No Clockwatching

Time in the early modern world lacked precision, but it did have humanity.

Time stands still: haymaking in July, from the Book of Hours, France, 1510-25.

Anniversaries are big business. The centenaries, bicentenaries and quincentenaries of major events are hooks on which publishers and TV producers can hang history books and shows. The dates on which key events occurred are etched into our minds. I can probably just give you some dates and you’ll supply the events: 28 June 1914, 2 September 1945, 15 August 1947, 22 November 1963 and 11 September 2001? We live our days by the clock and our lives by the calendar. How old are you? When were you born? Most of you will know these answers without a second thought.

I have found it striking, therefore, to realise that our ancestors did not think like this. I have spent some time working through cases from 16th- and 17th-century France and have slowly recognised that people living then had a completely different relationship to times, dates and years than we do.

Some of them, admittedly, could give their age exactly: 38-year-old Loys Solignac, 28-year-old Bernardine Bermonde and a 64-year-old widow called Jeanne Roberte. But, for many more, their reckoning of their age was approximate: Marie Gibernesse said she was ‘about 30 years old’, Gillette Franchilhonne said she was ‘25 years or so’, Jehanne Bugne was ‘45 years or about’ and Marie Imberte said she was ‘aged 20 years or so’.

The same is true when it came to describing how long something had lasted or how long ago something had occurred. Jane Gibernesse said she had worked for Jacques Gardiol for ‘around four years’; he later said she had worked for him for ‘three years’. Marthe Privade said she had lived and worked in Nîmes for ‘nine or ten years’. Ysabel Bonnete said she had not seen her husband ‘for five or six years’. Even for important events, it was difficult to be precise.

Nor did people often pin incidents down to specified dates. In fact, people only ever rarely referred to the months of the year and there is every reason to think that many people living in the 16th and 17th centuries did not know them. Instead, they oriented around the high days and holy days of the year and mentioned surprisingly few even of those.

The most common point of reference in medieval or early modern France was the festival of Saint Madeleine, a day in honour of the saint known in English as Mary Magdalene, which was celebrated on 22 July. This was a time of great festivities, dancing and games. In 1581 Oliver Latuelle explained that his wife had been pregnant since ‘three weeks before the last Madeleine’. A woman called Pierre Malbosque said in April 1583 that she had been pregnant since nine or ten days after the last Madeleine and Marguerite Solière said she, too, had been pregnant since ‘around the time of the last Saint-Madeleine’.

An alternative point of reference was the feast day of Saint Jean or Midsummer’s Day, that is, 24 June. Catherine Daudeze stated in January 1595 that she had been pregnant since the previous Saint Jean. Gillette Fabresse said in October 1602 that a man had tried to rape her on that day. Either we must assume that festival days were often occasions of such illicit sexual activity, or that, in temporal times, people were rounding up.

The final date of particular importance was that of Saint Michel or Michaelmas, on 30 September. Catherine Doussaire reported that ‘about two years ago at the next Saint Michel, she had had a child’. This inexactitude over the births of children is especially puzzling for the 21st-century reader, so used to noting and marking each passing birthday – but it should not imply a lack of care for their children, only a different relationship to time.

These hinge-dates only stretched across four months of the year. Otherwise people use expressions like ‘one evening that she could not at present remember’, as one woman did in February 1588. Or they linked them to a dramatic event. Catherine Loise stated that she had first slept with Timothee Fabre ‘the night when Boschet’s brother was killed which she remembers very well’. The issue here was not a paucity of memory, but a mode of describing time – and, therefore, very probably, a conceptual framework for considering it – that was imprecise. The people of early modern France deified the time much less than do those of the 21st century. But one wonders if our ancestors’ more lackadaisical approach to time was healthier and more human than our exacting obsession with being exact.

Suzannah Lipscomb is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Roehampton and author of The Voices of Nîmes: Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Languedoc (Oxford, forthcoming).