Measurement of time in Mythic Europe


I've been wondering how time was measured in medieval times. For the players, it's easier to relate to minutes and hours, but was this actually used in 1220 AD? Did they actually keep track of time outside sunset and sundown? I know monks used some kind of measurement based on times of prayer, but what about nobles or common folk?


There is a scholarly book based on the inquisition records of a French village near the Pyrenees called Montaillou.

It says that time concepts were hazy for peasants. There was always the sun of course. Church bells did not necessarily divide the day in France/Foix (but they did in some regions of Germany).
Some people used prayer times.
For dates, they used things like "a fortnight before Michelmas/St. ...", during the (plant) harvest, in the (seasonal activity) season, or fairs
a fortnight often had 15 days, a week 8 days.

For years they related to special events (the year before the inquisition locked us in the church).

Keeping a calendar was a task for learned men (like the Albigenian heretic congregation leaders or priests)

The reason I'm asking is that in the new Robin Hood movie, they use minutes to tell the time at one point. This might be artistic freedom from the part of the director Ridley Scott, but it got me curious, since we often use minutes and hours in our campaign, since it's practical. Great movie, though. :slight_smile:

Anyway, would the characters in our campaign use minutes and hours themselves? If not, where did this method of measuring time come from?


Minutes and seconds were not used in medieval times. They became used with the appearance of town clocks.

The hours were not even our hours: there was always the same number of hours between dawn and sunset, their duration depending on the time in the year (shorter in December, longer in June). By the way I am less than sure they were used by other people than the monks.

A (time) minute just means a sixtieth of an hour, and was in use in written English in this sense by the fourteenth century. In the twelfth and thirteenth century the word "minute" was sometimes used in Old English to indicate a tenth of an hour, and sometimes to indicate a sixtieth of an hour.

Dividing an hour into sixty segments is much, much older. It dates from Babylon, and was used by the Greeks and by medieval astronomers/astrologers and mathematicians. They also used seconds, which are minutes of minutes. When medieval scholars and mathematicians (and monks) used the term they did mean very precisely, a sixtieth of an hour. They also used minutes to mean a sixtieth of a degree; when measuring angles of elevation etc. Medieval scholars, monks etc could measure time with hour glasses, calibrated candles, water clocks, sun dials, and so forth. Obviously, some methods might be more accurate than others. But once you have a way of measuring an hour, you can measure a sixtieth of an hour too.

I think that common people in the twelfth century could definitely use the term "minute" (and the term "hour"). There might be regional/professional differences between whether they meant a minute was a tenth of an hour or a sixtieth of an hour. And they'd have difficulty measuring either hours or minutes precisely, but that shouldn't stop them from using the terms.

I'd expect people who needed such precission to use an hourglass - these can be made in a variety of sizes, though getting a sufficient quality of glass might be a problem.

I don't think it was so much of a technical problem. It was more like nobody felt he/she needed an hourglass (think of what happened to Galilei).
Plus, it wouldn't have been cheap.

For short periodes of time, count heartbeats.

methinks mr. Scott just forgot to think - or decided that his audience wouldn't understand if he used some other way of telling time.

Because magi are trained in technical studies like astronomy and such, I think an hourglass would be something known to them. Also dividing the celestial day into 24 hours, and then the night sky, watching the progression in terms of degrees, hours, minutes - the concepts would not be completely foreign to most magi.

However, Ars tends to be a very "loose" game system tactically - paces, "voice" - the SG can bend reality to make the best story.

The use of heartbeats or breaths is a great ploy - it's not perfectly defined, and it also gives the "ignorant" feel to the narrative. One calm RL "breath" is about one round in Ars, so that can work well without commitment.

"He waited in the shadows for several breaths, watching, listening..."

I've also used a pure invention, the "candlespan", the length of time it takes a thin candle (a "taper", as opposed to a fat church candle) to burn down its width, about 15 minutes or so. Very subjective, and very inaccurate, but also (again) very mood-appropriate imo.

A very interesting thread.

Using setting-fitting terms is great for the feel - but beyond comparing those to modern time time measurements more familiar to us, I'm wondering as much about relating them to time increments known to the characters - especially Diameter. Diameter must be a concept familiar to magi, no matter what name they attach to it, and I was wondering of ways to link the thoughts on breaths and heartbeats to Diameter. I know we can just compare it to an average of breaths (~30+) or hearthbeat (~140+), but in roleplaying I tend to prefer symbolism over realism, so any thought on how a magus would 'count' to a Diameter?

I believe that magi have a general feel for such, having experienced them often enough.

More than one of character I've designed has a spell that tells them exactly when such durations pass...

Taste of the Astrological Clock
InIg(Vi) 10
R: Self, D: Sun, T: Taste
The mage can "taste" the passage of astrological time. Although this takes a bit of getting used to at first, the mage can know, with perfect accuracy, when a Diameter duration is about to pass, or exactly how long until a Sunrise or Sunset will occur. This can take place at any time of day or night, even if far from any view of the sky, as this is a magical and universal aspect of the Sun and stars, not a visible one. Non-Hermetic durations, such as hours or minutes, may also be known, but only if these, too, have a relationship to the astrological clock. The concept of "seconds" is not a medieval one - for that, heartbeats would have to be counted by an individual, or a miniature hourglass device, as those are not tied to the passage of the sun or moon. The mage must stick out his tongue and actually "taste" the environment, though many magi act as if merely licking their lips. (For this reason, some magi increase the Range to Touch, or simply because they can.)
(Base 4, Sun +2, free requisite)

This may be more complex than some feel is necessary, but at Level 10 - who cares? 8)

Maybe for magi. For other characters Diameter would I think seem a bloody odd measurement.

"Hour" and "minute" are much more likely to be used by non-scholarly characters; even if they cannot easily measure them precisely. These words (or at least their Old English equivalents) were apparently in usage in the 13th century. The same presumably applies to other languages.

Very interesting spell, Cuchulain, I'll steal the idea to a similar spell! :wink:

And I agree, Richard, that is would seem odd to most Mundanes - and therein lies potentiel for adding flavour to scenes. I do think it is extremely useful to Magi to know the 'time' so to speak, a la spell suggested by Cuchulain, but my reason to asking, was with interaction between Magi and others in mind. I'm sure many a plan involving magic and Mundanes, or even just your own grogs and henchmen, also involves timing things with a magical effect.

Such as when the magus Gwion conjures a bridge of living tree across the bottomless pit in Lumen (Calebais) lasting a Diameter and he is telling his friends that they will need to cross within that time, or when Virverus invokes a spell to let his trusted brothers in arms pass unseen on the bottom of a small river, breathing the cold water as it was air, but only after siezing John the Arms by the coif and sternly warning him or the men not to waver of linger under water for too long.

Yes, it seems using minutes and hours might be right within the setting, but I always find something a bit more odd or out of the ordinary, in our modern lives, kicks the imagination into motion better than familiar terms. Ways to make the magic feel magic and those who use it, the Magi, odd or outlandish, to the people they interact with. For that we often use a specific local word 'stund', in Danish meaning something undefined much alike 'a while' and with an archaic feel to it, but I was wondering what other terms the Magi might use? Counting breaths and heartbeats has a lot of colour and depth to them - other ideas, barring minutes and hours and such, for similar things?