explored by Professors Nancy Mason Bradbury and Carolyn P. Collette in their interesting article Changing Times: the mechanical clock in late medieval literature in the Chaucer Review . Curiously, they have a fish-related example too, but I’m sure time-related strictures extended beyond piscatorial trading hours.

“Two London proclamations issued by the mayor and aldermen in 1383-84 indicate how accustomed the citizens of London were to governing their activities by clocks and how careful a watch they kept on the hours. One, a proclamation about the selling of fish, regulates trade in this commodity by time: "And also that no denzeins ne non other ne bigge no manere fissh ne other vitailles for to selle a-yen for-to ten of the clokke be smyte vp-on peyne forsaid" (that is, 'up-on peyne of enprisonement at the Maires wille and forfai ture of al that he may forfaite a-yens the kyng').”

That’s just a couple of examples of how keeping an eye on the hours of the medieval day mattered. But so too did longer-term time-keeping. Dr Charles Rozier of Durham University has just published a fascinating volume Writing History in the Community of St Cuthbert c700-1130. In it, he talks about the historical material produced by the monks of the community of St Cuthbert, who were famously first based at the holy island of Lindisfarne, and then moved to Chester-le-Street and then finally to Durham.

Talking time in Durham

One of his themes revolves around what happens in the early 12th century, when the scribes of Durham produced at least five different historical chronicle texts. These, as Dr Rozier explains, allow us to “see a clear intellectual focus on exploring abstract notions of time, and of placing known historical events within measurable frameworks of chronology, royal genealogy, geography and theology. These chronicles show how Durham audiences used historical knowledge to negotiate heated contemporary debates on the measurement of time, and in so doing, made original contributions to an international discourse on this subject.”

But, as he explains:

“Medieval audiences did not solely engage with history on an intellectual level, simply because they wanted to know about the past. The contents… demonstrate that among the Anglo-Norman community, the past was of fundamental importance to the ritual commemoration of saints, martyrs, church leaders, confraternal partners and secular patrons.”

I found this all very interesting, so I asked if Dr Rozier would be willing to film a very brief guide to the medieval concept of time for us, and rather brilliantly, he agreed. As he says: “Most chronicles were written by a small group of high-level intellectuals working in medieval monasteries or cathedral schools. They cared about time, because it was their job to pray in the right ways at the right times and on the right feast days, all through the year.”

More like this

“The essential concern of their audiences was that two defining elements of the Christian faith, the celebration of Easter and the eschatological framework of salvation history, required an advanced understanding of time among persons directing the rhythms of worship,” continues Dr Rozier. “The ability to calculate the date of Easter required a complex process of computistical work on which were composed several influential treatises throughout the Middle Ages, often accompanied by supporting diagrams and schematic tables of remarkable ingenuity and complexity.”

Deep-thinking and head-scratching

So, time was a concept understood on several levels in the medieval period, and one that required a lot of deep-thinking and head-scratching analytical work to get to grips with. But I also wanted to know if there was a such a thing as clock-watching in the Middle Ages, if these medieval scribes and monks ever found the process of calculating and chronicling just a little bit hard work and dare I say it, dull.

I asked Dr Rozier if he could see anything like that from his in-depth research of these manuscripts. He replied:

“On boredom, there is not really anything manuscript-based, but there's a very nice description from a twelfth-century chronicler called Orderic Vitalis about how writing can be used as a balance against your sins after death. A scribe-monk dies and his sins are put on scales, and when all of the words he wrote in his life are placed on the other side, the words written tip the balance and allow him into heaven. The story is told in the context of encouraging young monks to be diligent and not lazy!”

Scribes at snail's pace

Moving forward again in time though, but back to one of my favourite subjects, medieval marginalia, I was enjoying a BBC radio programme on the subject presented by Dr Alixe Bovey called Knight fights Giant Snail. Incidentally, Dr Bovey wrote about the medieval Gough map for historyextra a few years, and I note there is a research project going on about that now, which sounds exciting.

Anyway, back to the snail programme, one of the contributors, Professor Paul Binski of Cambridge University, made the comment that one of the reasons why we start to see some of the more unusual marginal illustrations in medieval manuscripts in the 13th and 14th centuries was because “what we recognise as a bureaucratic state is just beginning. You have an immense expansion of people who sit in offices and wield pens and get fed up. The people doing it are young men who have Latin and are bored sick of the tedium of bureaucracy and they start to make marginal corollaries”.

