On canonical hours, comfort, and daylight savings

I want you to know that I hate Daylight Savings. I began writing this blog on Monday, when I was cruelly forced from bed an early hour for nebulous reasons, none of which I find particularly compelling. How, pray tell, am I meant to entertain and delight you, my very beloved readers when I have had a precious hour of my life stolen from me? Truly, no one in history has suffered as I now currently suffer by virtue of being slightly sleepy. Now we can all agree that time is a construct and obviously that a delicate flower such as myself should not be held in such constraints, but I suppose it is also an opportunity to think of the reasons that we keep time.

When I think about medieval timekeeping I think about monks and nuns mainly. This is because they were all in on their who ora et labore vibe and spent their time, well, marking time with prayer. That’s something we refer to as the Divine Office of the Liturgy of the Hours which split the day into seven specific chunks according to the canonical hours. By the ninth century there were eight specific liturgies that were done over the course of the day, thusly:

  • Matins (at night)
  • Lauds (very early in the morning,)
  • Prime (at the first light)
  • Terce (in the third hour)
  • Sext (at noon. Also lol)
  • Nones (ninth hour)
  • Vespers (at sunset)
  • Compline (at the end of what the day was)

Now you all may have noticed that is a lot of praying right there, and you are not wrong, but when the Fransiscans came along in the thirteenth century they looked at that schedule and we like “needs more Mass” and added another one in before Matins called Vigil. So by the fourteenth century the canonical hours included offices in the following order:

  • 2 am
  • Around 3 am, but before dawn.
  • Dawn (so like 5 am, give or take)
  •  6 am or so
  • 9 am
  • Noon
  • 3 pm
  • Sunset
  • About 7 PM or so
Monks singing/praying from Ms Ancient 6, f.122 v.

The thing about the way that the offices were organised is that they were meant to fucking weird. When monks and nuns joined monastic communities they were making a very deliberate choice to leave normal society. The initial enclosed monastic orders who lived in monasteries were more specifically making a comment about the fact that they were leaving the world as a whole behind them to live in a totally different way, devoted to God. Franciscans and the other mendicant orders that sprang up in the later middle ages changed that and began ministering directly to people largely through preaching, but they still wanted to mark themselves out as separate from society more generally just like their enclosed counterparts. This is why monks and nuns wear special clothing (a habit) to show everyone that they have given up on worldy trappings. Monks also did the tonsure thing shaving their heads so everyone knew exactly what they were.

The whole praying constantly at very weird times of day was a part of this. The monastic orders by praying at fucking 2 am were showing that they were involved in a totally different time schedule than the rest of the world. While everyone else was asleep, they were praying for their salvation. The Rule of St Benedict, the very first official rule for monks, states that any brothers had to “always ready; and upon the signal being given let them rise without delay and hasten one after the other, yet with all gravity and decorum, to be ready in good time for the Work of God.”[1] And then like, doing it again an hour later for good measure. And a few hours after that, etc etc. By keeping to a really weird time schedule, monastic communities showed that they had a totally different way of moving through life.

There is more to it than just being different for the sake of difference, however. The really stringent schedule was supposed to suck and you were meant to be tired all the time. I mean look at it. Are you not exhausted? This tiredness was intentional and was related to the other stuff about monastic life that was meant to be deliberately uncomfortable. For example, monks were meant to eat fairly restricted diets. They were largely supposed to be avoiding what we would call red meat, and what the Rule of St Benedict classifies as “the flesh of quadrupeds … excepting from this rule the weak and the sick.”[2] Their clothes were supposed to be dull and unremarkable, and “concerning the colour or coarseness of all these things” the monks were not to trouble themselves, but let them be such as can be obtained in the province in which they live and that can be bought fairly cheaply.”[3] Some of the orders were supposed to maintain silence except when necessary, but all generally agreed with the Rule of St Benedict that “all manner of buffoonery and idle, mirth-provoking words we adjudge should be perpetually restrained in every place; and for such discourse we permit not the disciple to open his mouth.”[4] AKA no fun chat. Within this framework, being slightly sleep deprived was meant to be a part of the intentional discomfort that monks endured in order to show that they were above creature comforts and were focusing on God.

Morgan MS 626 fol. 84 v.

All of this over-the-top focus on discomfort, weird clothes, and strange schedules as a way of marking those in monastic life out as different, but it was also tied to the fact that the people who entered into monasteries and nunneries often came from backgrounds where a lot more comfort was on offer. In theory, monks and nuns could be drawn from any section of society, in practice that was much less the case. There were varying ways to the monastic life, but one of the big ones was to join as an “oblate” or essentially a child. When this happened, parents would rock up to the monastery with their kid, say please have this child, and usually turn said kid over along with a fairly hefty gift of cash or lands. The idea there was that said gift would offset keeping the child until he or she was large enough that their work would be contributing to the community.

Another big way of joining monastic life was to do so later in life, say when your children were grown and there wasn’t much you could contribute around the house. This was a favoured move of widows and widowers, but it was also not unusual for married couples to retire at the same time to spend the rest of their lives in religious contemplation. Here again, it was often expected that when you showed up there would be some kind of financial gift to offset your place in the community because if you were older, you would perhaps be doing more praying and less work.

