Sunday, 19 December 2010

A World Lit Only By Misconceptions: On Time

Yes, now that I've finished and handed in two completely non-medieval term papers, it's about time for a little more debunking and public mockery of everyone's favourite book: William Manchester's "A World Lit Only By Fire". In this episode: why the statement that in the "medieval mind" there was "no awareness of time" is, for want of a less polite term, utter poppycock.

"In the medieval mind there was also no awareness of time, which is even more difficult to grasp... Life then revolved around the passing of the seasons and such cyclical events as religious holidays, harvest time, and local fetes. In all Christendom there was no such thing as a watch, a clock, or, apart from a copy of the Easter tables in the nearest church or monastery, anything resembling a calendar. Generations succeeded one another in a meaningless, timeless blur. In the whole of Europe, which was the world as they knew it, very little happened..." [emphasis mine](Manchester 22-23).

Some of these claims don't even merit discussion. That very little happened in medieval Europe is, well, it's the dumbest damn thing I've heard this week. But there is something to be said about time.

No doubt Manchester got this hyperbolic drivel by lightly skimming some of the last century's worth of writing on the subject of time and perception in the Middle Ages. There is a kernel of truth behind what he writes: the mechanical clock,* in the form of the communal, "town clock", didn't become widespread until the early 1400s. We have evidence that almost a century earlier than that, however, in Italy, there was some kind of a 24-hour mechanical clock, though it mightn't have worked so well. By the time of the early Protestant Reformation in England people had been talking about "such-and-such hour of the day" in the sense we would for some time. People started counting minutes later, during Pepys' time (or thereabouts). Huygens' invention of the pendulum clock pretty much brings us up to now.

There is also a very prominent theory, as seen in Benedict Anderson's "Imagined Communities" and based on Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History," that a major sea-change took place in the understanding of time in the west between the medieval and the modern periods. The idea is pretty complicated, but basically has to do with the suggestion that in the modern conception of time, we pass along a timeline, with space on the line between the dots that represent events. So the idea of "empty" time with events "in" it (and more importantly, with space between the events) is the current one. The "medieval" time is what Benjamin calls "messianic" time, and that's where things get really theoretical and beyond the realm of a blog post. Suffice it to say, it's not the way we think of time, and it's a lot more metaphysical. It has to do with prefiguration (think Isaac & Christ) and a simultaneity that exists through the perception of the divine. Just, bear with me on this.

The point is, that yes: in the Middle Ages, time was understood differently than it is today. But that's a bit of a no-brainer, isn't it? It doesn't mean that they had "no conception of time," or that, more than that, all life was "a meaningless, timeless blur."

"No mechanical clocks" does not equate with "timeless existential dread," Mr. Manchester.

Before the mechanical clock there was the sundial. There was the water clock. The sand clock. The canonical hours were rung on bells in England from somewhere in the middle of the 600s.** There were medieval astrolabes which could (guess what) be used to tell time.

The word "hour" doesn't enter the English language until the 1200s, sure. But other words for time-keeping do: "morn," "even," and "day" have been in the language since before we have written evidence to prove it. "Noon" might not have come to mean the middle of the day until the 1200s, but "on midne dæg" is written in the Blickling Homilies, followed shortly by the compound "middandæg". Certainly the periods of time people were concerned with were larger than the hour and the minute, but this doesn't reduce the diurnal and seasonal foci of their timescales to "meaningless".

The people of the Middle Ages didn't view time the way we do today. But they did perceive it. To impress upon that a value judgement is nothing short of social darwinism. More than that, doing so "writes off" another, different perspective. If you can't stomach a perspective that's different from your own, Mr. Manchester, might I suggest you get the hell out of the study of history.

That is all :)

For further reading on time in the middle ages, please consult the following:

Cipolla, Carlo. Clocks and Culture 1300-1700. 1967. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Print.

Dohrn-van Rossum, Gerhard. History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders. Trans. Thomas Dunlap. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

Le Goff, Jacques. Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. Print.

Sherman, Stuart. Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries and English Diurnal Form 1660-1785. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

*from a very very old root, as evidenced by its similar appearance in both old Gaelic forms as well as old Germanic ones, meaning something like "bell"
**well, Bede says they imported a bell around then, anyhoo.


Tom Elrod said...

And of course, monasteries structured their day around prayers (matins, lauds, etc.) based on the time of day. And there's reference to hours of the day in the Bible (e.g., when Christ was crucified), which was sort of an important text in the middle ages. No doubt there's a bunch of other examples people can come up with.

I haven't ever read Manchester because I think it would infuriate me too much without actually teaching me anything or giving me anything useful to think about.

Dr. Virago said...

Oh good god, that's the stupidest thing I've ever read. Even his own words undercut his argument -- seasons and cyclical event *are* a measurement of the passing of time! Duh!

I read Manchester long before I was a medievalist (about 20 years ago) and had thankfully forgotten most of it. But one thing I remember is that he extends the idea of the Middle Ages to Magellan's day (which is only the early 16th century -- not a *big* extension), which is something I could buy if it were made for the right reasons, but I suspect Manchester made it for all the wrong ones.

@Tom - I LOL'ed at "the Bible...which was sort of an important text in the middle ages." Indeed.

Bardiac said...

My students also believe that no one loved their spouse before, say, 1967. (No one had sex then, either, they think.)

Eigon said...

This book came into our second hand bookshop recently, and I thought I might give it a try. I don't think I'll bother now.