17 February 2007

Time in a bottle

The concept of time has changed through the ages. It has changed a lot in the last twenty five years. This was forcibly brought home to me when I was watching the start of the second series of Life on Mars. For the uninitiated, Life on Mars is a British cop show with a twist. A policeman in 2006 is run over by car and somehow wakes up in 1973. It is surreal but one of the best things of British television at the moment. In this particular episode, the hero asks for the time, expecting a precise answer. What he gets instead is a vague – oh a bit past four. The necessity of having the exact minute has not occurred to the policeman from 1973.

Time had a different meaning. It was far more elastic. And the writer of historicals needs to take this into account.

For example, in the ancient world, there was no concept of a second or for that matter a minute. Even though Ptolemy divided a circle up and called one sixtieth a minuta prima or prime minute, it is not until you start having mechanical round clocks in the fourteenth century that there begins to be a fixed notion of how long an hour takes. Hours have been around much longer. The Romans divided the day up into twelve hours, but the length of each hour varied with the amount of time the sun was in the sky. The Romans were very concerned about time. Many carried pocket sundials, for instance. Water clocks were a highly desirable commodity, and a great talking point -- much as a piano might be to a late Victorian householder. But they were not precise on their measurements.

In the medieval period, many people timed their lives by the church bells, but again, the concepts of minutes and seconds was not as important. The term watch meaning small timepiece is not recorded until the late sixteenth century. Indeed although mechanical clocks were invented in the fourteenth century, it is not until the eighteenth century that the term of the clock is shortened to o'clock. Knowing the precise time that something was not important.

As the 18th century wore on, and timepieces became more affordable, trains and other forms of transport started running to schedules, people became more and more aware of the divisions of time. The division of time started to matter to them. Until you reach today, and people speak in specifics.

Because I write in several different time periods, I have to be aware of the varying concepts of time. And yet, until I started writing about ancient historical periods, it was something that I had not given much consideration to.

Has anyone else found the varying notions of ways things are perceived intriguing?


Sandra Schwab said...

Wow, this is fascinating indeed, Michelle. I've never really thought about it before. Or at least not in depth.

Camilla said...

The most obvious answer to the question is sex. I'm interested in how the subject meant a variety of things for different social classes after the Middle Ages. Pertaining to my time period, the upper classes required virginity for marriage but sexual freedom afterwards(if one so chose), whereas the middle classes were chaste(both men and women), and while the lower/working classes tended to view sex as a recreational thing, after marriage, they were even more prudish than the middle classes. Fascinating.

Michelle Styles said...

Sandra -- yes I know, it is one of those things that it there but you never tend to think about.
Another on is light. How dark is dark?

Camilla -- if you are interested in such things, try reading The Middle Class A History by Lawrence James Litle Brown 2006 ISBN 978 0 316 86120 5. It traces the hsitory of the English middle class, including its attitudes towards sex. A great tome of a book but a very interesting read.

Bonnie Vanak said...

Very interesting Michelle! And also on the light factor. I once went to an old gold mine worked in the 1800's and they turned off all the lights, leaving only a candle on. It was to demonstrate the light the miners had to work by. Not much for such dangerous work.

Tess said...

I always find different perceptions intriguing. It's one of the things I love about history and writing historicals - seeing the world through different eyes (or trying my best to do so).

Re: medieval time - the marked candles were a cool way to do it. Candles would be marked at regular intervals and they'd use that as a way to measure how long had passed, one candlemark or two (etc.)