History / Poland / Science / Travel

Medieval Clocks: Doing 24/7/365 Before It Was Popular

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“Hey, let’s meet at Roebuck’s tomorrow for coffee.”
“What time’s good for you?
“Let’s do sometime between sunrise and high noon.”
“That’s kinda vague, but maybe I can make it. I’ll certainly be glad when they finish installing the clock on city hall.”

This is the conversation you might have had in Medieval Wroclaw, Poland in the 15th century, because there were no clocks! Your day would have been divided by the passing sun, which you may have noticed, is less than exact as an indicator of time.

And then came the mechanical clock, ticking off hours and minutes … and it was as predictable as, well, clockwork. Imagine what an incredible improvement knowing the time must have been.

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These are the beautiful clocks sitting atop the old City Hall in the Rynek (market square) in Wroclaw. It’s classic Gothic style, and the golden sun-faced clocks provide some classy jewelry for the building. And clocks on either end ensure that, if you want to know the time, all you need to do is look up.

Medieval scholars emphasize that this technological advancement wasn’t just about the predictability of time. It also had far-reaching effects on society. The Catholic Church divided the day into two twelve hour parts, and the church bells rang loudly to signal prayer times. The accuracy and consistency of the mechanical clock that controlled the bell’s toll also became a part of daily life for the entire town. Essentially, the church bells and the mechanical clock now became the monitor of the working day.

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Merchants and businessmen also found it advantageous to use the sixty-minute hour to regulate and measure the time a laborer worked on a job. Suddenly, laborers found themselves being held accountable for the time spent on their task, and not just the completion. If the job wasn’t finished in a reasonable amount of time, then the worker must be “wasting time”. Yep, the Middle ages is where this concept was born.

I’m sure that most of us, hounded by a deadline, have wished that the clock had never been invented. But a time traveler from the 15th would say, “Not so fast!”

Happy Trails,
James

22 thoughts on “Medieval Clocks: Doing 24/7/365 Before It Was Popular

  1. I always look forward to your posts because you always show us something new, interesting, and entertaining. I don’t know how you find time to post so frequently, but I’m glad you do. Maybe it’s that all those clocks are helping you manage your time. Thanks for another fun read and great photos. – Mike

    • Thanks Mike. This is high praise coming from you. “New, interesting, and entertaining” is exactly what I hope to achieve. Pretty much, I try to write what I like to read. Thanks again. ~ James

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. Re: your work. Not sure about this one, but it probably has a great deal to do with liking your work, with or without a clock. I see that you’re in Korea. What do you do there? ~ James

  2. Not only did every town have to have its own clock, there was great competition over who could make the most beautiful and elaborate clocks. Needless to say, they don’t make them like than any more. Great blog, James. –Curt

    • It sounds like you know a bit about these clocks Curt. I’ve done a bit of reading and am fascinated by the technology as well as the human impact. If you haven’t read it, check out a book called “Longitude”, written by Dava Sobel. ~ James

  3. Being accountable for time? Hmm…. I’m not sure that this concept from the middle ages has reached the entire world… France… Greenland… Indonesia for example =) Thanks for the interesting post James, I never really thought about the history of the clock before!

    • Thanks Tanny. We all complain about keeping track of time, but it’s frustrating when we visit a place that has a flexible idea of time. When I lived in Sudan, my car broke down in a remote village. I asked the ancient mechanic how long it would take to fix, and he said “This is Africa. One day, two days … what does it matter?” Classic. ~ James

      • Hehe that is so funny. Going home to kunming from Sichuan, the bus broke down so what ended up being a six hour bus ride ended up being 16. We waited on the bus with chickens and ducks ready to be sold at the next market. Another classic 🙂

  4. Been following this trip in reverse as I return to my winter blogging/reading months. Fabulous stuff. I love the way you travel. And Poland has so much amazing history. I’ve often wondered if it is because Poland has been through so much turmoil that the people have learned to always stay upbeat and pleasant…

    • Thanks Jeannee, I’m glad you’re enjoying the Poland posts. You make an interesting observation about the upbeat attitude of the Polish people. Thanks to the Germans and the Russians, most of Eastern Europe, and Poland in particular. has had a very difficult past. In most of our dealings, the people we encountered were pleasant and helpful, particularly the younger generations. I imagine that it’s very hard for the older generations that have strong memories of the violence and oppression to forget so easily, but this isn’t the kind of thing that the normal tourist would encounter. ~James

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