In 1527 how did English households tell time?
August 8, 2015 10:26 AM   Subscribe

In the novel "Wolf Hall" Liz Cromwell is shocked to realize she and Thomas are awake at 3 o'clock in the morning (quote, though no real spoilers inside). How does she know what time it is in 1527? Would a successful lawyer and merchant have a clock in his bedroom? Would a church or town clock tower ring the hours through the night?

Here's the passage in question:

She puts her head on his shoulder. Too tired to speak, they lie side by side, in sheets of fine linen, under a quilt of yellow turkey satin. Their bodies breathe out the faint borrowed scent of sun and herbs. In Castilian, he remembers, he can insult people.
‘Are you asleep now?’
‘No. Thinking.’
‘Thomas,’ she says, sounding shocked, ‘it's three o'clock.’
And then it is six.

In Shakespeare's time clocks were famously chiming at all hours, and that's not too much later than the period covered in "Wolf Hall"...
posted by mzurer to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I live in Portland, OR in 2015 and there are two churches near me with bells that chime the hour and the half hour. That's how I know it's just past 10:30.
posted by chrchr at 10:32 AM on August 8, 2015

I can hear Big Ben from my house with the windows open, and I live in Brixton (so a couple of miles away). I can't hear it during the day, the traffic noise is too loud, but overnight the city is much quieter and sound carries much further.

In the 16th century London was much smaller - I forget exactly where Cromwell lived, but it would certainly have been within earshot of church bells.
posted by tinkletown at 10:33 AM on August 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just done a bit more googling - he lived in the grounds of Austin Friars, an actual working friary until 1538. The monks would have been waking up every three hours overnight to pray, so he would have heard the bells at 3am and 6am.
posted by tinkletown at 10:51 AM on August 8, 2015 [36 favorites]

heh. it doesn't surprise me that mantel nails the exact times when the clocks would have rung. as far as i know, she's pretty hard-core about the historical facts.
posted by andrewcooke at 10:59 AM on August 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

Just to add to what the other commenters are saying: pendulum clocks weren't invented until the 1650s and were pretty inaccurate, and household clocks weren't a thing until factory production in the 19th century made them affordable to the middle class.
posted by Specklet at 1:22 PM on August 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

The monks would have been waking up every three hours overnight to pray, so he would have heard the bells at 3am and 6am.

But they would have referred to those times as "vigil" and "matins"; I don't believe the idea of counting hours from midnight became common until much later.
posted by mr vino at 1:55 PM on August 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, how did the monks know what time it was? Or was it just, like... "oh, it's about 3, time to rang them bells?"
posted by RustyBrooks at 3:53 PM on August 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Hourglass? Sundial during the day?
posted by sageleaf at 3:54 PM on August 8, 2015

It would seem that home wall clocks were present on the continent by the 1500s, and the English lantern clock would have been in the homes of the nobility (or nobility aspiring?), but the vogue for church clocks that sound the hour swept Europe in the 1400s and church clock towers seem common enough by the 16th century that your characters could probably have one chiming the hour within earshot.

There's also hourglasses and marked candles, but for your 16th century upper middle professional/merchant class, a nearby church tower would probably have been their source of time.

Also check out the awesome bibliographies in the Wikipedia articles! What an amazing collection of references!
posted by Queen of Spreadable Fats at 4:30 PM on August 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

This page says the first mechanical clocks in Europe were invented in the late 1200s, first dated diagram of one is from middle 1300s.

...That web page was sourcing that info from A.P. Usher, A History of Mechanical Inventions - which is in Google Books, and from which the rest of this info comes (my summaries below, based on just short excerpts available in google). I'm not sure if this source has been superseded but according to Usher:

Monasteries were the main drivers of development of early geared clocks in the 800s and 900s. It seems these early clocks were probably water clocks. They would be adjusted based on astronomical observations (sundials, meridian observations, pole star), and there was a special role within the monastery for a clock keeper who had prescribed duties overnight.

The first mechanical clocks were made in the late 1200s. Through the 1300s, a number of mechanical clocks were made and the knowledge spread to key makers around Europe. In the 1400s, the knowledge became much more widespread. "By 1500, few towns were without some tower clock [which indicated and struck the hours], but domestic clocks, though widely diffused among the wealthy, were not common in Europe as a whole until a later period."

The early mechanical clocks had a variation of 15 minutes to even an hour; they had to be wound twice a day and would be checked against sundials or other astronomical observations. But by the latter 1500s, they were much improved in precision, losing under a minute per day.

And a cool bit about what it would have meant for it to be "3 o'clock":
The placing of deVick's clock [c.1370] in the tower of the royal palace was significant, not only as marking a stage in the development of the clock, but also as the basis of the final establishment of modern methods of reckoning time. From an early date in antiquity, two general modes of reckoning had been in use. The general community divided day and night into hours or periods, identical in number throughout the year, but variable in duration because of variations in the length of daylight. Ultimately both the day and night were divided into 12 hours. [...Whereas] Astronomers [...]began at an early date to reckon time in equal hours, taking the hours at the equinox as standard. [...D]uring the early Middle Ages, the variable hour dominated general practice, chiefly because the liturgical practices of the church were based upon the variable hour or combinations of variable hours into groups for liturgical purposes. In civil life, on the other hand, the reckoning in terms of equal hours became more common but the practice made no great headway until the close of the fourteenth century. [...]

