Court Will Begin at Half-Way Terce
Keeping Time in High Medieval Europe

Essay by
April Farrell
September 2004

This essay originally was written for the community of historical reenactors in the Kingdom of Caid, a region within the Society for Creative Anachronism. Mentions of Caid events and Caidans thus refer to modern SCA events and reenactors.

[ Sources and Notes for this essay are on a separate page.]

Medieval standard time

What is the scheduled time for opening court at virtually every Caidan event throughout the year? 10:00 a.m. — just scan the Crown Prints [a regional SCA magazine of the Kingdom of Caid]. Of course, who among the populace at a tournament actually believes the common heraldic announcement that "Court will begin in fifteen minutes?"

In spite of optimistic heraldic predictions, Caidans do expect a (roughly) standard opening time, since travel and preparation must be estimated with some care. Yet no experienced Caidan expects closing court to occur remotely close to the time listed in the Crown Prints. When does closing court begin? Usually about an hour before sunset. Not surprisingly, Caidans freely meld medieval and modern concepts of time without even realizing the difference.

The folk of high1 medieval Europe would not have understood either a 10:00 a.m. starting time, nor the herald's cry of "Fifteen minutes to Court." Minutes were not used as a measure of time during the high Middle Ages, nor would a herald expect a "quarter-hour" to consistently mean a particular length of time. Both the medieval and modern "day" (sunrise to sunrise) contain 24 hours, but medieval hours varied in length with the month and the time of day.

Citing Jesus' designation of 12 hours in a day in John 9:9, the Church divided daylight (sunrise to sunset) into twelve even hours; they similarly divided nighttime (sunset to sunrise) into 12 hours.2

On the equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), a medieval daylight hour equaled a nighttime hour — and each contained a modern 60 minutes. But on Christmas in medieval London, a daylight hour contained only 40 minutes, while each nighttime hour contained 80 minutes. Of course, on St. John's Day (June 24), a medieval daylight hour in London contained 80 minutes, and a nighttime hour contained only 40 minutes.3

Mechanical clocks measuring modern "equal" hours first appeared in the 14th Century — the late Middle Ages. Not surprisingly, these clocks emerged first in Italy in the early part of the century, then spread to the European continent, and finally appeared in England after about 1370. So high medieval Europeans never referred to 10 o'clock ("of the clock') — they didn't use clocks to measure equal hours.

When did the church bells ring?

But the Caidan attitude toward the start of closing court would have made sense to a medieval European — he or she would have called it "Vespers". The medieval Church divided a 24-hour day into eight liturgical Hours or Offices, each marked by prayer: Vigils (or Nocturns, now called Matins), Matins (now called Lauds), Prime (1st), Terce (3rd), Sext (6th), None (9th), Vespers, and Compline. Community church bells rang all of these offices except Vigils (Nocturns), allowing medieval Europeans to coordinate their lives by the seven canonical bells that could be heard in all but the most remote farms.

Although a 24-hour day can be evenly divided into eight sections of three hours each, the medieval Offices were not actually evenly spaced. With even spacing, Prime (1st) would begin at sunrise and extend to midmorning; Terce (3rd) would begin at midmorning and extend to midday; Sext (6th) would begin at midday and extend to mid-afternoon; None would begin at mid-afternoon and extend to sunset; Vespers would begin at sunset and extend to mid-evening; Compline would begin at mid-evening and extend to midnight; Vigils would begin at midnight and extend half-way to sunrise; and Matins would begin half-way to sunrise and extend to sunrise.

Medieval records, however, indicate the Offices were celebrated on the equinox at times listed in Table 1.4

The times for midwinter and midsummer have been calculated using the seasonal change in the length of daylight and nighttime hours.5

Table 1: Canonical bells in  12th Century  London
    Equinox  Midwinter  Midsummer
Matins    5:00 a.m.    6:40 a.m.    2:30 a.m.
Prime    6:00 a.m.    8:00 a.m.    3:40 a.m.
Terce    8:30 a.m.    9:40 a.m.    7:00 a.m.
Sext  12:30 p.m.  12:20 p.m.  12:20 p.m.
None    2:30 p.m.    1:40 p.m.    3:00 p.m.
Vespers    5:00 p.m.    3:00 p.m.    7:00 p.m.
(Sunset)   (6:00 p.m.)   (3:50 p.m.)   (8:20 p.m.)
Compline     7-8:00 p.m. 5-6:00 p.m.    9:30 p.m.


Origins of the Hours

During the high Middle Ages, Matins began about first light (roughly an hour before sunrise) and contained twelve psalms originally sung during night offices, as well as Lauds celebrating the new day.6

Prime, a short office beginning at sunrise, was added in the 12th Century.

