British Museum blog

Perceptions of time

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode A Time of Change, a Change of Time explores the shifts in how time was measured and perceived.


Paul Glennie, University of Bristol

Most places had particularly elaborate ringing of the day bell, a period of continuous ringing for two or three minutes or more. It was an unmistakable marker of the day and it had important cueing information. It was a priming trigger, as it were.

There wasn’t a standard hour at which everything started but work very often started at a set time for a particular task or a particular workshop – and the presence of several people may have been necessary because work needed to be coordinated. If one imagines a Blacksmith’s, one needed to have a number of people working at the same time and in phase with one another so they all needed to be present once the forge was up and running, but those who were responsible for maintaining the fire need to be present earlier to get things started and so forth.

In Shakespeare’s time there would be plenty of sectors of the London economy in which workers were rather familiar with the idea of being driven hard to make sure that they worked a full day. But there was plenty of complaining about the volume and intensity of work and about hard task-masters long before time discipline comes in.

Although it might be very easy to blame the clock and the strong sense of urgency it brings, anyone who supposes that life in the pre-industrial countryside was an idyllic kind of existence doesn’t have a sense of how urgent it was to get the harvest in before it rained, for example.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme A Time of Change, a Change of Time

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

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Stela commissioned by Nectanebo I (r. 378–362 BC), Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, 380 BC. On loan from National Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. For centuries nobody suspected that Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay beneath the sea. Recorded in ancient writings and Greek mythology, the cities were believed to be lost. After sightings from a plane, a diving survey was organised in 1933 to explore submerged ruins. But it was only from 1996, with the use of innovative techniques and a huge survey covering 42 square miles of the seabed, that underwater archaeologists rediscovered the lost cities. 
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