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When reading fantasy novels, I have as a rule been left with the impression that exact timekeeping is either avoided as a topic, or referred to only vaguely and obliquely. In many cases, the author would freely use "hours" as a metonymy for a part of the day spent doing something, however never actually imply that these hours can be counted and consist of minutes and seconds, or let his elven queen invite the orc delegates to convene in her throne room at precisely 10.30 in the morning for trade negotiations.

It is true that for most intents and purposes in a medieval fantasy world, the protagonists can safely and realistically use dawn, morning, noon, etc. when referring to the time of day, just as our ancestors in the real world didn’t need to worry that they will oversleep for the autumn harvest or be late for an evening round of beers at the local inn. Still, I believe that a developed fantasy society does need to keep track of time and that there are situations when coordination of efforts between numerous persons is essential and can only be achieved if people have a way of keeping exact time.

In my opinion, simply transferring our timekeeping system into a fantasy world seems lazy and, most of all, robs this world of its rugged romanticism and faux historic flair. Yet in order to be believable and feel natural when referred to in prose, this system needs to convey the sense that it has developed organically in the course of the world’s history. Therefore I ask you:

What is a realistic way of creating a unique timekeeping system for a fantasy society that is mainly high to late medieval in its phase of development?

(The planet of this world is identical to Earth from an astronomical perspective, so there’s no need to account for anything strange and exotic in the day/night cycle. There is also no magic whatsoever.)

Thank you in advance for your thoughts.

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Note that not every agrees with your premise. I've seen a number of arguments that being familiar is more useful than adding depth. This Reddit discussion has a number of points on both sides. Unfortunately, they're mostly about physical units, instead of time. – MichaelS Mar 4 at 16:24
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Welcome to the site Kit. Excellent first question. – James Mar 4 at 16:28
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This question is about the process used to create a timekeeping system not asking us to create one so it is on topic. – Tim B Mar 4 at 16:38
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A bit of a side note about units of time. We have hours, minutes, and seconds. A minute is the minute ("my-noot") part of an hour. A second is the second minute part of an hour. Why we settled on 12 as the number of divisions of the day, and 60 as the number of divisions and subdivisions of each hour is beyond me. – Martin Carney Mar 4 at 20:45
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@MartinCarney: The duodecimal (base 12) and sexagesimal (base 60) system have the advantage that you can evenly divide them into 1, 2, 3, and 4 (base 12) or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 pieces without fractions. This has obvious advantages for dividing physical goods (divide a dozen pieces of bread evenly among a family), but also for non-physical quantities, it makes it easier for less educated people to handle. – Jörg W Mittag Mar 5 at 10:44

10 Answers 10

up vote 2 down vote accepted

If I understand the question correctly, you’re asking how you as a worldbuilder might go about developing a flavorful, plausible, not-insanely-unwieldy timekeeping system. In addition, it appears that the various societies in your world more or less agree about the system. What follows are some practical suggestions for something of a step-by-step, noting a number of the more significant choices you might make along the way. There are other ways of doing this, of course—this isn’t a question that can be answered definitively—but I hope this may be helpful.

Sexagesimal Thinking

As several have noted already, sexagesimal numbers are exceedingly convenient for quick calculation, because 60 is divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. This naturally lends itself to divisions of 12 & 5, thus the division of our clock face into 12 blocks of 5 minutes, our 12 months of the year, and so forth.

I suggest that you keep to something like this. The obvious alternative is a lunar calendar, as traditionally used in China and its broad area of influence (among other places), but you have to understand it clearly enough that you can use it fluently and fluidly in passing conversations among characters.

A further point of pragmatism: since your readers will almost certainly assume a sexagesimal solar calendar and timekeeping system, the only reason to draw a great deal of attention to your system is if it is much different. And yet, if you already had a great idea for how the weird calendar system was going to be a big deal in your world, you wouldn’t be asking this question. So I think what you want is window-dressing on a sexagesimal system. It’s easier for you and for the reader.

The Twelve

Start by coming up with an arbitrary list of images or objects to fit the 12 Zodiac signs. They don’t have to be animals: they could be plants, for instance. I think it will be a bit easier for the reader to follow if you are consistent (all animals, all plants, etc.), but there’s no reason you have to do it this way if you prefer not.

It may be convenient and elegant to come up with a sort of story in which each of the 12 signs leads naturally to the next. This can also provide extensive flavor-material for mythology and whatnot.

For the sake of high precision, cut each item in three parts: head, body, tail; blossom, stem, root; etc. It needs to be clear to you which end comes first.

