Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shaping the Day : A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales 1300-1800 by Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift

Mechanical clocks have ruined our lives. In medieval Europe the first mechanical clocks appeared around 1270; they were not widely available until the 17th century, when an explosion in clock and watch ownership - the so-called horological revolution - changed for ever our perception of time. The remorseless ticking of those treasured timepieces transformed the way we worked, ushering in a new era of rigorous time-discipline and synchronised, soulless routine, almost totally obliterating the seasonal rhythms of a more humane, pre-industrial age. From that moment on we laboured under the tyranny of clock time.

The argument that clock time was the harbinger of industrialisation - enabling the creation of factory production lines and destroying the culture of working life in 18th-century England - was convincingly set out by the historian EP Thompson in his influential paper "Time, Work-discipline and Industrial Capitalism" (1968). But as Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift explain in this scrupulously researched study, Thompson was wrong.

Glennie and Thrift refuse to blame mechanical clocks for all the ills of the industrial age. The horological revolution was significant, they admit, but a working knowledge of clock time was a routine part of daily life for ordinary people long before industrialisation. Thompson, they say, seriously underestimates "the publicness of clock time" in late-medieval England, where public clocks loudly emitted their distinctive "time signals" or "soundmarks" throughout the day, telling people to go to work or school or market or church or to attend a public meeting. And at night the curfew bell (9pm in winter, 10pm in summer) told everyone to drink up and go home.

The earliest clocks were alarm clocks, designed to wake monks for nocturnal prayer. Medieval monks used water or mercury clocks at first, but many monasteries had mechanical clocks as early as the 13th century. The counting of hours in a monastery began at dawn, but although this time-discipline was all about God rather than money, it was as standardised and coordinated as in any factory.

Rural communities - so easily idealised - were just as disciplined. There were set times for harvesting, grazing, gleaning and moving livestock, as well as ancient bylaws and regulations using natural markers such as sunrise, noon, sunset and various subtle distinctions of daylight. There was also a well-established working week: 6am to 6pm, Tuesday to Saturday (Sunday and Monday were the weekend). Another Thompsonian myth busted by Glennie and Thrift is that clock time was a masculine preserve and women had little grasp of it. Women were just as clued up about time as men, generally getting up earlier and going to bed later.

This impressive volume is a massive undertaking - 12 years in the making - examining the entire "temporal infrastructure" of a broad historical period. Glennie and Thrift have delved into the archives, studying timekeeping in diaries, court and inquest records, ocean navigation and a host of other sources to gain a fuller understanding of what time meant to the pre-industrialised masses. Thompson deserves respect as a pioneer in his day, but the wealth of information uncovered by Glennie and Thrift makes his paper look narrow and presumptuous.

The underlying moral of this book would seem to be: don't patronise the past. We should never underestimate our forebears. As well as taking Thompson to task, the authors devote a whole chapter to showing how Dava Sobel, in Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, exaggerated the intellectual isolation of the clockmaker John Harrison, who played such a key role in chronometry. Harrison's Lincolnshire was not an almost clock-free environment, as Sobel suggests, and Harrison was in touch with a vast network of horological debate and discovery. The idea of the untrained outsider served Sobel's uses well, argue Glennie and Thrift, but at the risk of ruining a good story it is far from historically accurate.

No comments: