Time in the Medieval World; The Typical Medieval Day

Time in the Medieval World

Time in an agrarian society runs much more slowly than it does in our modern day, but more steadily in many ways. The work of the forms, tending to the land and the beasts that provide their living is constant and steady, but because it must be a sustained effort, and because everything must be attended to in a particular order according to the time of the day and the time of the year, there is less of a sense of urgency, even somewhat of a “plodding” feel to it to those of the modern world.

The divisions of time in the medieval world, beyond the simple turning of seasons and seasonal work of the ubiquitous farms that provide the food for all the realms, may not be exact in measure, but it is much more strictly observed in the towns and cities where the pace of life runs much more quickly (relatively speaking). Nonetheless, the people of the medieval world do not tend to feel and even less do they feel the sense of urgency in the lives and work of modern people, except when the matter literally is one of life or death. Clocks in the period of the game are a novelty and a rarity in most places, most are rather large and affixed to public buildings for the display, they are not so pervasive as they have become in the modern world. Their impact is only known in the cities and towns. To track the time, most people rely upon the churches and the ringing of their bells every three hours, marking the eight offices of prayer throughout the day. The more prosperous towns and cities may have mechanized clock towers, to make a large public statement of wealth for the prestige of the local merchants’ guild or local lord.

For the common folk, the day normally begins with the hour of Prime, at approximately 6am. in modern time, but coinciding specifically with the dawn, regardless of the actual time by the clock, which varies with the season. The hours rung throughout the day run as follows:


Hour of Prayer Sun’s Position Modern (approx.)
Prime Sunrise 6am
Tierce 9am
Sext Noon 12pm
None 3pm
Vespers Sunset 6pm
Compline 9pm
Matins Midnight 12am
Lauds 3am


The practice of bell-ringing is referred to as “ringing the offices”. It is a call to prayer for the religious, especially the monks, priests and nuns under holy vows. “Offices” are used as one of the units in which the duration is sometimes counted for those magicks that have a limited measurable duration. The smallest unit of time with which the average folk of the medieval gameworld generally trouble themselves to count on any sort of daily basis is a “mileway”.  This is a period of time equal to 1/3rd of an hour, or 20 minutes. It is the average amount of time needed for the average man to walk a mile, hence the name. It is really only used to define workmen’s and craftsmen’s beer breaks during the work day, and their nap times during the heat of the sun in the longer summer work days. While some smaller units of time are used for the purposes of the game, they aren’t used in the normal adventure phase of play as an element familiar to the NPC’s, but only for tracking time under the exacting conditions of combat and tactical play to ensure fairness.

Unless the common people are provided with a large, mechanized public clock, the length of an hour varies with the time of year between 80-minute hours for the twelve hours of daylight and 40-minute hours for the 12 hours of night at the height of summer (Summer Solstice) to 80-minute hours for the twelve hours of night and 40-minute hours for the 12 hours of daylight at the height of winter (Winter Solstice). Only at the two equinoxes are the day and night equal in length and the length of an hour of each the same at 60 minutes long, the same as kept by mechanical clocks. What’s more, The people do not care about the variance. They simply want to know how much daylight they have left to conduct their business and amuse themselves or prepare the next meal. Hand-held, amulet-sized sundials adjustable to the latitude at which the wearer is located may also be common, as are candles of standard length, thickness, and burning time provided in the equipment lists, marked with the hours for measuring the passage of time, usually indoors.

As the ringing the offices of prayer marks the everyday passage of time in the medieval world, the turning of the seasons and year in the medieval gameworld is likewise marked by the beat of the Church. All crafts and guilds have their patron saint, on whose feast day all work for that craft or guild must halt. All work comes to a halt for all of the major feasts and holy days, as well.

Some of the larger and more prosperous towns and cities may have the elaborate clock towers with mechanized spectacles that are so famous today. These town clocks’ bells ring at odds with the churches’, however, for the clocks ring EVERY hour, instead of every three, and the length of the hours by a mechanical clock are regular and even, as they are today, while the length of the church’s hours vary with the time of year, longer during summer days, shorter for summer nights, and longer for winter nights and shorter for winter days. The churches may or may not be made to ring in accordance with the mechanical clocks, according to the GM’s determination of whether the Crown wishes to engage in the debate, and which way it is resolved, if ever it is. “Custom hath the strength of law” in the medieval gameworld, however.