As both of these ways into the monastic life indicate a lot of the time the people who took holy orders were coming from wealthier backgrounds. You needed to be coming from a family wealthy enough to give a gift along with your person, and you needed to be coming from a family who could spare your help around the house. This was unlikely to happen from poorer peasant families, and more likely to be a part of the experience of wealthier families. In this context, the bad sleep, restrained diet, and uninspiring clothes were all meant to be seen as a rejection of the comfort that the people would otherwise have experienced. The poor were more likely to be experiencing discomfort all on their own, working manual labour every day of the year and rising with the sun. Monastic sleep schedules would have sucked for them, sure, but all the other work probably sucked a bit more. If you gave up suffering in the field for suffering in the monastery it just didn’t count in the same way. I mean, you’d be doing it anyway so it’s just not impressive.

British Library Yates Thompson MS 11, f. 6v.

So, as we can see, those who joined monasteries and nunneries knew they were getting into a life that was uncomfortable. This discomfort was seen as proof of worthiness. And you know what part of all the praying and carrying on and discomfort was? That’s right a fucking time change in Spring. Chapter VIII of the Rule of St Benedict states that when figuring out around about when you were supposed to be praying there were seasonal differences. To whit: “In winter time, that is from the first of November until Easter as found by computation, let rising be at the eighth hour of the night, as seems reasonable, that there may be a moderately increased length of rest after midnight and that all may rise fully rested; and let what time remains after night office be devoted to thoughtful study by brethren who at all need it for the psalter or lections. But from Easter till the above-named first of November, let the time of night office be so arranged that after a very short interval during which the brethren can go out for the necessities of nature, the morning office, which is to be said at day-break, may at once follow.”[5]

See? The minute there is more light it is like, “Alright everyone time to fucking suffer more. Get on out there and pray.” Imagine adopting a position from a group of people who were meant to be uncomfortable as a way of life in the modern world! Imagine intentionally stealing sleep from people and pretending it was necessary or good.

Anyway, all of this is a roundabout way of saying I live a life of unimaginable comfort and privilege in comparison to most people in the medieval period, and THEREFORE stealing an hour from me is actually a form of torture. Give me back my hour, you cowards. You bastards.

I rest my case.

[1] Chapter XXII of the rule. Full rule can be found here.
[2] Ibid., Chapter XXIX.
[3] Ibid., Chapter LV.
[4] Ibid., Chapter VI.
[5] Ibid., Chapter VI.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

On martyrdom and nationalism
Religious iconography has always been a prop
On Odious Debt
My fav [not] saints: St Guinefort
Emergency post: That is not what Good Friday means
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church
On Prague, preaching, and brothels
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
On dildos and penance
A short history of Jan Hus, the Protestant leader you’ve never heard of
Islam was the party religion, or, why it is lazy and essentialist to say that Islam oppresses women
On St Nicholas
On No Nut November
Considering bad motherfuckers: Hildegard of Bingen and Janelle Monáe
Emergency Pubcast – Why the Pope can’t just say there is no hell and do me like that
On Mike Pence, Holocaust Memorial Day, and Christian interpretations of Jewish utility
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On the medieval separation of church and state, or, putting the ‘holy’ in Holy Roman Empire
On Jerusalem and the Apocalypse, or why you should be deeply unsettled right now
Look up – this church is judging you

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

4 thoughts on “On canonical hours, comfort, and daylight savings”

  1. I’m in the USA, so we did the “spring forward” thing a couple of weeks back. I detest Daylight Savings Time too. Well, I guess actually I detest Standard Time, because I actually would generally prefer to stay on DST year-round in most parts of the country, all things being equal. But in any case, I detest the changing of the clocks.

    Solution? I moved to Arizona. The state does not participate in DST, so we never have to adjust our clocks here. In the wintertime, we are in the Mountain Time Zone (think Denver), and in the summertime, we are in the Pacific Time Zone (think Los Angeles). Easy peasy. Except when family members in other parts of the country call us oddly early or oddly late because they can’t figure out our local time. That’s what “mute” is for on the phone.

    (Map Nerd side note: The Navajo Nation in the northeastern part of the state DOES do the DST thing, but the Hopi Nation, which is entirely enclaved within the Navajo Nation, DOES NOT, along with the rest of us Arizonans. Don’t bother trying to know what time it is when you head east from Flagstaff accordingly. I suspect that Glenn Frey’s famous “standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona” line the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” was actually prompted by him being either an hour early or an hour late for whatever appointment he had, nobody really knowing what time it was, nobody really caring).

    Digression aside, I am going to interpret your post today to mean that we in Arizona are Holier (and therefore better, clearly) than the rest of our depraved nation because we keep to a different clock. (I’m going to ignore the part that said different clock is actually the lazier course of action, in that we don’t have to figure out how to reprogram the clocks in our cars and on our appliances).

    And when I wake up at 3am tonight and stare at the ceiling (as one does), I will be sure to think a Holy thought or three. Just doing my part, on behalf of the heathenry . . .


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: