Unit 13 Time

Section 1

Using the modern English word search look up ‘spring’, ‘summer’, ‘autumn’ and ‘winter’, scrolling down to find the single-word headings for the seasons. Many of the Old English words are recognisable as ancestors of ModE words: len(c)ten > lent; easter > Easter; hærfest > harvest; sumor > summer; winter > winter. There are also numerous compound words such as lenctentid (spring season, springtime) and onriptid, riptima (reaping season).

However, you will notice that only two of these words, winter and sumor, have retained the same meaning in Modern English. Easter was the name of a pagan festival celebrating the goddess Eostre, then applied to the Christian festival celebrating Christ’s resurrection and the season of this festival. It has narrowed in meaning, now referring only to the Christian festival. Similarly len(c)ten, related to words for ‘length’ and signifying ‘lengthening of days’ (i.e. springtime), was also used in Old English to mean ‘Lent’, the period of fasting before Easter: this is now its only meaning. The word spring meaning ‘first season of the year’ was introduced in the sixteenth century, from the sense ‘origin’.

Q1a. Look at the words for ‘autumn’ and describe what has happened to them since Old English (think, for example, about what ‘harvest’ means now). Answer Q1a

Q1b. What do the Old English words suggest about Anglo-Saxon concepts of seasons? Answer Q1b

Now enter ‘months’ in the Modern English word search and view ‘specific months’. As you can see, each month has a Latinate name (ianuarius, februarius, martius and so on): these are the ancestors of our ModE words. However, each month also has a Germanic name based on a typical event or attribute of that month. For example, May is þrimeolce/ þrimilcemonaþ ‘three milk (month)’ because cows were milked three times a day in May, while July is midsumermonaþ ‘midsummer month’.

Q2a. Using the notes below to help you, work out the meanings of the rest of the months:
1. December and January;   2. February;        3. March;
4. April;                                 5. July;                6. August;
7. September;                       8. October;          9. November.

geol = yule (originally a heathen festival, later Christmas);
ærra = former, earlier;      æftera = second;      sol = mud;      Hretha = a goddess;
hlyd = noise, sound;        mæd = meadow;       halig = holy;   fyll = fullness;
blot = blood, sacrifice.
Answer Q2a

Q2b. What do the Old English month names tell us about Anglo-Saxon life and the Anglo-Saxon conception of months and seasons? Answer Q2b

Now look up ‘hour’ in the ModE word search and choose ‘an hour’. The words hwil and tid are the ancestors of our words ‘while’ and ‘tide’, but in Old English they could also refer to longer periods of time. You will also see a word for a ‘winter hour’. In Anglo-Saxon times a day referred to daylight and was divided into twelve equal hours: thus a winter hour was shorter than a summer hour. An hour in Old English, then, was a less precise measurement than it is today.

Q3a. Choose the Old English word search without length marks. Look up tid and hwil and note the longer periods of time they can refer to. Answer Q3a

Q3b. Look up ‘minute’ and ‘second’ in the ModE word search. What results do you get and what can you deduce from them? Answer Q3b

Section 2

Systems of time
The Anglo-Saxon period was one of transition between a Germanic system of time and a Latinate one. The Germanic system had two core seasons; in several Old English poems (such as Beowulf, The Wanderer and The Seafarer), references to seasons contrast only summer and winter. This continued into the early Middle English period: in the 13th century lyric ‘Sumer is icumen in’, the context of seeds growing and lambs bleating shows that sumer refers to springtime and not summertime: sumer, then, must have denoted a longer period of time inclusive of what we now call spring. Likewise, winter began in October and included what we now call autumn. Months were lunar months: that is, they lasted 29.5 days, the length of time from one new moon to the next. A year of twelve lunar months is about 11 days shorter than the solar year we use nowadays: in order to compensate, an extra (‘embolismic’) month was added on in certain years to the summer months, to make þæs monan gear (‘the moon year’, a year of thirteen lunar months).

When Christianity was brought to Britain, though, the Julian calendar (from which the Gregorian calendar we use today was derived) was introduced. This was based on a solar year of 365 days, divided into twelve months which did not directly correspond to the cycle of the moon. Furthermore, the Romans divided the year into four seasons. This system was gradually introduced by writers like Bede, in his De temporum rationae (On the reckoning of time) and Ælfric, in his De temporibus anni (On the seasons of the year).

It is likely that the two systems coexisted for some time, with ordinary people continuing to use the native system while the Latin calendar was used for ecclesiastical purposes. This coexistence is suggested in the Old English Menologium (‘calendar poem’) which gives Latin names for the months alongside Old English ones. Although it might seem that using two systems would have been confusing, it could be compared with the use of metric and imperial measurements in Britain today: while metric is used for official purposes, a lot of people (even those born after the introduction of the metric system) continue to think in feet, inches, ounces and so on.

