It’s Quinquagesima Sunday and I’m Leagues from Home

Writers who create either historical fiction or science fiction sometimes have to brood about the fact that methods of measuring time and space are recent as well as unnaturally picky.  Imagine the following scene:

“Where shall we meet?” he breathed.

She fluttered her long lashes.  “Beneath the ancestral oak, my lord.”

“But when?”

She pulled her pendant timepiece from the warm bosom of her gown. “Tomorrow at 14:52 GMT, if it’s not raining.”

He squinted at the racing moon.  “Make it 14:55.” 

These digital days we take an unnatural interest in minutes and seconds, if not nano-seconds.  Natural time measured by the position of the sun was vague and variable everywhere except at the equator, and it was not just time that was foggy.  Most professions requiring accurate measurement developed their own units that had nothing to do with other systems, even in the same society.  “Give him an inch and he’ll take an ell.”

The BC/AD method of indicating the year was not widespread, even as recently as the seventeenth century.  And let’s not go into the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, or when adoption of the Gregorian calendar took place.  The ancient Irish measured time from night to night, not day to day (and a man’s honour price was reckoned in cows).  Go figure, and figure is exactly what writers have to do if they’re working with the Egyptian calendar, or the Mayan.

Measurement is a problem for writers because we want to sound authentic, but we also want to communicate.  I’ve dabbled in fantasy and s.f., and I’ve published regencies and modern mysteries.  It’s hard for me to abandon precision, even when it’s anachronistic.  Maybe the worst problem is coming to terms with how long it used to take to do something.  Writers need to ask themselves how exact they have to be.

Mysteries focus on timing.  Much depends on who was where when.  I recently edited one of my earlier mysteries.  It was published in 1993, before cell phone use was the norm.  As I read it, I kept feeling impatient when my characters had to seek out landline phones, and I imagine new readers will be even more impatient.  How long does it take to get information?  The founding fathers allowed two months between a general election and the inauguration of a new President.  Now that transition could be cut to a week, even with a recount.  We tend to imagine things will go faster than they do, probably because TV and film fictions cut out the waiting time.  But there is also the opposite problem.  I have no trouble grasping relativity–I have been put on Hold.

What time of day is it?  It was probably the Benedictines who started our obsession with measuring the hours exactly, because they were supposed to wake up and chant the offices throughout the night.  Even when public clocks became common, though, most people got up when it was light enough to see and went to bed when it wasn’t.  The hardest change for the labor force in the era of industrialization was to learn to work by the clock.  Agricultural work was hard and badly paid, but people started work when the sun came out or when the cows lowed, not when a whistle blew.

In my last regency, my young heroine drove a gig from Grantham in Lincolnshire to Bristol, a trip that might take a couple of hours today by car if the traffic cooperated.  My plot allowed Lady Jean three days on the road, though I rushed her.  The next day, her brother-in-law only took about fifteen hours traveling from Bristol to London, but he didn’t stop except to change horses, and the roads were better going into London than driving through the countryside.

Lady Jean was eighteen.  How young is young?  How old is old?  The life-span of women in wealthy societies doubled in the last hundred years.  My mother died recently at 93.  Her mother died at 23.  Ancient Hebrew society counted a boy a man at thirteen and the ancient Irish at fourteen.  Both Henry V and Richard III were veterans at sixteen.  Shakespeare thought he was an old man at forty.  “That time of year thou may’st in me behold…”  On the other hand, a girl child can now be impregnated at ten.  Sometimes little girls married at that age in the Middle Ages, but most of them would not have matured until they were fourteen or fifteen (and would have waited until then to consummate the marriage).  Juliet was fourteen.  “Younger than she are happy mothers made,” but not so many then as now.  I like to think of medieval people as teenagers.  Most of them probably were, but some of our mothers are babies.

And what about size?  When I was growing up in the Middle Ages, size twelve was considered svelte though ten was prefereable.  Now girls aim to be size zero.  How big is a big man?  My husband is just under eight handspans.  I am seven, and I won’t say how many stone I weigh. 

Sheila Simonson


4 Responses

  1. An utterly fascinating essay, Sheila! I’m so happy to be writing in the 18th century before technology changed almost daily as it does now. Although admittedly I’m currently having difficulty with the 18th-c. French calendar with its winter months, for ex, changed to nivose, pluviose and ventose, which evidently some wag translated to slippy, drippy and nippy. The latter was in effect from 1793-1806, driving everyone, including my English protagonist in revolutionary Paris, to distraction!

  2. Thanks, Nancy. I can hardly wait to read the new book!

  3. This isn’t exactly what you wrote about, but I’ve always wondered about those Old Testament guys who lived for hundreds of years. Did they measure years differently in those days?

    • (This may register twice–goofy system). There may be a translation question involved, and unfortunately I don’t know the languages involved (Hebrew to the Vulgate to 17th c. English?).

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