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Book review: Alle Thynge Hath Tyme: Time and medieval life by Gillian Adler and Paul Strohm

03 November 2023

Nicholas Orme reviews a study of time in the late-medieval world

PEOPLE in England during the 14th and 15th centuries (the “medieval” of this book) were conscious, as we are, of the passage of time. Like us, they were aware of times of day, the seasons, the course of human life, and longer epochs of time. Unlike us, they sought to harmonise these times in units of three, four, or seven. Their notion of a divinely created and synchronised world led them to correlate its various parts, so that a human life, for example, would be influenced by the day of the week or the sign of the zodiac at which it began.

Gillian Adler’s and Paul Strohm’s book falls roughly into three parts. The first three chapters explore how time was measured in days and seasons, and within days by daylight, by the daily services in church, and (from the late 13th century) by the invention and proliferation of mechanical clocks. Chaucer, writing The Canterbury Tales, reckoned the time of day by all three: shadow length, services, and clock time. The latter was becoming very common in people’s understanding in towns by about 1400, but somewhat later in the countryside.

The second part of the book turns more particularly to medieval literature. It seeks to analyse the understanding of time in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseide and the writings of Thomas Usk, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, and Sir Thomas Malory. This is followed by two different chapters, one on the life-cycle (the “ages of man”) and another on the end of time: the Last Judgement and the signs that would foretell it. The book is enhanced by 50 coloured illustrations from medieval manuscripts.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CTMonks chime the bell, in a miniature from the Rothschild Canticles (c.1400) (MS 404, fol. 53r). From the book

The most interesting chapters for the general reader will be the first three: about time in the late-medieval world. The pursuit of time into literary works is more speculative and not always sure-footed. Implying that Julian is unusual in dating an event to May 1373 overlooks the fact that contemporary chroniclers structured their works in that way. This is an example of how much better the authors could have used the historical information available to them.

They seem to regard the monastic arrangement of daily services as the standard one. In fact, in the parish churches, more than ten times as many as the monasteries, the daily services were gathered into three groups: matins, mass, and evensong. This is partly why noon, originally the ninth hour (3 p.m.), moved forward to midday.

Nothing is said about the daily religious routines of wealthy people, such as Cecily, Duchess of York, and Lady Margaret Beaufort, which are recorded in detail. And John Wyclif cannot have spent nine years at Lutterworth translating the Bible into English. He was there for only just over three years before he died on New Year’s Eve 1384. While he may have inspired the translation, the amount that he wrote in Latin during that period would have left him inadequate time to perform it himself. Literature and history should talk to each other more than they currently do.


Dr Nicholas Orme is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Going to Church in Medieval England (Yale, 2021) and Tudor Children (Yale, 2023).


Alle Thynge Hath Tyme: Time and medieval life
Gillian Adler and Paul Strohm
Reaktion Books £16.95
Church Times Bookshop £15.25

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