Time, the Greatest Innovator: Timekeeping and Time Consciousness in Early Modern Europe

Time, the Greatest Innovator: Timekeeping and Time Consciousness in Early Modern Europe

Time, the Greatest Innovator: Timekeeping and Time Consciousness in Early Modern Europe

Time, the Greatest Innovator: Timekeeping and Time Consciousness in Early Modern Europe

Excerpt

Over some 400 years, from about 1300 to 1700, during that period which encompasses the Renaissance and the beginnings of our modern world, Western man's perception of time and his ability to measure time underwent dramatic changes. Tied to the land, medieval men and women had perceived time as an abundant, cyclical flow marked off by the rising and setting sun, the changing phases of the moon, and the passage of the seasons. By the 14th century, however, with the gradual shift from a feudal, agricultural society to the more urban society of the Renaissance with its interest in trade and commerce, time was becoming a precious commodity to be measured, counted, and used.

. . . To see the minutes how they run:
How many makes the hour full complete,
How many hours bring about the day, . . .

It was the counting of those minutes and hours pondered by Shakespeare's Henry VI, the dividing of the day into measurable segments which must be accounted for, which became one of the shaping influences in the development of the modern world. The mechanical clock, invented sometime near the end of the 13th century and rapidly assimilated into religious, civic, and domestic life, brought about a new time consciousness, an obsession with time, that was unique to the Renaissance. Time was no longer abundant. The public clock sounding the passing hours was a constant reminder that time, like money, had to be counted and expended carefully.

Taking as its theme Francis Bacon's view that "Time is the greatest innovator," this exhibition traces innovations in timekeeping and thinking about time which had an extraordinary impact on the developing modern world. Our calendar, which permits us to visualize extended periods of time, underwent a major reform in the 16th century. Time-finding and time-measuring instruments which preceded the mechanical clock continued to be refined and widely used until the end of the 17th century. Older systems of unequal and equal hours gradually gave way to the system of equal "small clock" hours we use today. And, the clock itself evolved slowly from a large public clock sounding the hours to a precision time- piece readily available for personal, commercial, and scientific use.

These horological developments, particularly the development of the mechanical clock, greatly affected the Renaissance view of time. Time, a precious commodity to an emerging capitalistic society, also became something to be feared. The hours now visibly and audibly marching by emphasized man's mortality, spurring him to do something with his allotted time and evoking his anger, his despair, and finally his acceptance of all "Time the innovator" had to offer.

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