Some customs cannot be broken; some cannot be made to bend to observe the use of innovations.

The hours rung by the Church are for the purposes of prayer for the priests, monks, and nuns. Whether the rest of the populace observe those hours in their daily life or not makes no difference. The ringing of the church bells evokes thoughts of prayer, though, and their observance makes for a more pious world. Many of the older and more conservative believe the mechanical clocks ringing every single hour give too much information, hounding the ear with a jarring reminder of the constant flight of time and the impending death of all mortal creatures and beings. The system used by the Church is based on the functioning of the natural world as created by the gods, and mechanized time a contrivance of fallible Man. Until the matter is settled by the Crown, the bells and the clock chimes must ring at odds in the towns – except through the Equinoxes in spring and autumn – while the rural countryside moves to the beat of Church time alone – except in the castles and palaces where mechanical clocks also sometimes appear. These will be large, also, easily sighted from most places in the castle that allow a view of them, but only about half the size of the great town clocks, and generally without the mechanized processional figures.

True watches may or may not be available (GM’s discretion). If they are, they most commonly have only an hour hand, and they are about the size of a man’s palm, about half-again the size of the pocket watches with which modern folk are familiar from the 19th century. These appear on chains commonly secured to a fancy wrought fob of precious metal, perhaps with gems, as an expensive toy only for the wealthy classes, each piece being hand-crafted.

Nonetheless, even the presence of clocks cannot change the basic medieval attitude towards time, particularly in those who dwell in the rural countryside, those who raise the food on which those in the towns depend. These people expect to wait, and know well the pace at which their world moves.


The Typical Medieval Day

The medieval gameworld first begins to stir at daybreak, with the ringing of the bells of the cathedrals and lesser churches and chapels, the monks, nuns, and priests rising to perform the “Prime” office of prayer and the saying of “Morrow Mass”, which those who are travelling seek to attend before they turn to the road again. These are the bells that signal the Night Watch to disperse and return home.

Among the balance of the people, the servants rise first, along with the more numerous poorer folk who must shift for their own needs. The cows and pigs are driven out to forage, and in the towns they are let out into the streets for the common herdsmen to drive out to pasture outside the walls. The maidservants and housewives wend their ways, still yawning, to the nearest sources of water, whether it be piped in (as in some districts of London), or a local well, or a river or stream that passes through or by near enough. They fill their jugs and buckets to accomplish the morning work, exchanging pleasantries and swapping gossip with the other members of the community they meet there, and maybe indulging in a quick splash of water themselves to wake up a bit better before lugging their sloshing burdens home again. The wells and streams and the roads and paths serving them are very busy at this early morning time.

Soldiers rise to relieve the Night Watch with the ringing of the morning bells in castle, forts, and fortified towns everywhere, while the people of the night, the brigands, Knaves, Rogues, draughlatches, roberdsmen, women of ill repute, fences and all their ilk slink back to their scattered holes to hide again.

Wood is laid and fire is kindled in the kitchens and halls as quickly as possible against any morning chill. Beds of burning coals are commonly banked to smolder through the night to save time in the morning, and during the winter this practice is a matter of life and death for the kitchen servants who sleep by the hearth for its warmth, to stave off the killing cold (hypothermia).

The householders having servants rise and pull their “small clothes” from beneath their pillows, quickly donning them and dressing in the clothes hanging on the wooden “perches” on the wall beside the bed. The house is already warming as they attend to the morning “ablutions”, washing in the basins in the water from the pitchers kept beside them for that purpose. In the winter a skin of ice must be broken before this can be attended to. Women comb and plait their hair, the latter especially if they are married, perhaps applying some cosmetics, and then donning some sort of linen scarf over their hair, with may be twisted and wound, or starched, folded and piled atop their heads, or caught up in a windsock or snood. Whatever the mode or style, married women do not go about with their hair blowing free like unmarried girls. The wealthy and noble have one or more valets, squires of the body, body servants, maids or specifically chamber maids to help them attend to their morning ritual, for which they are generally indispensible due to the complicated layers of clothing they can afford to parade around in advertising the privileges of their station. Indeed, some of the fashions cannot be assembled and donned without the help of a valet or maid.

Shutters and awnings groan, rattle and thump all over, especially in the craftsmen’s and merchants’ neighborhoods in the towns, as the houses are opened and aired and shops are readied for business. Everywhere, the chamber pots from the morning and the night before and washbasins from the morning ablutions are emptied – either down a convenient garderobe or out a bower window with a short, loud cry to warn the passersby below.

The shopping must be done daily, or no less than every other day, for all must be purchased and prepared fresh, and prepared foods purchased while still fresh, before they can spoil. This is especially true of households where they do not bake their own bread of mornings, the housewife might not have an oven sufficient to the task, and so she is off to the nearest bread market. In the greater houses, the cook or cook’s assistant sees to this duty. All the markets open at dawn, with the bells of Prime, but huxters may buy no foodstuffs before 11 o’clock. If it is not a market day in the village, she will head for a village nearby that is having its market that day. MOST towns have the convenience and distinction of having perpetual markets as a provision of their charters. Every day is market day for these, with only limited dispensation for some businesses on Sundays.

All shops within a radius of 15 miles of a city, town or village are required to be closed on the days that its market is open. If they wish to do business on those days, they must take their goods and any equipment they need to the market and open a stall or set up a board for the day, paying the requisite fees.

It is still early yet, and the apprentices in the bakeries are still pulling the hot loaves from the ovens.

Butchers and blacksmiths are the first to open their doors in the morning – the blacksmiths because travelers may come seeking their help from the first light of dawn, butchers because they wish to finish their slaughtering and cutting and wash away the repugnant evidence before the greater part of the morning business arrived. The rest of the craftsmen continue first with the work on the orders already commissioned, or put their shops in order while waiting for the morning business to happen by.

Except on Sundays and market days. It is against the law to work on the weekly holy day. Indeed, a housewife can be hauled up before the ecclesiastical court on Monday for even hanging out her laundry on Sunday.

The smiths’ hammers ring out, as they see to the horses’ shoes, repair of farm implements, restoring sharp edges, as needed, and other metalwork needed, cart and wagon fittings, plough shoes, and so on. Their services are required for all walks of life to be able to continue on its way. From horseshoes to hardware for wagons and carts, they and the barbers are the only trades required to offer their services seven days a week  – practicality winning over the demands of religion for a change. This is a source of no small resentment on the part of the smiths and barbers, however.

About the hour of Tierce, foreign merchants (native to the realm but from out-of-town) are allowed to engage in trade, after the locals have had the best of it. The wandering peddlers commonly hit the streets in the cities and towns, as well, hawking their bread, beer, milk, garlic, honey, onions, fruit, good soft cheeses, pasties or pies of fruit or fish, eel, or meat, the tipplers carrying their little casks to dispense their drink to passersby. The men are called hawkers, the women are huxters, and both are forbidden by the craft guilds whose masters own the local shops to loiter in any one spot unless actually serving a customer. From now until the bells of Sext (noon) the bustle and noise in the towns reaches its climax for the day, with the crying of wares (in place of advertising), the clip-clop of horses’ hooves on paving stones on the main roads and in the great market squares, the rumble of iron-rimmed cartwheels, and the clacking of the wooden shoes, or “galoches” of the poorer folk and the wooden “pattens” of more prosperous to keep their fine clothes from the muck from the inhabitants, both man and beast, that flows down the center of every street.

The families repair to the local churches for the morning mass and return home to break their fasts on bread and ale. It is considered irreligious not to attend church at least once every four days. but to do so more often is considered a vain public display of piety, both serving equally as sources of local  gossip.

In town and country alike, the grooms sweep out the stables, muck out the stalls, feed and water the horses in their care. Horses are exercised then rubbed down, warriors practice in the yard, and knights train their squires. Covers and pillows are shaken out and then the beds are made. In the great houses the beds may be as much as 8 feet across, requiring a long stick or pole to aid the maid to reach across. Halls, walks, and courts are all swept. Most town ordinances state that shopkeepers and other householders are responsible for the stretch of road in front of their shops or homes out to the midpoint of the street. The rushes in the common chamber or the great hall in the great houses are changed as often as the resources of the house allow, in the spring and the fall at the least, monthly, or even weekly. The old rushes and sweet “strewing herbs” are swept away and the floors scrubbed on hands and knees before new are scattered across them. The laundress or “lavender” soaks the sheets, towels, and the tablecloths and other napery in her care in great tubs and wooden troughs with wood ash and caustic soda, then pounds them, rinses them and hangs them out to dry. She has her work cut out for her, to be sure. The average housewife does her own laundry once per week on average, but the manors and castles and religious houses employ  one or several lavenders who may be kept hard at work all week with the care of the napery and clothing of the entire household and its staff.