You now have a complete system of decans. These label every ten-degree arc of a complete circle: lion-head, daisy-stem, etc. Under normal circumstances, however, everything will be labeled by the main image (hour of the lion, month of the daisy, etc.).

Cutting the Year

The year is traditionally cut at the four “corners”: the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. These are very readily observable with a low level of precision necessary, and have been known around the world since Neolithic times. The only reason to remove them from your calendar is because you have some clever idea about that—in which case, again, you’d not be asking this question. So we can assume that the year has four corners.

Now you get more choices:

  1. Does each corner begin or end something? (Begin and end are of course chronologically the same, but they are conceptually quite different.)

  2. At what point does the Zodiac begin? (Since the Mesopotamians, it begins at the vernal equinox, but you can pick any corner.)

Line up your 12 zodiac signs with the proposed rough calendar. You may wish to tweak this or that sign to fit well with the relevant season, but since that’s not the case on earth, it may be best to leave the list apparently incoherent to the seasons.

One more choice:

  1. What happens to intercalary dates?

This system presumes that there are exactly 360 days in a year, and there just ain’t. And your medieval society knows that. So what do they do about it? There are many options, such as:

  • Add one festival (or penitence) day right before or right after each corner, plus one more at the very end of the year cycle, plus another every four years.

  • Add five days at New Year’s, plus one every four years. (This is probably the most popular option, historically, and lends itself to really exciting and complex New Year rituals—great stuff for more flavor!)

  • Make a dramatic adjustment every six or twelve years, or some other convenient unit, by adding a whole month somewhere.

  • Add a special counting number to each year’s name, and make a dramatic adjustment—skip a year, most likely—when this counting number reaches X (probably 6, 7, or 12, but possibly something else). Thus this year is 3-Lion. This will tend to make your months get way out of whack with the seasons, which is less of a problem the closer to the equator you are.

Note that every intercalary system is a nod to practicality, making the system more usable by normal people. People whose job it is to study the stars—astrologers, for one, but also navigators and possibly many others—will need to use the celestial year that always runs equinox to equinox.

Cutting the Day

This is just a matter of deciding what the major unit is. Two-hour watches have been convenient and useful around the world for much of human history, so you might want to just stick to that. These can and should be named for your zodiac signs, in the same order, but you do need to decide what “zero” is. That is, does the day begin at midnight, sunup, sundown, or noon (to list the most obvious choices)? Midnight and noon have the advantage of being consistent, but are a pain in the tail to use practically. Sunup and sundown are easy to use, but they have an infuriating habit of drifting. As with seasonal calendars, you may want to think how close these folks live to the equator, because the closer they are, the easier it is to use the sun.

Counting these is easy enough: water clocks, sundials, hourglasses, marked candles.

Houses

This may seem like an unnecessary refinement, but a House system is a great way to add flavor and depth without making things more difficult for you. If you’re not trying to do precise astrological calculations (and I assume you’re not!), the House system really amounts to nothing more than labeling the sky with hours. You know how you might say “enemies coming in at 9:00,” and that basically means “from your right”? Same deal, only vertically. Due east is 0:00, straight up or down is 6:00, straight west is 12:00, and straight down or up is 18:00.

In the western system developed by the Mesopotamians, down is 6:00, and up is 18:00. This is because whatever is currently at 6:00 will rise on the eastern horizon in six hours, and so on. But for purposes of flavoring your world system, it makes no difference: you could reverse up and down, and while you’re at it you could focus on the western (setting) horizon rather than the eastern (rising) one. Take your pick—four options.

Since your hours/watches are named, this means that people used to paying close attention to the sky may remark that they see the moon “in the house of the Lion” or the like.

Explanation

Don’t. It’s not necessary, and it’s very hard to justify. How often have you heard someone have a conversation about the nature and structure of the calendar and time system we use? That’s about how often it should happen in your world too.

The thing is, if you’re absolutely consistent about it, the whole thing will start to hang together by itself. And here and there, there are some opportunities for a little fleshing out:

  1. An ordinary person and a sailor try to set a time for the attack. The sailor says he’ll start the attack when the moon enters the Lion’s house, and the ordinary person will say he’s got no idea what the sailor is talking about. The sailor now has to explain very simply, without justification: east is Zebra, straight up is Bullock, west is Crab, so Lion is from just east of straight up, so entering the Lion’s house is when the moon gets to 20 degrees east of straight up (you can come up with another term for “degree” if you choose, remembering that they’re using the things anyway).

  2. An astrologer gets all mystic-weird about crossings and paths and houses and decans and whatnot. He won’t really explain, but in the process of his making it sound like he’s being coherent (if perhaps pretentious), he’s going to use a lot of terminology that the reader has seen in passing before.

