Encountering Early Medieval Time

This is a much-reduced summary of a lecture I gave at the Paris IMS Conference ‘Le temps’ in July 2019


What is time? A mystery? The calendar? The movement of the heavens? Money?

One thing medievalists have long agreed on is that it is important to understand the senses of time societies used to organise their lives, their pasts, and their imaginations. The writing of history has (disproportionately?) drawn the attention of many scholars, because one cannot use all those chronicles and biographies without a good working theory of the intersections between temporality and narrative that gave them their shape and purpose.[1] Cycles of church feasts gave life a reassuring rhythm, complementing the deep structures of nature and the agricultural cycle, but also providing scene and potential meaning for political (or politicised) ritual. And of course by the end of the Middle Ages time was more assuredly ‘money’, as someone’s time could demand a price.

Part of the issue for medievalists has been polemical. Modernists and sociologists have often asserted that the simultaneity of temporal experience and the relative speed of knowledge that goes with it are hallmarks of ‘modernity’. Before timetables, mechanical clocks, and the internet, time was surely not really what we think of as time – it was all a bit vague and ‘religious’. But the idea that pre-modern time in Europe was somehow formless and primitive has been robustly challenged many times over – perhaps most famously in Jacques Le Goff’s classic 1960 article in Annales (although, following Marrou, he still asserted the ‘ambivalence’ of early medieval time), and more recently in the extensive late-career writings of Arno Borst on calendars and computus (which started here). Borst in particular was sure that time in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages was more rational and objective than some of his peers believed.

When I came to writing about apocalyptic expectations, I found that it was still often asserted that most people cannot really have believed such a thing, not least because they wouldn’t have had much of an idea of what the date was. This raises a question for me: in what ways were ideas about linear time actually encountered?

The existing evidence is of course skewed. The only sources we have are those that survived from churches and monasteries. Did this mean there was no civic sense of time? Seems unlikely. But also, of course, church time was social time for many people. The Royal Frankish Annals recorded where Charlemagne was for most Easters and Christmases, precisely because those were key temporal markers for him, when he could co-ordinate being found and meeting people. People had to pay taxes on particular days, and while this could be made to work by people running around with reminders the whole time, maybe there were more local ways of keeping track. That would be sensible. We only really assume this wasn’t the case because we assume that people were illiterate and incapable, not because we have actual evidence for it. I know it’s not popular to say in 2019 but believing really hard that something is true is not the same as it actually being true.

Let’s think anyway about how time-rich the experience of engaging with ‘church time’ could be.

The Ravenna Table

Did people, for instance, ever see Easter tables that listed the dates for the years coming up? Maybe. There was pressure in canon law and elsewhere that everyone shoud observe Easter at the same time everywhere (pre-modern simultaneity!). There is a marble, circular Easter table from Ravenna, that announces Easter dates in a cycle of 95 years for 532-626, surely originally for display in a church to help with such observances. One might doubt, however, that this was a common object to make, as such an Easter table is only truly cyclical (i.e. it repeats in full) after 532 years. Either the 95-year one became redundant relatively quickly, or else a lot more expense needed to be put in to making more tables. The only other extant table obviously for a wall (I think) is from Périgueux, which mistakenly claims, as Isidore of Seville did, that the 95-year table was fully cyclical. Cordoliani thought the table was from 631 but it is more likely from 1163. Either way, it was composed, like the Ravenna table, without any way of marking what any specific year was, AD or otherwise, which puts an interesting amount of pressure on someone to keep track.

Willibrord Calendar
Willibrord’s Calendar

Were manuscripts of tables and calendars displayed? It seems likely in some cases. Felice Lifshitz argued in 2006 that the famous Calendar of St Willibrord from the early eighth century was sometimes displayed in the church of Echternach. There, it served a semi-public purpose as a visible place in which communal memory could be accessed, edited, and (although I am less sure about this bit) contested. And if that was readily accessible, then so were the attached Easter tables which did list the years AD from 684 to 797, and on the whole elegantly and clearly despite being copied in several bursts. One might even like to think in that context that the horologium in the middle of the tables got some use for helping to co-ordinate the observances of the canonical hours. This was a book with a presence and practical uses.

