Time: The Bell and the Monastery

September 30, 2018

How the medieval monastery spurred the industrial age

"The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age," technology history philosopher Lewis Mumford wrote in 1933.

The keeping of hours and minutes would estabished the daily routine for mass production, synchronizing the actions of men to the machine. Everything would be divisible by time, and this time, in ever-smaller increments, would drive forward progress.

"The clock has been the foremost machine in modern technics: and at each period it has remained in the lead: it marks a perfection toward which other machines aspire," Mumford wrote.

This drive for time-keeping first arose in the monastery, around the 12th century, Mumford posits in “Technics & Civilization.”

Then, piety drove progress. A regular ringing of the bell reminded the monks to pray for the welfare of the souls in eternity. Would your faith be deemed unworthy if sufficient devotions weren’t provided? Perhaps the bells also reminded the monks when to do their chores, inviting the discipline of routine into the soul, a quantified aspiration towards perfection.

This was not a single monastery isolated in the wood. The Benedictine – oft cited as birthing capitalism—had 40,000 monasteries under their rule throughout Europe.

Perhaps the townsfolk heard the periodic bells, and used them to shape their own routines as well. "Time-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing," he wrote.

Technology-wise, someone in the monastery had to be in charge of the ringing the bell, each day, every day, day and night. And they had to know when to ring the bell. So they needed tools. They needed systems.

This was before the time of mechanical clocks. In fact, this was the desire that drove the invention of mechanical clocks. The existing technology was lacking: the sundial wouldn’t work when cloudy, the water clock would freeze in the winter.

The early 13th century offers records of the first clocks, and by the later part of the century saw mechanical clocks of a design that watchmakers would be familiar with five centuries later. This is also the century that saw the division of time into finer increments, when an hour was divided in 60 minutes and a minute divided into 60 seconds.

How Time Changed Thought

Not only did time bring order to a people's days (for better or worse) , it brought order to their thinking as well. Here where shit get deep.

The thoughts of Medieval folk were ruled by the typical fanciful beliefs about all the things around them. This came, by Mumford's reckoning, from the animation that people imbued upon all objects around them, perhaps a feeble effort to fend off Nature's (randomly distributed) wrath. These sets of personal mythologies, as they are, prevented them from observing things with any sort of accuracy whatsoever.

The forced effects of time's regular intervals forced upon the spongy medieval minds that of a system of magnitude ("time"), which could be coordinated with other, co-emerging systems-of-magnitude ("money"). These interlocking systems immediately impressed their benefits upon even the barely observant mind, and had come to dominate thought by the 17th century.

“In Renascence[sp] space, the existence of objects must be accounted for: their passage through time and space is a clue to their appearance at any particular moment in any particular place,” Mumford wrote, maybe throwing a bit of shade to the medieval you think?