I dropped Professor Binski a line to clarify this, and he replied: “Boredom I see as a stimulus to ludus, serious play and unruliness, ie it's a counterpart to delight. In medieval aesthetics varietas is the counterpart to tedium - they go together. I don't think its coincidental that big copying industries in the secretariats from c 1200 witness the earliest doodles of this type. There are all sorts of scribal notes in medieval manuscripts added by copyists out of their minds, for example; 'Mary, help me!' - 'Maria hilf!' or 'Time for Lunch'.”

He goes into considerably more detail into this in his excellent book Gothic Wonder: Art, Artifice and the Decorated Style and very interestingly opines on the idea that the amusing marginalia, perhaps borne out of boredom, in otherwise serious tomes may have been commercially valuable in making products that the intended audience wanted to own:

“The borders became a genre only slowly (if at all), especially when it became clear that they conferred an advantage in the market for books. That market was inherently geared to social elites. But without a sense of the delight – and the boredom – of writing and decorating anything, a true sense of the richness of the margins is lost in turn.”

Are you bored yet?

Professor Chris Dyer, emeritus at Leicester and Birmingham, is an expert on medieval economic and social history (he wrote a great piece for us about deserted medieval villages, which is a worth a read). His book Everyday life in Medieval England is a classic text, so I wondered if he might know anything about whether boredom prevailed amongst the peasantry at all.

“The term boredom emerges in the 18th century and I suspect that the idea is a modern one. Not that medieval people were not bored, but they did not think of it as a state of mind and therefore did not name it or discuss it.

"The nearest to a state of boredom might be melancholy, but that is more akin to our depression, though not the same.

"People did have empty time, as there was much underemployment (e.g. people employed in aristocratic households without a lot to do). Labourers and other living on wages for whom there was not enough work. We think of a working year of 240 days, with enforced break from lack of work, bad weather, religious feasts which were not filled with feasting if you were poor. But in a bad year the amount of work filled only 100 days.

"I am always struck by medieval people's capacity to endure tedium. We get bored on a two hour train journey- but medieval traveller were on the road for 3 or 4 days.

"Work involved the repetitive performance of manual tasks, like weaving or threshing corn.

"Monks went through a repetitive cycle of prayer and services, and most of them were not doing creative jobs such as reading and writing.

"There was very limited range of entertainments, like Nine Men's Morris, or playing simple musical instruments like pipes. Making your own entertainment was difficult for people without much education.

"But perhaps we, with masses of stimuli and opportunities to read, see, hear etc are still bored!”

If you are bored this week, let me recommend a new podcast episode that's just out on our feed. It's a treat for medieval enthusiasts, because we have Professor David Carpenter talking about King Henry III, in the light of his recent new biography of the somewhat overlooked 13th-century monarch. Listen to the podcast, and read his feature in the July 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine, and you'll learn that Henry was a lazy sort, who craved a quiet and comfortable life, but whose story was certainly not boring and who deserves to be better known, as Professor Carpenter reminded me in an email:

"King Henry III was a king in a new age, the first to confront the restrictions of Magna Carta and the power of parliament. Thanks to his extraordinary letters recorded on the chancery rolls we can get closer to him, on a day to day basis, than to any other medieval monarch. Warm hearted, open handed, pacific, deeply pious, a connoisseur of the arts, and craving a comfortable life, he gave England many years of peace and built the great Abbey at Westminster we have today. Alas, he was also politically naive and in 1258 a baronial coalition, led by Simon de Montfort, stripped him of power. But Henry's reputation as a good and pious man helped him in the end win through. He lies today within a splendid tomb in the Abbey beside his patron saint, Edward the Confessor."

David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra. He tweets @DJMusgrove. He is not bored of writing this blog yet, but if you are, drop him a tweet to tell him what he should cover instead. Read the latest in his medieval matters blog series here


Dr David MusgroveContent director,

David Musgrove is content director of the website and podcast, plus its sister print magazines BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed. He has a PhD in medieval landscape archaeology and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.