One may doubt that many such collections of calendars and tables might have been used in such a way. Many can be found in manuscripts that seem to be priests’ handbooks and tend to be rather scruffy and cramped. Others can be found in books that seem to be high-intellectual encyclopaedias on mathematics, so also not for display. Calendars also get into deluxe gospel books and liturgical books, where they might be for display. They get everywhere, which makes generalisations hard to make.

There may still have been other ways of visualising the passing of linear time. Bede, in De temporum ratione (725), recalled that in 701 some of his brothers had seen the years ‘from the Passion’ recorded on paschal candles in the church of Santa Maria maggiore. This was done, he says explicitly, to remind the people of the number of years. Sadly we do not know how widespread a practice this was in early medieval churches, because candles melt when used, funnily enough. I think it would be surprising if practices in a major Roman church, visited by people from all over the Christian world, inspired no imitation. But no doubt someone else can sniffly imagine exactly the opposite on the basis of the same evidence and be very sure that I must be wrong, so whatever.

The visuality of (biblical) time in Santa Maria maggiore is doubly interesting in the context of biblical histories and apocalyptic timeframes. Many of the original mosaic schemes from the fifth century still survive in the church, so even if we don’t have the candles, we can still imagine the image-rich environment in which they were encountered by Bede’s brothers. These mosaics provide snippets from across the Old and New Testaments, placing the observer in the middle of biblical history. Strikingly, as the observer looks towards the triumphal arch, there is an empty throne, flanked by Peter and Paul, with the Book of Life waiting on it. The observer is directly being encouraged to anticipate Judgement Day. Time was running out.

Santa Maria maggiore

Many churches went further and included visual schemes that made observers not just anticipate Judgement Day but to witness it. On the triumphal arch at San Paolo fuori le mura, in a sixth-century scheme, one can see Christ in Judgement flanked by the 24 elders of the apocalypse. Bede, again, tells of how the brothers returned from Rome with images of the Book of Revelation they placed on boards in their own church to recall the coming Judgement to people as they entered the building. We do not know what was in these images, but art historians have often imagined they were akin to those in the earliest surviving illuminated apocalypses, such as the Carolingian Valenciennes Apocalypse or Trier Apocalypse. And that means more crowd scenes and more opportunity for the observer to feel that they were looking at Judgement Day, not just looking at a pretty picture.

Indeed, what one saw about time in an early medieval church was often coupled with things that one might hear. Scenes of Judgement Day set the scene nicely for a preacher. Take this collection of sermons from the Middle Rhine c. 800 (below), which opens with a picture of Judging Christ clutching the Book of Life, and an Augustinian sermon ‘On the Day of Judgement’ which has sections such as this: ‘Oh man who desires to possess the Kingdom of God, but who does bad, emend your ways while you can! While you have time, cry out to the Omnipotent God! While you have space, lament! While there is freedom, repent! Hurray while you can!’ One can multiply such examples readily across the period. Time was short and people were reminded of this frequently.

Christ de fine
Vatican, Pal. Lat. 220

And when people ignored such messages, Caesarius of Arles had the doors of his church bolted to remind his congregation that no one escapes Judgement Day.

In the end, I hope we have got a sense of the relentless urgency of time in the early medieval world, in contrast with the loose, pastoral sense of time often imagined for the period. Church time demanded attention and engagement, and it had to be accurate, not only to co-ordinate church ritual but also to co-ordinate social activity and economic behaviour. This sense of time had real urgency: everything needed to be observed at the right time, while historical time itself was running out. This was a ‘time-rich’ world, in which ideas of time were seen, heard about, read about, discussed, and acted upon.


[1] Stop laughing at the back 😉