Charles V of France took the first decisive steps to breaking down the dominance of the liturgical practices of the church. After the installation of his new clock, he ordered the hours and quarters to be struck in all the churches of Paris, and according to the time given by the palace clock, and at Vincennes according to the clock at the chateau. As these clocks counted equal hours, the new order did much to extend the vogue of the equal hour. This practice spread through northern Europe. For a considerable period, the day began at sunrise, but in the following century [the 1400s I think?], the hours were counted in a series of 12 from noon and midnight.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:28 PM on August 8, 2015 [12 favorites]

Also, how did the monks know what time it was? Or was it just, like... "oh, it's about 3, time to rang them bells?"

This is now really bugging me and I hope someone can answer it.
posted by threeants at 8:39 PM on August 8, 2015

Also, how did the monks know what time it was? Or was it just, like... "oh, it's about 3, time to rang them bells?"

Water clocks modified with a brilliant alarm system, and because the water froze, eventually a verge and foliot system!

The incredible TV series Connections covered this in the "Wheel of Fortune" episode; the description of the clocks starts around 15:00 here.
posted by mdonley at 9:30 PM on August 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

The monks would have been waking up every three hours overnight to pray, so he would have heard the bells at 3am and 6am.

I find this explanation a little suspect - sure the monks got up for prayer at 3am, but did they ring the bells for it? Would have made them pretty unpopular neighbors.
posted by Dr Dracator at 7:09 AM on August 9, 2015

There are churches around in Canada that still do this. You get used to it.
posted by Mitheral at 7:22 AM on August 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Based on what I was seeing in cursory research last night, it seems like in the 1400s, a tower (public) clock that would "strike every hour of the day and night" was the desired standard of a town that wanted to be on the map in those days. So I think it's plausible that you'd have audible strikings of equal hours through the night in most biggish towns by 1500.

Another book I was looking at, in Google Books excerpts: History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders, by Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum

Another book says that a spring-based mechanism invented in the early-mid 1400s was the necessary ingredient for making smaller domestic clocks. It says domestic clocks would be only for the rich at 1500, but a quarter-century later, maybe they had spread out more widely (couldn't find confirmation on this).
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:44 AM on August 9, 2015

The night-watchmen sang out the time in English towns during the winter months – literally sang it out. They were known as 'waits' and from early medieval times they patrolled the streets at night, telling the time aloud: e.g., "Past three, fair frosty morn. Good morrow, my masters all." The custom is commemorated in the Christmas carol Past Three O'Clock.
posted by MinPin at 11:49 AM on August 9, 2015

A bit more info from Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales 1300-1800, by Paul Glennie, Nigel Thrift -

The authors make much of instances where records omit explanation of clocks and time markings, as evidence that the writers of the records thought those things unremarkable and expecting the audience would be familiar with them. So there are church inventories where they don't mention clocks but they probably had clocks, and this is evidence that clocks were too commonplace to mention. So - as to the frequency of hour markings and people's interpreting them from public signals -
[In 1514, in a court case in London about the death of one Richard Hunne] the sequence of events was established through at least nine witnesses, of whom seven referred to clock times at least once. [...] People living in the vicinity of St Paul's were familiar with clock times, since the cathedral had contained a clock since the 1280s [...] but the diversity of the witnesses using clock time is nevertheless striking, including church officials, a barber, a tailor, a stationer with a stall in the courtyard, and further afield, an innkeeper and his wife at Shoreditch, east of the city. Clock times were mostly approximate ("between 8 and 9 o'clock in the morning", "at 7 of the clock at night"), but both the tailor and the stationer described the finding of the body "within a quarter of an hour" after 7 o'clock in the morning. Such specific timing was enabled by St Paul's clock striking the quarter-hours, and witnesses' everyday capabilities to interpret them was taken for granted, unquestioned throughout the proceedings.
And there seem to be other instances in the book, of records (births, deaths, marked in private diaries) that note clock times, including night hours. (Unfortunately I've exhausted my previews of the book so can't get good quotes on exactly when these start, but my impression is the use of general hour times seems to be common before the mid-1500s for sure, and then the markings get more precise as clock times get more precise.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:50 PM on August 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

Before there were mechanical clocks, the monks could have used sundials during the day and candle clocks at night. I don't know how the night watchmen in Western Europe did it before portable mechanical clocks (possibly just by the time required to walk their rounds and/or by a lamp clock), but in the Far East, some used incense clocks. All of these clocks work on the same principle, i.e. a specific, carefully measured amount of substance will burn for a predictable length of time.
posted by gingerest at 8:25 PM on August 18, 2015

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