Remember that the fine details are irrelevant, but their consistent application will give a little flesh to the bare bones. And because the system is actually, behind all the window dressing, essentially identical to what we’ve been using for the last 3000+ years, it will all seem eerily comprehensible even without explanation.

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Thank you, CAgrippa, for taking the time to answer my question in such a thorough way! You present the most helpful approach to designing a believable timekeeping system and are thus giving me a lot of food for thought. – Kit Mar 11 at 12:52
    
I wouldn’t stress the sexagesimal part too much, because other systems have their advantages as well. An octal clock face is quicker and more accurate to read for a human brain than our dozenal ones, for instance, and there’s a good reason for the predominance of the decimal system everywhere else except where powers of two are important (hence octal or hexa-/sedecimal). – Crissov Mar 16 at 12:55

First you need to understand that the concept of time that we have today is only about 200 years old. We didn't have time that was shared with more then a handful of people until the popularity of the train made it a requirement. Until that time, a community would have one "master clock" that everyone else would set their "little" clocks by.

Even then, modern time keeping didn't exist till maybe 50 years ago, when it became more important for two parties to do a thing at the same time. Computers and other time pieces that share information ( the ability to sync a clock) is very very new, even in our world.

Back when a community ran on a shared clock (usually at the town hall or other important civic building), people would set a schedule by it. However that schedule was only important to the people in range of that clock. Everyone else just used a generic time like "Next Tuesday Morning" instead of 9am Tuesday.

Now back in your world, what you need is a reason to have time exist in more then one location. The real trick is why do you need that, and how are people going to track it. How are they going to sync it? What needs to be done at such a precise time that it's worth that effort? Remember that until very recently, everyone not sitting next to a community clock still just used sun up, noon, morning, etc. And two people sitting next to different clocks could be hours off.

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I'd modify this to include the importance of the Longitude Problem, which produced widespread, accurate timepieces (say, 1 minute per month) starting in the 1760s. – WhatRoughBeast Mar 5 at 22:27
    
Timekeeping is by no means so recent. Watches have been kept, often by hourglass (note term), since very early China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. Town criers marked time by calling hours. Monasteries divided their days into precise blocks and units. I don't see where this "they didn't know about anything but sunup and sundown" notion comes from. – CAgrippa Mar 9 at 2:36
    
But none of those are similar to the way we keep time today. That way, where we keep an independent clock separate from days events, is really quite new. Until very recently a clock would only track time spent, or time in relation to some big event (sun rise or sun set). The keeping of time is indeed very old (500BC I think) But the idea of two locations sharing a time is very new. In fact the way we keep time in sync today, world wide, was only adopted in 1972. Around that 1850 was the next largest event. Back then everyone just kept time however they wanted locally, and as ... – coteyr Mar 9 at 5:45
    
you got close to that area, you adjusted your clocks. This made travel between two areas more dependent on the big events, like noon, or sunrise, then on actual time. For Example back then, I will arrive Tuesday before 3pm would have been near impossible to tell on a long journey. Instead you would, I will arrive Tuesday after-noon. Other "sayings" are common like "first bell" or "last watch", or "at first light". I hope that helps add clarification. – coteyr Mar 9 at 5:48

Clocks are not the only way to keep track of time.

I think we all agree that the purpose of clocks is to synchronize the activity of multiple people over an area. We like to say things like "At 12:30 I will go to the store." However, is is also possible to synchronize actions based on events. "I will go to the store after the Blacksmith I am apprenticing finishes eating his lunch." One can synchronize that way.

Consider the courts in fantasy capitols. Time can be managed by the flurry of movement of paiges letting people know how the audience with the queen is going. In fact, in many cases, this is a more effective approach to timekeeping. How many times have you had a 30 minute meeting that becomes a 4 hour discussion? It happens often enough that flexibility in time is useful.

This works well until you need people who aren't interacting to all convene at the same time. Then you need something more synchronous. Often the town bells may be used to provide such a synchronous moment for all people. In Islamic countries, they could syncrhonize to the Muezzin calls, 5 times a day.

In the end, clocks are needed when you must synchronize many arbitrary events at many times of day, over long distances. That calls for an absolute sense of time, and if you need that, you need a clock. However, if your fantasy culture doesn't need quite that much synchronicity, time may be defined by particularly important events to the people of the area. Many school children learn to tell time of day by how many recess bells they hear, long before they learn to read a clock. Such a culturally specific form of synchronization could fit the bill.

