In Europe in the high Middle Ages, monasteries and religious orders were early adopters of the continuously evolving technology of timepieces and clocks, used to organize their devotional and productive activities such as agriculture and wine-making.
Of course, it was way too early for Bulova or Timex to come to the rescue. Even when the technology started to bloom in the middle of the 13th century, improvements were found only at a snail’s pace.
The clepsydra (water clock) had been in use for millennia, and sundials were familiar in Greece and Rome before the Christian era.
The first mechanical clocks were constructed in the mid-1200s. Spring-driven clocks showed up in the beginning of the 15th century. About 75 years later the first portable, personal timepiece was sold in Europe. The first pendulum clock was built in 1656. The booming tradecraft grew slowly and steadily.
The monks were serious about wanting better timekeepers. Some 12th century monks had bad dreams about sleeping through the bell ringing that summoned them to first prayers of the day, and their abbots earnestly worried about getting the bells rung at the prescribed proper times throughout the day.
David Landes, in his book Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, adds this footnote to clock history:
“…time-consciousness and discipline had become internalized. Missing matins was a serious matter, so serious that it has been immortalized for us by perhaps the best known of children’s songs”:
Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines,
Ding, ding, dong; ding, ding, dong.
Let’s clear up a few things about “Frère Jacques.”
The endings “ing” and “ang” are not standard French usage, I prefer the common alternative “din, din, don” to “ding, ding, dong.”
Another thing is that the common English translation “Are you sleeping, Brother John?” is not right. “Jacques” is more properly translated as “Jacob” if we pay attention to its Latin roots.
Another thing is the third line of the song: it’s usually translated as “Morning bells are ringing.” Wrong again. The literal translation is “Ring the matins bells.” The song is an exhortation to Brother (or Friar) Jacob to get up and ring the bells to get the morning prayers started on time.
Reliance on the rooster was very old school by the time the song was introduced.
David Landes Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), 66.
Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015