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Time in Anglo Saxon England

Measuring Time in early Anglo-Saxon England

Words and photographs by Lancelot Robson

On 23rd/24th June 2012, Angelcynn was invited by Bede’s World Museum in Jarrow to mark the solstice by examining how the Anglo Saxons measured time.

Cyneswith, a high-born lady in about 700AD outside Thirlings Hall. Note the heavy twice-dyed overdress, tablet braided belt and cuffs, also that she has the leisure time to be working on a tapestry, with many different dyed wools in her basket. Her full wimple (head dress) which hides her hair completely, shows that she is a Christian. 

Thanks to the Venerable Bede, we know quite a lot about the state of knowledge of time and timekeeping in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Bede wrote two books about it from a Christian viewpoint, known colloquially as “De Temporibus”, and a more detailed “De Temporibus Liber Secundus”. Both works appear to have been written for the instruction of monks who needed to understand how to calculate the date of Easter, and construct a Christian calendar. His second larger work was admired and studied as a scientific work for more than a thousand years. It also earned him an accusation of heresy in his own time. Fortunately, he successfully defended himself against the claim. Such are the rewards of great scholarship.

This note does not attempt to summarise either book, although much of the information comes from the Liber Secundus. There are a number of good translations and commentaries. Try; Bede The Reckoning of Time; translated, with introduction and commentary by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press 1988. The Bede’s World Museum at Jarrow also devotes considerable space to Bede’s scientific work. In his description of the current state of knowledge, Bede reveals useful evidence about what ordinary people knew and thought.

Why was time important to Anglo-Saxons? They needed to know when to meet, when to sow crops, when to harvest, when to travel, and when to pay taxes. They also needed to make predictions about the weather at particular times of year.

Movements of stars and astrology

Study of the (known) planets and stars as well as fortune telling by the stars using the signs of the zodiac are very ancient arts dating back several thousand years. Bede describes the movement of stars through the year in some detail. It is also clear that he had access to the texts of many ancient writers, from which he quotes at length. He refers to aspects of astrology in a way which shows that it was an accepted part of life. Nevertheless he frowned on fortune telling with the comment; “Let us see to it that these things are avoided, because such observance is futile and alien to our faith”.

The Solar Year

Solstices and equinoxes had been observed and at least partially understood from ancient times, as we know from monuments such as Stonehenge and many others. Henges are common in the British Isles. There are at least two known henges in the Wooler area, near the site of the old Anglo-Saxon palace of Gefrin (Yeavering). Anglo-Saxons knew that the solar year was approximately 365.25 days. Sundials could be useful for deciding when noon occurred, at least when the sun shone, and at certain seasons were fairly accurate to within a few minutes or so. However in the British Isles sundials suffer from the problems of “longer” hours in the summer and “shorter” hours in the winter. Bede was quite certain that the reason for this phenomenon was that the earth was round, and that (as he saw it) the sun moved northwards and southwards during the year.

In his Chapter 3, he discussed the smallest intervals of time. The day had 12 Hours, each divided into four Puncti (the smallest passage of time noted on a sundial. The hour could also be divided into 10 Minuta, 15 Partes, 40 Momenta, and occasionally for lunar calculations, 5 Puncti. He also refers to the smallest particle of time known to the Greeks as the Atom. Some of these measures were drawn from zodiacal observations.  The zodiac was divided into 12 Signs, each further subdivided into 30 Partes. Each Parte had 12 Puncti, each Punctus had 40 Momenta, and each Momentum had 60 Ostenta. Bede noted disapprovingly that the tiniest interval of time, when our eyelids move, was inexactly described by writers as a momentum, punctus, or atom. For most people in his time, the blink of an eyelid, (an Atom) was the smallest measurable unit of time.

Bede knew that day length changed with the apparent movement of the sun northwards and southwards during the year. Shadows grew longer in the winter, and shorter in the summer. It was thus possible to work out the time of year by reference to the length of the shadow cast by a pin or stick at noon. For a larger than life sundial, see the Angelcynn sundial produced for Bede’s World, on 24th June, the Anglo Saxon midsummer solstice.


                                                                                                                                        My clock's gone out!

Movements of the moon

Knowledge of the lunar cycle and movements of the stars is also very ancient. The Anglo- Saxons also knew that the lunar month was approximately 29.5 days, and that the moon moved in a 19 year cycle, compared to the sun. The moon was probably the ordinary person’s time measure of choice. No equipment was needed. It turned up almost every night, weather permitting. The Anglo-Saxon word for month was “monath”, following the word for moon; “mona”.

Other ways to measure time

In addition to the sun, sundial and the moon, we believe that monasteries used other mechanical means for measuring time. It is unlikely that they would have been used by ordinary folk, but in monasteries with a busy schedule of services and observances throughout the day and night, some way of measuring the passing of short periods of time was essential.

Water clocks (known in Britain from Roman times) may have been used, and if properly tended a basic clock can be accurate to about 20 minutes.  However, this writer knows of no firm evidence for water clocks during the period, although a possible water clock from the period has been found at Market Overton in Rutland. A basic water clock can be easily constructed with two clay pots, one with a small hole in the bottom. Measuring the depth of the water with some type of scale will provide the time. The scale can be calibrated against the movement of a sundial on a sunny day, best done around the equinoxes.

Candle clocks also existed. King Alfred in 878AD used 6 "four hour" candles in a lantern of wood and horn to measure time. Bishop Asser, his biographer, credits him with inventing it, but an earlier reference to such clocks comes from China in 520AD. Initially time was measured by the number of candles of a similar size being burned. Later, a graduated scale set against a candle of a particular size was used. You can make one yourself with a candle and a ruler. Again, the device could be calibrated against a sundial. See for example, the simple Angelcynn candle clock shown below, using a 2 hour candle.

Good candles were expensive to make. Ordinary people would have used very basic lights with wicks floating in oil or fat, such as rush lights. Beeswax, which makes the best candles would have been a luxury. A candle was always kept burning in a church in Anglo Saxon England.

In a draught, candles will gutter (i.e. burn more quickly on one side resulting in the wax spilling down that side). On 23rd June when we calibrated the scale there was more wind than on the 24th June. Thus the scale was found to be slightly out when the calibration was checked on 24th June. King Alfred kept his candles in a box to prevent guttering

Tidal movements

Bede describes the link between the moon and tides. He also knew that the time of high water varied along the coast of Britain. Classical writers had not discovered this phenomenon. Bede is believed to be the first person to produce tide tables 


The Anglo Saxon Calendar

The Anglo-Saxons generally had months of 30 days, and knew to add an extra month occasionally to adjust the calendar to follow the solar year. The beginning of the year was the winter solstice, celebrated on 25th December or “Yiuli”. The preceding night was called “Modranecht”, or Mothers’ night, which involved certain rituals carried out by women. Bede, although he probably knew what occurred, does not enlighten us as to the nature of these rituals, presumably because they were pagan. The Anglo-Saxon equinoxes fell on 21st March, and 24th September. The summer solstice was celebrated on 24th June.  Bede also mentioned that in earlier times the Anglo-Saxons in their original homelands only identified two seasons; summer and winter. Summer was the period when day was longer than night, and Winter was when night was longer than day. This, he tells us, is the origin of the name for October; “Wintirfyllith”, or the start of winter. Prior to Bede, years were described by the Christian churches following the Roman tradition, by reference to the regnal year of important people, e.g Roman Emperors and Popes. Bede invented the term “Anno Domini”, or “the year of our lord”, shortened to “AD”, by reference to the number of years since the birth of Christ. This method became almost universal. It will be interesting to see if the recently invented term “CE” or "Common Era", lasts as long.

Adjusting the calendar

In a “common” year (i.e. one with only 12 new moons) there were three months for each of the four seasons. When an extra new moon occurred the Anglo-Saxons added a month to summer, so there would then be three months called “litha”. Such a year was called a “Thrilithi” year. 

Some useful Old English vocabulary

Days of the week

Monandaeg       – day of the moon

Tiwesdaeg          - Day of Tiw, a god of war and the sky

Wodnesdaeg     - day of Woden, a god of war, wisdom and poetry

Thunresdaeg     - day of Thunor, the god of thunder, sky and weather

Frigesdaeg          - day of Frig (Freya), the goddess of love and fertility

Saeturnesdaeg      - day of the planet Saturn

Sunnandaeg       - day of the sun


Months of the year

Aeftere Giuli      - Yuletide or January, which was the first month of the year

Solmonath          - month of cakes, (or mud) - February

Hrethmonath    - month of the goddess Hretha – March

Eosturmonath   - month of the goddess Eostre – April

Thrimilci               - month when cows were milked 3 times a day – May

Erra Litha             -  the season when the sea was calm enough to travel on – June and

Aeftere Litha     - July

Weodmonath    - month of weeds – August

Haligmonath      - holy month - September

Wintirfyllith        - winter-full -  October

Blodmonath       - month of blood (when animals were killed for food) – November

Erra Guili              - Yuletide – December (then January again)

Important dates in the pagan calendar

Most, if not all these dates, survive well into the twentieth century in the British Isles. Many are still celebrated.

Yule (Giuli or Yiuli)            - Midwinter’s day, Christmas  (25th December)

Embolc                             - Candlemas       (1st February)

Eostre (Ostara)                 -Vernal  Equinox,  Easter (21st March) (although Bede would not have agreed with the date on religious  grounds!)               

Beltane                             - May Day (1st May)

Midsumer                          - Midsummer’s day (24th June)

Lughnasa(gh)                     - Lammas (1st August)

Mabon                                - Autumn Equinox

Samhain                             - Halloween, All Hallows Eve (31st October)

Note the shield showing the cross of St Cuthbert beside Cyneswith.