What time is it, Mister Wolf…

“Wolfy, wolfy what’s the time?”

You all know the answer, don’t you? “Dinner time!”

It is (besides in playground games) probably the oldest time-mark outside of dawn and dusk. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of horology stems directly from wanting to know how close that was. As dinner-time and ‘knock-off time’ were much the same thing, I think that a reasonable supposition.

So: time. As a modern society we’ve become pretty precise about it. It is relatively easy – watches, phones, computers – all give us the precise time, and time-pieces are (by historical standards) almost ridiculously cheap and amazingly (by historical standards again) accurate. The words: “I’ll just be a few seconds” are something we can conceptually understand. The idea of sixty seconds in what one must have been a very precise measurement – the minute, which in turn must have been quite difficult for people whose most accurate indication of the passage of time was say the chiming of a clock on a public building every quarter hour, and even the hour was a bit iffy when you ran by the stomach-clock as to how close to dinner it was.

Mind you those few seconds can be remarkably elastic (I’ve known them to dilate amazingly) but… we have an idea what a second means. We assume everyone does.

But… as a friend of mine (Dave Truesdale) pointed out in a post the other day… in a fantasy novel, set in a medieval seeming world, where no clocks appear evident, how would a character have a clue what a second (or a minute) was?

Now this immediately runs smack-bang-crunch into a whole lot of logical ‘issues’. To mention a couple outside of ‘it’s fantasy’ and ‘It’s fiction’: 1)if you’re writing a fantasy world, unless it has an obvious connection to our modern one, (as in urban fantasy or something where passage between the fantasy world and ours is a norm) why hell are the characters speaking English? Obviously they’re not. You’re merely telling the story in English – therefore the terms are as modern English speakers would understand them. 2) By the time any society gets to the sort of medieval level some kind of time-keeping seems to evolve. It seems to have evolved, repeatedly, separately, using all sorts of devices – from the sun, to water to to sand-times, to candles to incense-sticks. It did hit complications where the day was divided into equal parts – which meant the time between those equal parts (see Japanese historical time keeping – thanks George Phillies for making me aware of this) but, realistically, you have to predate your fantasy a lot earlier than medieval before people have no concept of time beyond wolfy-wolfy time.

Now, the English in which many writer choose to couch their fantasy is often a deliberate and very stylized ‘formal’ and ‘old-fashioned’ usage of the language – using the diction itself to convey the impression of the ye olde high fantasy. It seems to work -I had one critic blast me for not using such in the Heirs of Alexandria series, with a casual modern use language, particularly in dialogue – which as it is a sort of Alternate History, the characters would mostly have been speaking bastard Frankish-Italian, appropriate to their social status… and if you’re going to translate that would have been their casual, normal non-formal speech. So that approach does work, at least for some readers.

It is probably, however, worth establishing – in your own head if not making it a thrust of the book – just how time-keeping happens. I mean, if there are mechanical clocks, no matter what the actual language is, or fantasy world is, some equivalent of the sectioning of the day (hour) must exist, and likely some way of sectioning the hour (minute) if not a way of sectioning the minute. On the other hand if time is measured by how long it takes a candle or incense stick to burn, well seconds are right out, minutes are unlikely and you might be ‘about half-way between lauds and prime’ (or whatever equivalent canonical hours you have made up).

It’s little details like this that throw you right out of a story.


  1. Actually medieval times had difficulty determining the hour. There was a trial by combat where one champion did not show, the other claimed victory, and prolonged debate ensued about whether the hour for the champion to arrive had arrived.

  2. Time is a subjective construct; how we the living evaluate change. However, that’s just the rule inside OUR system.
    Perhaps, for a person OUTSIDE the system, NOTHING changes for what they regard as a long time. But, to those of us INSIDE the system, no time has passed, regardless of the method used to measure it’s passage. The cool things inside an atomic clock involving cesium, or strontium, or an optical lattice, don’t happen, because no change.
    None of that might be true; I just said it, that’s all.

