I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

THE HOURS OF HISTORY

A few days ago, my wife wondered aloud when modern demarcation of the hours became popular. This was, of course, to be translated as “Find this out; I want to know but not do research!” Here is a brief answer; the exact answer is, as you might expect, a lot more complex and longer!

In ancient history, the daylight was divided into a number of hours (in societies—such as Egyptian—which had sundials, the sunlit hours were divided into twelve parts, which were of varying lengths depending the time of year. The importance of 12 has been attributed to the number of lunar cycles in a year.

Because sunrise, sunset and noon are conspicuous, most societies starting counting hours at these times, and the development of a system of starting at midnight ordinated only later, when mechanical clocks were invented. In fact, before the invention of artificial light more reliable than candles, fire brands and hearth fires, daily tasks started and ended only when light was available. There was simply no good reason to know an exact time!

Anglo-Saxon Time

The Anglo Saxons used the term dægmæl, meaning “day mark,” rather than o’clock. The times were largely based on liturgical hours after the Anglo-Saxons were Christianized, although there were other times generally recognized for the dôgor (consisting of either twelve or twenty-four hours) on the farms:

Æring

6 am

Dæg-Gemet/Mæl

9 am

Nôn

12 Noon

Undorn

3 pm

Middel-Æfen

6 pm

Nihte-Gemet/Mæl

9 pm

Middel-Nihte,

12 midnight

Otta

3 am

(Times are approximate; Old English words taken from A Handy Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by James Harrison)

Liturgical Hours

The liturgical hours—also known as the canonical hours cathedra hours, monastic hours and offices—were based on the requirement for fixed-hour prayers that were standard by the fourth century and became used in both secular and ecclesiastical cases.

Matins

2:30-3 am

Lauds

5-6 am

Prime

7:30 am

Terce

9 am

Sext

Noon

Nones

2-3 pm

Vespers

4:30 pm

Compline

6 pm

(Times are approximate; taken from A Hypertext Book of Hours)

Norse Time

Much of what I wrote about Anglo-Saxon hours is also relevant for the Norse, The big difference is simply that the Norse did not use liturgical hours until much later since they were not converted to Christianity until later. The Norse hours were:

Rismál or Midur Morgunn

6 am

Dagmál

9 am

Hádegi or Middegi

12 noon

Undoru or Nón

3 pm

Midur Aftaan

6 pm

Náttmál

9 pm

Elding or Ótta

12 midnight

(Times are approximate; the site I cribbed these from no longer exists 😦 )

Modern Hours

Fixed modern hours—not determined by the actual length of the sunlit day—seems to have been devised in the eleventh or twelfth century, when clocks made the mechanical division of the time easy and automatic. Prior to that point, clocks apparently mechanically activated bells denoting the liturgical hours, and they were only gradually modified into modern 24-hour segmentation.

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