In the other extreme, farm life is not all that dependent on exact timing. You may find that sunrise and sunset are sufficient to synchronize farmer life. It all just depends on the individual culture.

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Similarly to the Islamic example, a Christian country might synchronize to the bells of the canonical hours. – Mark Mar 5 at 19:26
    
Clocks are useful for measuring durations, not just for synchronization. – Chris Chudzicki Mar 6 at 3:27
    
@mrc True, but for many durations you can get away with lesser tools, such as an hourglass. It does depend on what the OP needs in their world, but usually the hallmark of a clock is that it has very low drift over very long periods of time. – Cort Ammon Mar 6 at 17:10

Clocks have a deep and long history on earth. Sundials were used by ancient egyptians over 3000 years ago, and whilst sundials are deceptively simple, they are a very accurate way to tell time. The list goes on and on, candle clocks, hourglasses, astronomical clocks (which the sundial is technical a part of)...If there's one thing humans figured out pretty good in ancient times it was how to quantify and tell time.

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What you need to do is go back to the time period in question and just do what they did.

The simplest form is a stick in the ground as a sundial.

There's also the 12 hour day option. When the sun rises it's 6am, noon is noon, sunset is 6pm. There are always 12 daylight hours, always 12 hours of darkness. The fact that the hours are of variable length doesn't matter, that's just how the day runs. It also doesn't matter that this measure of time only applies over a very small area, there's no form of long distance travel or communication over which mere hours matter.

Here's some further reading on the matter: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sundials-Theory-Construction-Albert-Waugh-ebook/dp/B00A3YES4M Yes, a real paper book.

The reason accurate timekeeping is a subject not mentioned in medieaval periods is that it just isn't a thing. Only daylight matters. Things happen, one after the last, from first light until it's too dark to see, it really doesn't matter what time it is (until you need to navigate the open oceans).

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As others have already noted, it wasn't often expected during the medieval ages of various Earth cultures that one have a precise idea of "what time" it is.

But let's assume that this is a very punctual medieval society.

The most obvious way to tell time is to deduce it from the position of the sun or other celestial objects. This has very compelling advantages over other possibilities:

  • Everyone in the world sees the same sun, and everyone in a large region sees largely the same stars.
  • No special equipment is required to see the sun or stars, though some simple contraptions can help time-telling accuracy.
  • The sun is (almost) always visible during the day, and its granularity of movement is absolute. In other words, during the day, you can always use the sun to tell what time it is.
  • No randomness.

Since you mentioned that this world is very Earth-like, I don't think it's likely for time systems to develop that are not anchored by the positions of celestial objects, as such systems do not appear common on Earth (I'm unaware of any).

Handheld sundials did get some use (mainly by the upper class) in medieval times on Earth. Another possibility, easier to construct, is an astrolabe.

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An astrolabe typically manifests as a small tube with a protractor attached to it and a weight hanging from it. By aiming the tube at the sun (don't look through it!) or a star, you can use the hanging weight to find that object's altitude. And if your system of timekeeping happens to be based on that object's altitude, then you know the time, too (you may also need to know the day of the year since a star's path through the sky depends on that).

Time would probably be defined in terms of the sun during the day, and a particularly bright star during the night, preferably one that is distant from the celestial poles since circumpolar stars and other stars near to a pole don't appear to move as much. However, the stars that do move don't just move throughout the night, but also throughout the year, such that you may only see a particular star during autumn and winter but not during spring and summer.

Of course, this is a fantasy world, so we wouldn't have degrees on our protractor. We would have zodiac symbols or whatnot, and the position of the hanging weight would tell us that we are halfway through the hour of the lion.

In a city, it is likely that bells would be used to help people keep track of time. Since this is a particularly punctual society, there might be one bell to chime the hour, and another to chime how many periods of perhaps 5 minutes have passed since the start of that hour. This would mean a lot of chiming, but no one would have an excuse for being late.

In the case of a city using bells to announce the time, they still of course need a way to tell the time, and this could also be done based on the position of stellar objects, or they might have some other mechanism that allows them to do so. This could be a giant hourglass, a pendulum, or a water clock. There are many possibilities there, though even these time telling means would likely need to be occasionally synced with the time as represented by the positions of celestial objects. Methods like this are especially important on cloudy nights when the stars are not visible.

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Timekeeping in the Middle Ages was actually rather situational, as alluded to in some of the other answers.

For the farmers and serfs working the land, the cycles of the sun dominated the day to day work, weeks for markets and festivals and the seasons for the major events like harrowing and planting, campaigning season (when you might get called up to fight a war, or protect your crops), harvest and winter (where a lot of the repair and preparation work happened).

In the towns, there was a bit more need for time keeping, as you might need to coordinate several people meeting at the same time to buy and sell stuff, plot against the king or make a private transaction of some sort. Even then, the daylight hours would probably be divided into quarters, i.e. sunup, midmorning, noon, mid afternoon, sunset.

In the most highly regulated parts of the society (not economy), timekeeping became much more important. Monasteries were the places where you would be most likely to find clocks of various sorts (water clocks, "candle clocks" or even primitive mechanical clocks) in the European Middle Ages in order to ensure the members and lay members attended the regular cycle of prayers and devotions in the Christian day. Monasteries and churches would also ring bells at set times to remind the townsfolk when it was time to pray, come to church and perform other spiritual tasks, although obviously not as often as inside the church or monastery itself.

Modern timekeeping as we understand it only became important as people began carrying out long distance travel (calculating latitude and longitude requires accurate astronomical instruments and clocks, hence the introduction of naval chronometers), and synchronizing schedules for railway traffic on land. This is far beyond the middle ages, naval chronometers needed large advancements in technology and didn't become possible until the 1700's, while the idea of standard time and time zones needed for railway scheduling didn't appear until the 1800's.

In the Middle Ages, we can continue to debate the subject until the forenoon....

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In villages you didn't care. "After Breakfast" was good enough. If you were early, you checked out the 2-3 places the person might be.

In monasteries, it was common to use candle clocks, water clocks, and hour glasses to keep track of the hours for the daily Offices

A town would have a church tower that rang hours, and later on a clock with a single hand. Then quarter hours could be rung too.

Even in small roman catholic towns the Angelus was rung, approximately at 6, 12, and 6, dividing up the day.

The university where I grew up had a carolin that rang Westminster chimes every hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. As a boy growing up, the 8 p.m. was my signal to be home, later moved to 9 on warm summer evenings.

Think too of how a school works, with bells ringing for classes. I worked for years in a boarding school. Most of the boys didn't have watches. One boy, with a watch, was appointed to ring bells. Other boys, who wanted a short period would sometimes sit on them, usually earning themselves a spanking from the duty master.

Not all bells were on strict time marks. There was a bell for each meal which wasn't rung until the servers were ready.

Another way to look at your problem: How do we send a signal across a wide area with small amount of effort. Cannon fire -- the noon gun. Signal rockets. Drums (Google lambeg) (google pow wow drums) (google taiko drums.)

The best example I can find right now is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CsKqBy2uJ34 The youtube vids do NOT capture the intensity. Both are felt as much as heard.

Gongs. Alpenhorns.

There is a reason that bugles or valveless trumpets are used for signalling on the pre-radio battlefield. You could actually hear them over the din. Having a castle above the town with a troop of trumpeters on the hour could coordinate time very well.

General observation: Lower pitches travel further, and do better with obstacles

Remember too, if using sound signals, that you have a 5 second per mile (3 sec per km) delay.

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When you say "exact timekeeping", I am assuming you mean the ability to measure (and count) very short periods of time. It isn't hard to explain how someone observes and counts days and years, but it is more difficult (without assuming mechanical clocks) to measure minutes or seconds reliably.

I suggest biological clocks. Many species make noises that have some relation to time. For example bird-songs or cricket chirps. Since you are world-building, you can create a species that would allow for convenient counting of passing time by a caste of timekeepers. Or just have that caste count their own heartbeats while resting.

A world that relies on biological clocks would allow you to make the world feel unique, since it is so different from how our culture does so.

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Even in industrial age, like the town I grew up in, in the past the only way to tell time was by the factory siren, telling people the shift was over - like a medieval belltower ringing vespers etc. Sundials are not too useful since you need sun, so that they do not work in cloudy weather, and of course only in daytime; without some sort of outside announcement most people would have little idea (clocks used to be really expensive even when they existed) what time it is, other than morning, mid-morning, about noonish, time to eat, etc. So unless your world has invented some sort of common clock, telling time accurately would not work, or your world maybe has a similar system as a belltower telling time to people.

For inspiration, the Canonical Hours are: matins, morning prayer - the first canonical hour; at daybreak prime - the second canonical hour; about 6 a.m. terce, tierce - the third canonical hour; about 9 a.m. sext - the fourth of the seven canonical hours; about noon nones - the fifth of the seven canonical hours; about 3 p.m. evensong, vespers - the sixth of the seven canonical hours of the divine office; complin, compline - last of the seven canonical hours just before retiring.

Or, you could follow the five times Muslims pray per day.

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