The Offices of Terce, Sext and None originated as the regular daily watch changes in Roman cities, first suggested by Tertullian in the 3rd Century as good reminders for daily prayers.7

In the early centuries of the Church, Vespers began at sunset and included the last prayers of the day and psalms. After the 5th Century, the psalms were separated and recited as Compline upon retiring for bed. Vespers was then shifted in the 8th Century to allow its completion by sunset.8

Vigils, or Nocturns, actually began the monastic day within a couple of hours after midnight, but this church bell was not rung in villages or cities, allowing townsfolk a better night's rest. Not surprisingly, the actual times at which the Offices began varied somewhat with location. In monasteries, the length of the Offices for the monks also varied with the season — Vespers was longer in the summer than in winter, while Compline and Matins were lengthened in the winter.

When is noon? Are you in France?

During the 12th Century, the time for None moved to midday, providing the modern term, noon.9

By the 13th Century, this move had compressed Terce and Sext into the morning hours, but did not affect the other offices — the altered times are shown in Table 2. The shift may have been instituted by monks for whom many fasts lasted until None, although it also created a functional half-day of work for the urban workers who took their daily pause at None.10

This shift did not occur on the Continent until the 14th Century, so during the 13th Century, None was rung near mid-afternoon in France, but near mid-day in England.11

Table 2: Canonical bells in  13th Century  London
    Equinox  Midwinter  Midsummer
Matins    5:00 a.m.    6:40 a.m.    2:30 a.m.
Prime    6:00 a.m.    8:00 a.m.    3:40 a.m.
Terce    8:00 a.m.    9:20 a.m.    6:30 a.m.
Sext  10:30 p.m.  11:00 a.m.    9:40 a.m.
None  12:30 p.m.  12:20 p.m.  12:40 p.m.
Vespers    5:00 p.m.    3:00 p.m.    7:00 p.m.
(Sunset)   (6:00 p.m.)   (3:50 p.m.)   (8:20 p.m.)
Compline     7-8:00 p.m. 5-6:00 p.m.    9:20 p.m.


What about water clocks?

Sundials12 provided the major means of daytime medieval time-keeping, and celestial observations provided time-keeping at night. Gregory of Tours, writing in the 6th Century, provided instructions still used by medieval monks for timing the night offices by the rising of certain constellations. Of course, poor weather conditions could frustrate either of these methods, and chanting specific sets of psalms could provide approximate time intervals, as well.13

Clepsydras, or water clocks, were used by some monasteries during the early and high Middle Ages, but they were expensive, required constant attendance and tended to break down frequently. Ironically, the clepsydra kept equal units of time, so the monks had to constantly adjust the units of time between canonical hours as the seasons changed.14

Astronomers and physicians might use astrolabes, but these were not typically understood by anyone else.

Sandglasses (hour glasses) were not introduced until the 14th Century, so measuring the equivalent of modern minutes or an hour was difficult. Wealthy magnates, both secular and ecclesiastical, might use carefully-poured candles that burned at a fairly even rate, but these were too expensive for common use by the rest of the aristocracy, including most knights — and they were not all that accurate. Lay people also used the time needed for a particular psalm or prayer as a measure of a certain number of minutes.

Until the end of the high Middle Ages, the canonical bells regulated religious time, social time and the work-day. So a medieval knight attending a spring Crown tournament in Caid might expect Court to begin at half-way Terce (half-way between the bell for Terce and the bell for Sext).15

"Punctuality is the politeness of kings"

It is a rare Caidan that does not firmly agree with King Louis XVIII of France that royal punctuality is important.16 After all, time has value — including the time of the populace — and nothing of value should be wasted. During the early and high Middle Ages, however, the concept of "wasting" time did not appear in European writings.

A Franciscan question raised for disputation illustrates the common medieval attitude about time early in the high medieval period. "Is a merchant entitled, in a given type of business transaction, to demand a greater payment from one who cannot settle his account immediately than from one who can?" The Franciscan's answer located time within the realm of God — "No, because in so doing, the merchant would be selling time and would be committing usury by selling what does not belong to him."17

The medieval merchant class, however, increased the complexity of their trade in the late 12th Century, and supported a thriving international trade throughout the 13th Century. For these folk, time was the opportunity for profit and thus required consistent measurement regardless of season. By the beginning of the 13th Century, medieval merchants would not have agreed with the Franciscan's answer. By 1350, mechanical clocks in the largest European cities rang 60-minute hours night and day, winter and summer, but church bells still rang canonical hours. This allowed merchants in the labor-intensive textile crafts to separate merchant's time (a labor day of equal hours) from religious and social time (still regulated by the canonical hours). The concept of "wasting" time first appeared in 14th Century writings, and was to become a serious sin even in religious tracts. During the late Middle Ages, the time that had previously belonged only to God became the property of man.18


© 2004 April Farrell

Sources and Notes for —
Court Will Begin at Half-Way Terce:
Keeping Time in High Medieval Europe

This essay first appeared in
Ars Caidis, September 2004
Society for Creative Anachronism;
as by Felinah Memo Hazara Khan-ad-Din


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