There were also two understandings of the word ‘day’: for ‘ordinary people’, wrote Ælfric, a day signified daylight hours; for the learned, a day meant a period of 24 hours. Bede made a similar distinction. Ecclesiastically, the day was divided into the seven ‘canonical hours’ (specific times of prayer): Matins (at sunrise), Prime (early morning), Terce (late morning), Sext (at midday), None (mid-afternoon), Vespers (at sunset) and Compline (at bedtime). However, these hours were not absolutely fixed: for example, None gradually shifted to earlier in the day and is the root of our word ‘noon’.

Time measurement
Anglo-Saxons would have been skilled in reckoning time by the stars, the moon and the sun. There is, for example, a description of a solar eclipse in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle where the sun is said to have looked ‘like a moon three nights old’: this shows the extent to which Anglo-Saxons must have been familiar with the phases of the moon.

Before the invention of mechanical clocks in the fourteenth century, the main method of marking the passing of time in a day was a sundial, a surface onto which the sun’s shadow is cast by a gnomon (shadow-marker). Early sundials were often flat and painted onto walls (usually of churches). There are several Anglo-Saxon sundials still in existence, including one on the wall of St. Gregory’s Church in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire and one on St. Bartholomew’s Church in Aldbrough, East Yorkshire.

An obvious limitation of sundials, however, is that they are of little use at night, on cloudy days, or indoors. Other early clocks were water-clocks (containers from which water gradually drips out of a narrow spout) and candle-clocks (candles with consistently spaced marking which burn down and show the passage of a period of time). The candle-clock was, according to Bishop Asser in his Life of King Alfred, invented by King Alfred the Great in the late ninth century. Alfred wanted to divide his days and nights into regular segments of time so that he could devote half of his time to God. Candle-clocks were later developed into timers: a nail was inserted into the candle at a given point, and when the candle burned down to that point, the nail would clatter onto a plate beneath it.

Another marker of time throughout the day, particularly useful for people working in the fields, was the ringing of church-bells (indeed, the word clock originally meant ‘bell’). Bells were rung to announce the canonical hours; they could also be used for other purposes such as signalling the end of the working day.

Section 3

Further Reading

Anderson, Earl R. 2003. Folk-taxonomies in early English, Chapter 6: ‘Seasons of the Year’.
          Madison, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
Anderson, Earl R. 1997. ‘The seasons of the year in Old English’. Anglo-Saxon England
          26, 231-263.
Bately, J. 1984. ‘Time and the Passing of Time in “The Wanderer” and Related OE Texts’.
          Essays and Studies
1984, 1-13.
Dohrn-van Rossum, G. 1996. [translated by Thomas Dunlap]. History of the hour: clocks
          and modern temporal orders
, Chapters 1-3. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
Fischer, Andreas. 1994. ‘ “Sumer is icumen in”: the seasons of the year in Middle English
          and Early Modern English’. Studies in Early Modern  English, ed. D. Kastovsky.
          Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Fischer, Andreas. 1998. ‘Lexical Gaps, Cognition and Linguistic Change’. Lexicology,
          Semantics and Lexicography
, eds J. Coleman and C. Kay. Amsterdam &
          Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Harrison, K. 1976. The framework of Anglo-Saxon history to AD 900, Chapter 1:
          ‘The Moon and the Anglo-Saxon Calendar’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Malone, K. [translator]. 1969. ‘The Old English Calendar Poem’. Studies in Language,
          Literature and Culture of the Middle Ages and Later
, eds E. A. Atwood and
          A. A. Hill. Austin: University of Texas Press, 193-199.
Nilsson, M. 1920. Primitive time-reckoning, Chapter 11: ‘Popular Months of the European
          Peoples’. Lund: Gleerup.
Wallis, F. [translator]. 1999. Bede: the reckoning of time. Liverpool: Liverpool University
          Press (see especially chapter 15 for Bede’s description of Anglo-Saxon months).


The National Institute of Science and Technology has an interesting website on the history of time-keeping at

The British Sundial Society has a website at

The Oxford City Branch of Church Bell Ringers has a website which contains a short history of church bells

There is an online translation of parts of Asser’s Life of King Alfred at
Part II contains the description of Alfred’s invention of the candle-clock.

There is an online translation of Ælfric’s On the Seasons of the Year at

There is an interesting collection of words for months and days in a variety of languages on the ‘Unilang’ website:

Southampton University’s website has an informative section on the Middle English lyric ‘Sumer is icumen in’, including images of the manuscript and a ModE translation

You can see an Anglo-Saxon Calendar, with pictures of various activities, at:

Ideas for essays and projects

1. Look up other words about time such as ‘year’, ‘day’, ‘morning’, ‘evening’ and ‘week’. What do they suggest about Anglo-Saxon life and conceptions of time? How do they compare with ModE usage?

2. Using the Old English word search, choose ‘Beginning-of-word’ and enter ‘lencten’. Repeat the search for ‘hærfest’ (you will need to type ‘hArfest’), ‘easter’, ‘winter’ and ‘sumor’. Make notes on the number of compounds formed with each of the words for the seasons and the kinds of things they refer to. How do the results relate to what you have learned about time in Anglo-Saxon England?

3. Discuss the role of the church in the shaping of Anglo-Saxon conceptions of time.