Telling Time during the Middle Ages

In an age before clocks, how did one tell time? Of course, someone will answer with the position of the sun or the seasons. And they would be right. Precisely how did it work? For one thing, time was vague unlike today where you can glance at a phone, watch, computer, or the giant clock at central station and read off the hour, minute, or second.


Around the mid-fourteen century most towns owned a clock, but until then time was, at best, a crude measurement. Religion and seasons were the timekeepers. The church broke down time into twelve equal segments of the day from sunrise to sunset. Basically the divisions were set up for communal prayers, seven sets a day:


Matins – around 3 am or at dawn

Prime – around 6 am

Tierce – around 9 am

Sext – at midday

None – around 3 pm

Vespers – around 6 pm or after dinner

Compline – around 9 pm or before bed


A cathedral, monastery, or chapel rang bells to mark division from Matin until Vespers, calling priests and monks to prayer. Shopkeepers, farmers, peasants, and nobles planned not only their meals and work around the clanging bells, but rising and sleeping, as well. Of course, there was the method my neighbors still use, rise when the rooster crows.


The Seasons were more important than an actual calendar year to the average peasant because if crops weren’t planted at the proper time an entire village could starve. Bearing this in mind, winter started at Michaelmas in late September and ended at Christmastide. Nothing was planted during this season; however, November was called the blood month because animals were slaughtered to provide enough meat to last through the winter.


Spring was from Epiphany to Easter when fields and gardens sprouted back to life, and animals that survived past winter mated. In early February, Candlemas, oats, barley, and beans were planted. Hocktide began two weeks after Easter and continued until Lammas in August. Lammas to Michaelmas was harvest time.


It is easy to see how important the seasons were to people in the Middle Ages when they didn’t have the luxury of picking up items at the supermarket and refrigerating them until needed. Accuracy wasn’t the aim, survival was.