Meanwhile, the lords of manor and castle see to the conferences with their stewards, and perhaps their councils of tenants to take care of the business of their estates. Their ladies entertain worthy guests or busy themselves with managing the work of the household , embroidering, ordering the staff, or seeing to other pet domestic projects such as decorating, rearranging chambers, or seeing to the maintenance of the staff itself. The children of the wealthy upper crust and the nobility are tutored in the Scholars’ Tongue (historically, Latin), and in the use of the vulgar or common language of their country, as well as mathematics, a bit of geography and history, but this “book-learning” ceases at rather a young age for noble boys, the girls being better educated.

The boys have enough to do learning the military skills of their class, falconry, hunting, and the subtle strategies of chess. Children in the common classes have song school, then grammar school, and can go on to further education if their families can afford it or if they can find a sponsor to send them, perhaps to get a degree, but this is far more common in the cities and towns than in the rural districts. Most stop their schooling once they have their degree in grammar (Mgram), though, considered fully trained as clerks and secretaries, which are of the greatest use to the craftsman of the free common class, especially in the cities and towns, and also needed in the royal government and households of the wealthy and noble. This provides them with a career path and a clear avenue for advancement to which they can apply themselves if they desire. The education of the landbound classes doesn’t get much past song school for the great majority, and the basic education in the foundation tenets of religion. They overwhelming majority of the population are, as a rule, illiterate.

The chaplain of the local manor or castle commonly fills the post of tutor for the master’s children, and/or one of his ecclesiastical clerks, but children of true rank usually each have their own private magister, or tutor bearing a degree of one of the more prestigious of the great universities. The knights and their squires work with arms, fencing, tilting at the quintain. Archery is a favorite pastime for boys of all ages. After their lessons, the children are free to play.

The bells of Sext (noon) herald the closing of the small village markets, so the local craftsmen can return home again and visiting farm folk can find an inn, or get to a friend’s or relative’s home for dinner, or make their way home again before dark. In the streets of the towns, the tempo slows and the crowds thin, the builders stop for their “noonschenche” or noon-drink and dinner. This is commonly the hour after which no foreigner may do any more selling if the market is open until Tierce, if the market itself closes at noon, the foreigners must cease their trading by 11 o’clock.

At the noon dinner, the servants bring the trestles and planks from along the sides of the walls of the great hall and set them up with the benches that are shared for seating. In the more humble houses the dining table (planks and trestles) is similarly kept broken down and put aside so the space can be used for socializing. The table linens are laid and the water horn is sounded, which calls the diners to wash for the meal and take their places at the table. If no clergy are present, the youngest at the high table across the head of the hall over-looking the rest of the diners invokes the blessing.

The pantler brings the bread and butter out first, followed by the butler with the flagons of wine and/or beer. The head of the table is responsible for arranging or supplying the entertainment at the table, regaling his guests with witty anecdotes and amusing tales, even hiring minstrels or players, acrobats and jugglers or other entertainers. This custom applies to the innkeep, tavern master, and master of the house of call in the hall where they serve their guests, as well.

This is the main meal of the day, the largest and the heaviest.

When all the family and any guests have done eating, the servants are allowed to eat, and not before. In the craftsman’s house they are allowed to eat what they wish, but not to linger in telling tales and idle gossip and drinking (housewife’s discretion).

After the meal, the diners rise, the table(s) is cleared away again and the diners wash their hands again. There are many amusements that may be pursued by the members of the house after dinner, listening to music, dancing, singing, parlor games like “blind man’s bluff”, chess, particularly on religious feast days. In the hot summer months and in hotter climates, a nap may be sought, instead. Not so, the common folk and the servants in the greater houses. Some servants head for the well to draw water to clean up in the kitchens, while others gather up the leftovers and store what may be kept for a bit in the larder, and take the rest to the door or the gates to feed the waiting beggars.

On non-market days, all shops and services reopen at roughly 1 or 2pm. to continue with their business.

The bells of Nones are the signal the closing for the day of all the shops or marketplaces in the larger towns and cities, or as late as 4pm. or 5pm. (if there is a clock) so the owners can return home for supper (although most chartered towns have right of perpetual market, not all have that right, but may have 3 or 4 market days a week, instead). Now the builders stop again to take their ease and enjoy another beer for a mileway. All except the houses of hospitality and the victualers are closed by the time the sun sets and the Vespers bells toll.

Supper is served in the later afternoon or early evening, at least by the time Vespers toll. It is a smaller, simpler meal. The amusements pursued after dinner in the afternoon by those with the leisure to do so are far more common among all the classes after supper in the evenings, but those to whom the menial tasks fall must clean up after supper first.

The Compline bells commonly mark the beginning of curfew in the cities and towns. In the towns, the taverners, brewers, hostelers, butchers, cooks, piebakers and huxters do not close their doors until they hear the Compline bells. On the vigils of some great holy feasts they are sometimes allowed to do business for an additional hour. Now the first Watch equips itself with armor and weapons and lanterns from the guild house whence they hail, which sponsors the Watch in their Ward, and meets at its designated place to start on patrol. They are relieved sometime after Matins rings, keeping the burghers and their households safe in their beds. After curfew none are to be out in the streets except those of good name and character, and they must carry a light so they may be clearly seen if they should encounter the Watch.

No commoner is allowed out in the streets past this time, and even the nobility are discouraged, for the night belongs to the Knaves and Cut Purses, and no honest men are about. It must be a true emergency for the Watch to allow the curfew to be violated with impunity, and then the Watch generally provides escort to protect from the undesirables who may be encountered in the night. Indeed, no craftsman is allowed to ply his craft after sundown, by guild law. Night-work is universally considered shoddy work. There are NO streetlamps or other outdoor lighting such as the modern world has that can change the very look of the sky, the glare of the cities hiding the splendor of the stars. Only the shops and halls of the wealthy can afford or even care to mark their doors with a candle or lantern.

No modern person can really appreciate the true frightening darkness of night, or a country path in darkness unless he has stepped out for a moment’s ease without a light at night while camping, or the almost brilliant lovely silver light of the moon, unless he has ventured forth in a blackout to experience it. This experience reinforces the fears of the unknown. In the countryside, no medieval traveler goes by night unless driven by terrific need, and then only by the light of the moon along a route he knows well if he is alone, and only when he cannot help it. And never without a light, no matter how poor its quality, if he must go, nor without company if he can avoid it.

Those caught by the Night Watch out in the streets or at the gates of a city or town are automatically assumed to be up to no good and arrested, held pending proper identification in the clear light of day. Those who try to refuse or resist being taken into custody are addressed with arms and locked up tight until they can be taken before the local law in the morning. The general Hue and Cry is raised against those who flee this custom, and the Cry carried to the next 6 neighboring villages, as well, for the locals know that they can be fined by the sheriff’s court if they should fail in this duty. Of course, life on the marches isn’t nearly so strict, OR can be more strict, depending on the proximity to a border castle, for the population is thinner and the villages that might respond are clustered around those castles, hence the bad reputation of “road-houses” (rural country inns).

The poorer folk retire to bed shortly after supper, after nightfall, for clear lamp oil and especially good torches and fine candles with cotton wicks that burn clear and bright are expensive, commonly saved for high holy days and feast day celebrations by those who can afford them at all. The wealthier folk lead more complicated lives, and sometimes their affairs keep them up until 10pm or later (by the clock), reading missives, writing correspondence, entertaining guests, managing staff problems, reviewing household accounts, ordering their business and matters concerning their properties, and so on – burning the candle at both ends, as it were. The officers of the noble households must meet with the heads of the various departments each evening in order to compile the final account of household expenditures for the day and deliberate on any disciplinary problems that must be addressed. The stewards make their reports to their masters in the mornings. With the price of candles, it is small surprise that the rights to the stubs of the candles in the churches, noble houses, and even royal households are guarded by the household officers and dependants so jealously, not only are they expensive but they are in constant demand.