Time to Talk Time

Do you ever wonder about the nature of time?

Who has time for questions like that!

Authors of course. Sometimes we describe events in their correct order, but not always. Events in Mirrored Sword are seen from the viewpoints of different characters: sometimes they relive the past by remembering it, but sometimes they experience things we have already seen from another character’s perspective, as if in some kind of time warp.

You’re talking Einstein.

I’m talking Hands. Einstein didn’t invent the thought experiment – authors did. So let’s imagine that time is like a speed limit on the highway. Most drivers hover around the limit, a little over, a little under, and sometimes the exhaust pipe blows smoke, when everything seems to happen in slow motion. But if you are a good citizen behind the wheel of a flash new model on a country highway, and you have cruise control, you are never going to get pulled over by a traffic cop. Today’s atomic clock loses only one second every 100 million years or so – how is that for cruise control! Mirrored Sword however is set in the Middle Ages, when the only motors were rickety contraptions driven by wind, water and gravity. If an author is going to play games with time, when better than those days!

You mean people didn’t have reliable clocks then.

That depends. The great granddaddy of all clocks of course is the solar system, its periods governed by gravity, Earth rocking on its axis as it rolls around the Sun: good enough to allow ancient man to predict things like the Spring equinox. The mechanical clock is like a miniature version of this. It came about in the 11th Century after some genius, or maybe his wife, discovered a neat way of turning gravity’s constant force into a periodic movement. This involved the use of weights of course, but the beating heart of the mechanical clock’s whirligigs and things that go tick-tock is the foliot (a swinging arm), which you can see in action below. In its early form, the clock lost maybe 15 minutes a day, if it was a good one, but before you start looking down your nose at medieval chronology, remember: there are 1440 minutes in a day, which makes that early clock 99.6% accurate. You’d settle for that in a spelling test, right?

if I could lose fifteen minutes a day, it’d be out of my homework.

The medievall clock was pretty good at observing a speed limit (24 hourly periods of fixed and equal length every day) and it quickly found a loyal following among kings and merchants: it was a good way of doing business, even if it couldn’t  stop guys like you dodging your homework. Every self-respecting town could boast at least one clock tower by the 13th Century. Nevertheless, habits die hard, and monks kept ringing the church bells for festivals and special events, as well as to mark 8 periods or canonical hours per day, whose length varied according to the seasons and the inclinations of the bell ringers. Church bells and town clocks – that’s like a horse and cart sharing the road with an old Ford Model T: every day was bedlam! Only the liveliest characters could get themselves noticed in that environment, and there is no lack of those in Mirrored Sword.

Two time systems? A bit like Rap versus Country and Western.

Hold your horses! I haven’t even mentioned the calendar yet. The Middle Ages took its dates from the Julian calendar: Julian because Julius Caesar oversaw its introduction. That’s the same guy that Brutus stabbed on the Ides of March, remember. That calendar comprised 12 months, same as the modern calendar, but whereas the modern calendar counts up the days of the month, the Julian calendar counted down to a midmonth interval (recorded in Ides) and thereafter counted down again to the next month (recorded in Kalends). Countdowns before the age of rockets! As things turned out, it was slightly inaccurate, losing one day every 128 years, which is about 99.2% accurate. That’s even worse than the aforementioned clock.

Still not bad for a spelling test.

The more accurate modern calendar is named Gregorian, after Pope Gregory, because he oversaw its introduction in Italy, in 1582. This new one hardly misses a beat, but not everyone liked it at first. Introducing it meant jumping forward 10 days to make up for the time lost under the Julian calendar, and it wasn’t introduced everywhere on the same day, year or even century. England didn’t make the change-over until 1752, by which time an 11th day had to be dropped. This had some strange consequences. A letter written in Paris, dated 22 April 1660 (Gregorian time), was once answered in London a week earlier, dated 15 April 1660 (Julian time), after several days already spent in transit! Julius Caesar must have been turning in his grave, trying to make up for lost time.

Now that’s what I call a time warp! But what’s a mess-up with calendars got to do with the story you keep peddling?

Mirrored Sword is an account of events happening during 31 days in February/March 1470, and it is divided into sections headed by calendar dates. These were dates in the Julian calendar, but the story counts up days like a modern calendar, just to keep things simple. That’s how historians do it too but it can have some strange consequences. For example, Spring begins about 10 March, rather than today’s 20 March.

So I get holidays earlier than usual!

~ Allan Hands

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