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Do you still sleep?

While it was the Christian church that introduced the concept of time in medieval Europe, they failed to keep up with changing concepts of times. We can give credit to the business society for the current system of timekeeping…

Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques
Dormez-vous ? Dormez-vous ?
Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines
Din Dan Don, Din Dan Don

(Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques
Do you sleep? Do you sleep?
Morning bells are ringing; morning bells are ringing
Dan Din Don, Din Dan Don)

old tower clockThis particular rhythmic song is famous world-wide and most children in every part of the world have hummed along to this tune at one point in time. In English it is known under the title Brother John.

I find it a fitting reminder of the role played by medieval monks in search of accurate timekeeping. The first mechanical clocks were rudimentary in design and function and were liable to break down at any time. They needed frequent overhauls and were made of brass or iron, valuable metals at the time. The best sources for evidence of mechanical clocks are literary sources. Scholars unanimously agree that at the end of the 13th century, reference to mechanical clocks and their associated bells increase dramatically. They were most often placed in high places like towers, and since clocks cost money, they were mentioned in the accounts of numerous cathedrals.

The clock did not create an interest in the measurement of time, rather the interest in measurement of time led to the invention of the clock. Where did this demand come from you may ask? Not from the majority of the population, but from a part of society, that had a vested interest in the accurate measurement of time: the Christian Church.

It is with the monks and their monasteries that one finds the birth of the mechanical clock, either literally or through their influence, on the state of mind of the age. The monasteries were the epitome of order, sanctuary, routine in a world of uncertainties and imprecision. In order to be able to ring the monastery bells at regular intervals to keep count of the seven canonical hours for prayer, they needed to be able to keep tract of time. “…The monasteries…helped to give human enterprise the regular collective beat and rhythm of the machine; for the clock is not merely a means of keeping track of the hours, but of synchronising the actions of men.”

old tower clockThe first mechanical clocks were not accurate and consisted of a falling weight tied to a rope which was wound round a revolving drum. They had no dials or bells but one. The person responsible for watching it could note the time and strike a bell. The first mechanical clocks brought large-scale time-keeps into the realms of possibility of every large town. At a second stage, the striking of a bell was automated marking equal hours based on the linkage between the bell train and the regular beat of the time train.

In this respect, a fundamental shift in the notion of the measurement of time took place with the advent of the first mechanical clocks. The measurement of time had hitherto been done by measuring time in so-called unequal hours, also called seasonal or temporal hours, which divided day and night into twelve. This way of measuring time, which in essence is based on the laws of nature, is gradually replaced by the measurement of time in so-called equal hours which means that the whole day and night are divided into twenty-four equal parts or two sets of twelve equal parts.

After the invention of the clock, as is most often the case in such monumental paradigm changes, we see both systems in tandem. The economic revival of the 12th and 13th centuries brought a social pressure for more accurate time-keeping from the secular society at large, primarily merchants interested in trade. As labour time in cities and towns became more important to business, its regulation became ever more essential. Some of the famous clocks of the late 13th century are not to be found in monasteries or cathedrals but are secular clocks that marked the beginning of labour for any given day. The pressure for time signals was especially strong in those cities that were engaged in the textile manufacture, the first and greatest of medieval industries. Where there were textile manufactories, there were work bells.

The introduction of equal hours and the habituation of urban population to public time announcement had profound consequences for the European mentality. It was the urban, commercial population that was quickest to learn the new language and techniques. The advent of trade and its ever increasing importance ensured that the new way of measuring time in equal hours would prevail and replace the previous way. The new bells that struck equal hours and henceforth equal units allowed for subtraction and addition. These new bells and the calculations they made possible (how long since? how long until?) were a model for a new way of life to all those who listened and began to organise their lives around them.

The church, however, continued to cling to the old ways and so doing yielded the rhythm of life and work to the lay authorities and the bourgeoisie. Equal hours announced the victory of a new cultural and economic order. Here indeed was an unintended consequence: the monks had wrought too well,

Frère Jacques, dormez-vous? ….

william devine portraitWilliam Devine, a Swiss national of Scottish descent, has held senior positions in leading watch companies like Universal Geneve and de Grisogono. He has also functioned as the Director of BaselWorld Watch & Jewellery Show. He was the CEO of Bedat & Co before starting his own boutique consultancy named Devine Intervention.