  3. And I’m translating from not-human-language, and not-human-clocks, but they have approximately similar divisions, near enough in length that an English-speaking human will assume approximately correct how-long-did-it-take or when-will/did-it-happen. Second, minute, hour, week, month, year, century. All exist in a form we’d recognize, and close enough to estimate duration.

    Absolute time is more of a conundrum, because the units are not quite the same length as conventional English time units, nor are they grouped quite the same (day = 26 hours, week = 9 days, month = 36 days, year = 10 months plus two intercalary days). So when you add it all up, one year is about 390 Earth days. When timestamp matters (such as for converging events), I have to account for that. Not to mention keeping track of seasonal discontinuity from one world to the next. And then my brain hurts. The reader is fortunate that I translate for them. šŸ˜›

  4. I’ve seen a Japanese watch maker who managed to make a traditional timekeeping watch. He had made a Clock that did so as an apprentice, but egad the complication to make a watch do so?
    My Google/TubeOfYou Foo is lacking and I can’t find the video.

    1. Check out the Wristwatch Revival channel for detailed teardowns and rebuilds which are astonishingly enlightening for How Those Things Work.

  5. Remember, a man who has a clock will always know what time it is. A man with two never will.

    *ducks and runs*

  6. In the Merchant books, I had to catch myself about the “A few seconds,” “he waited a minute” because well, High Medieval setting, especially when the characters are traveling. Local noon (sun at the zenith), hand-spans before sunset or after sunrise, dawn and dusk worship, those are easy. At night you have stars to mark the watches, but for shorter durations? I had to write a note and tape it to my desk reminding me “no seconds or minutes” or really even hours. It’s a challenge. Heart beats, breaths, watching a shadow move . . . but no clock.

    1. Yep, that, exactly. And I do it as much as practical with my nonhumans too, because even tho they have accurate timekeeping (astrogation, fer ghu’s sakes) they tend to think in less technical terms, and mostly estimate time and spans by something they can count or see. So fewer points of congruence where readers can fall out of my world and back to Earth.

  7. Without clocks, it’s all approximations. Sunrise, noon, and sunset vary as soon as you travel a few days east or west.

    My father (87 and a North Dakota farm boy) insisted that he learned to tell about how long it was until sunset by counting the number of fingers between the sun and the horizon but I never could.

    1. Witness that even everyone knows that noon is supposed to be when the sun is highest, the time first adopted by clocks was Solar Mean Time, which has noon off by fifteen minutes — both ways at different times of the year. People couldn’t tell the difference.

  8. Before quartz came along, the larger the clock, the larger the gears, the more accurate the clock could (in theory) be made. Even then there were issues with clocks running faster or slower as the temperature changed, an issue not fixed until bimetallic pendulums were developed.

    An alternative was the sundial, but figuring out where the markings should be isn’t obvious. Even if that problem is solved, a sundial doesn’t work in cloudy conditions, and it isn’t accurate to the minute – over the year the shadow will reach the noon mark anywhere between a few minutes before noon and a few minutes after noon, depending on the local equation of time.

    1. Not to mention nighttime.

      Monasteries were big sources of advances in clockwork, because they had the midnight office.

  9. I read once that Galileo (and presumably others) used their pulse to time rapid events. This is how Galileo came up with the notion that the time a pendulum took to complete one swing was constant over different lengths covered in the swing. (Although presumably, the more excited he got about his measurements, the farther off they’d be.)

  10. The problem with casual modern language is that if the English does not break suspension of disbelief, and casual language does — well, it does. You can’t be reasoned into suspension of disbelief.

    Indeed, you can’t even reason them into it by pointing out that something IS accurate to the period: the Tiffany Problem extends to more than names.

  11. If you want something fairly precise, you can always gone with something like the Mississippi count for lightning strikes– how many choruses of a song, say a prayer X number of times, anything you can do without really FOCUSING on it.

  12. Nautical navigation was a major factor in developing better timekeeping. The astrolabe and then the sextant would provide means to calculate a ship’s position IF the time was known. The mariners would take this reading at noon in order to minimize the time error, but having a timepiece would enable readings day or night.
    There’s also the Christian canonical time designations. Prime, Terse, Sexts, None, Vespers, Compline and Matins.

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