Wednesday 2 September 2015

Living in Time - Gillian Polack

I was going to write a delightful post about my favourite works of literature (a few of the many) but fate intervened. I confused my calendars and I am two weeks closer to my holiday period than I thought I was. This means that calendars are on my mind: literature can wait.

One of the earliest children’s rhymes recorded in the English language starts “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November.” From memory, this dates back to the thirteenth century. This means that it was written down then and that the manuscript it was written in has survived. It could be older, but we know it is at least as old as that manuscript. Time is a precarious concept, and measurements are parlous.

The rhyme is also deceptive. It’s tempting to think that people in the thirteenth century saw the year in the same way we do. After all, they used the same rhyme to remember the length of the month.

What tripped me up today is that my holiday season uses a different calendar. That is to say, that some of us use two and even three different types of calendars in our lives. In Australia, the Christmas and summer holidays occur at the same time. The whole nation grinds to a halt in late December. Some of us drag ourselves into the workplace in early January (except me – I was always on holiday duty when I was in a regular workplace, for I take my time off around now, instead) and everyone is back at work when the weather is still impossibly hot and the beach impossibly tempting. The UK doesn’t operate like that at all. A short coldish Christmas season and a long holiday in Australia’s winter. Australia notes Christmas as cold (we get cards with snow on and much television explaining that Christmas is a cold time) so we live with the northern hemisphere calendar alongside our own seasons and festivities. Then there is the school year and the work year and the university year and the Jewish year, the Moslem year, the Hindu year and more. So many years, all wrapped into one. 

Most people handle the complexity by focussing on the bits they need to know. We create our own small calendars to manage our personal and family years. I need to know when my holidays are. I also need to know when Christmas is, because the shops will be closed and it’s a good period to get a lot of work done.

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This is far closer to the medieval reality than the strict numbering of days of the month was. Different regions celebrated different saint’s days. Those holidays could change: for instance, a brand-new one was instituted during the twelve days of Christmas just for Thomas (who was murdered in a cathedral and caused a lot of bother for many people both before and after). People kept track of their particular saints and days with Books of Hours, with all the fast days marked and all the feast days.

The fiscal year was different, and so as the regnal year. The law terms were followed by the newly-established universities. System was added to system, and people dealt. Many people would only worry about key dates. Their lives were dominated by those dates and by the seasons. Work was done according to the seasons. No electricity meant that a lot more could be done outdoors and in types of work where natural light was important than in the long summer than in the dark of winter. The dark of winter was the time for quite different activities, normally indoors and in the warmth. Seasons often played a part in whether a war dribbled to a halt or continued a few weeks longer, for it was hard to fight a series of big battles when your foot soldiers were also your peasants and needed to bring in the crops. They’re one of the many reasons for the Hundred Years’ War being so infamously waged in bits and pieces, with gaps both long and short.

My new year is coming up in a bare few days. This is exactly like the experience of many people in the Middle Ages. They had more than one new year, just as I do. There was 1 January, of course (which is my favourite new year, in modern times, if I’m honest, for I like the fireworks over Sydney), but there were celebrations of religious cycles, and of legal cycles and of financial cycles. The regnal year (which I mentioned earlier) changed with each and every king. 

Some people kept track of. Other people relied on those who did. One of my perfect medieval scholars is Bede, for he was a historian. He also pulled calendars together with calculations so that they were workable. An amazing book on the subject talks about Bede and about medieval calendars, but focuses on more recent calendars.  Elisheva Carlebach’s Palaces of Time  is a wonderful book. Whenever I start thinking “we all experience time in the same way, because we share calendars” I get the book from my shelf and remind myself of the reality. How we measure time is complex and fascinating. We have good days and bad days. There are safe moments and dangerous moments.

How we shape time is not just through calendars. It’s through seasons and personal experience and changes in light and dark. This means that each of us has a unique experience of time. I’m tempted to invent words to describe it, using the notion of idiolects, dialects and languages. Idiotime is personal, individual. It’s me and my peculiar sense of time and how I manage my different calendars and make my year function. Then there’s diatime: the time we share with a group of others. That would be the Australian calendar, with its summer overlapping with Christmas. And then there’s the broader cultural experience of time, where we share the calendar. 

This brings me back to where I began, for quite obviously the language level of time for us has to include the data that forms the rhyme “Thirty days hath September...”


Sue Bursztynski said...

Great post, Gillian! And wonderful to know how old that rhyme is. Kids still use it. *I* use it. I knew it was old, but fourteenth century... Wow! Of course you couldn't wage war when the crops had to be brought in...

Y S Lee said...

I love the concepts of idiotime and diatime! Part of my diatime is also kiddytime, which means that only one medium-sized task (or possibly two smaller ones, on a good day) can be accomplished in a morning.

Ann Turnbull said...

I can never remember which months have only 30 days unless I say that little rhyme! I had no idea it was so old.

Thank you for this fascinating post.

Susan Price said...

Brilliant post. Like Ann, I had no idea that 'Thirty days hath September...' which I chant reguarly, was anywhere near so old. If I'd been asked to guess, I'd have said, maybe a hundred, hundred-and-fifty years old at most.

And, while always knowing it, I'd never really seen that we use so many different time-scales at the same time - January-December - and the financial year, April-April - the academic year = September/October - September/October, to name just those which are important to me.

Mik's $ Toy said...

Could somone please cite a source for the rhyme? Thanks!

sarah.doyle said...

I'm surprised that the rhyme goes back quite so far. Surely it cannot be exactly the same thanks to the change from Julian to the Gregorian calendar. In the UK we "lost" 11 days in 1752, which is why February only has 28 days now.

Joan Lennon said...

Idiotime - very true! Thanks for this -