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Business Cycles and the Sense of Time in Medieval Genoa

  • Steven A. Epstein (a1)


A great deal has been written about the perception of time before the invention of mechanical timepieces, but the nature of the evidence has led much of this literature to take on an impressionistic, even metaphysical, cast. In the following article, Professor Epstein uses specific data gleaned from the cartularies of thirteenth–century Genoese notaries to investigate more concretely the uses of time and the structure of the business day in Genoa. He concludes that, in this early center of Western commercial activity at least, an impulse toward greater precision in marking the time of day preceded the arrival of the clock.



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1 Ong, Walter, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London, 1982), 9091.

2 Le Goff, Jacques, “Au Moyen Age, temps de l'église et temps du marchand,” Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations 15 (1960): 4352, and Le temps du travail du le ‘crise’ du XIVe siècle: du temps medieval au temps modern,” Le Moyen Age 69 (1963): 2942; both are reprinted in his Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (Chicago, 1980). See also Cipolla, Carlo, Clocks and Culture, 1300–1700 (New York, 1967).

3 Among many works, see Thompson, E. P., “Time, Work–Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present 38 (Dec. 1967): 5697, and Landes, David S., Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge, Mass., 1983).

4 Landes, Revolution in Time, 58–66, argues persuasively that an interest in time preceded the invention of the clock.

5 Archivio di Stato di Genova (hereafter ASG), Sezione Manoscritti, Manoscritto N. 102, Diversorum Notariorum, 174r. The notarial cartulary was a large folio notebook of paper quires into which the notary wrote the business and legal records of Genoese society. At some time in the late twelfth century it became customary for notaries to deposit these cartularies in an archive; hence, some of them have survived the ravages of war and time. This particular cartulary is called a manuscript because it was rebound in order to preserve it.

6 Thorndike, Lynn, “Invention of the Mechanical Clock about 1271 A.D.,” Speculum 16, no. 2 (April 1941): 242–43, and Landes, Revolution in Time, 53–66. An ancient device, the water clock, used the flow of water to measure time by volume, or occasionally the weight of the fluid to power some primitive movement. For a succinct history of this timepiece, see Boorstin, Daniel J., The Discoverers (New York, 1983), 3033. The water clock had a lamentable tendency to freeze in winter. Alfonso X of Castille had such a clock that used mercury instead, a rare innovation entailing both health hazards and expense. See White, Lynn Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford, England, 1962), 119–22. I have found no reference to water clocks in Genoa, and so the “clock” referred to here is a purely mechanical clock driven by something other than fluids.

7 Herodotus, , The Histories, trans. de Selincourt, Aubrey (Harmondsworth, England, 1982), Book 2: 169.

8 Rule of St. Benedict, in Migne, J.–P., Patrologia Latina (Paris, 1866), vol. 66, chap. 16 of the Rule, 455: Prayer seven times a day as in Psalms 98.

9 Bilfinger, Gustav, Die Mittelalterlichen Horen und die Modernen Stunden (Stuttgart, 1892), 816. Wolff, Philippe, in his “Le temps et sa mesure au moyen age,” Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations 17 (1962): 1141–45, helped to revive interest in Bilfinger's work and called for more study on hours.

10 Bilfinger, Mittelalterlichen Horen, 79–83.

11 Ibid., 84–89.

12 Bloch, Marc, Feudal Society, trans. Manyon, L. (Chicago, Ill., 1961), 74.

13 See the annals of Giorgio Stella in Stella, , Annales Genuenses, ed. Balbi, Giovanna Petti (Bologna, 1975), vol. 17, pt. 2, 153. Benjamin Kedar states that the clock did not arrive until 1354; see his Merchants in Crisis (New Haven, Conn., 1976), 169.

14 Pistarino, Geo, Notai genovesi in Oltremare: Atti rogati a Tunisi da Pietro Battifoglio (Genoa, 1986). For more on sundials, see Spackman, Henry Spencer, The Timepiece of Shadows: A History of the Sun Dial (New York, 1895), 39. On medieval English sundials, see Mrs. Gatty, Alfred, The Book of Sun–Dials (London, 1900), 4981. Sundials were fixed on many church towers, but in many cases changing architectural styles or replacement by clocks have effaced all signs of them.

15 Meyerhoff, Hans, Time in Literature (Berkeley, Calif, 1955), 2930.

16 Ibid., 20–23. This distinction between internal and external time is more useful than Le Goff's church and merchant time.

17 Ong, Orality and Literacy, 96–98.

18 For a fine study of this transition in England, see Clanchy, M. T., From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307 (Cambridge, Mass., 1979).

19 ASG, Cartolari Notarili, Cartolare N. 14, 327r, notary Maestro Salmone: “… matutino sancti andree usque sero secundum consuetudinem laneriorum.”

20 A.S.G., Notai Ignoti, Busta I, Anni 1180–1245, fascie XXXVIII. “die mercurio XXIII iulii in sero circa pulsationem ultime campane natus est filius ——— luna erat in aries gradu XXVII et sol erat in cancero gradu XXVII.” The notary left a blank for the name of his son; the last compline refers to the last church to ring its bells for that hour.

21 These 3,902 acts come from the following sources: Hall-Cole, Margaret W., Krueger, Hilmar C., Renert, Ruth G., and Reynolds, Robert L., Giovanni di Guiberto (Turin, 1939)—1,811 acts; Krueger, Hilmar C. and Reynolds, Robert L., Lanfranco (Genoa, 19511953)—907 acts; and ASG, Cartolari Notarili, Cartolare N. 4, Oberto Scriba de Mercato—1,184 acts.

22 On the significance of the commenda and societas contracts, see Lopez, Robert S., The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages (New York, 1976), 7579.

23 See Lopez, Robert S., “Aux origines du capitalisme genois,” Annales d'histoire économique et sociale 9 (1937): 429–54, for comments on the peculiar nature of economic growth in Genoa.

24 The computer program for calculating the days of the week must be for the Julian calendar.

25 For example, the statutes of the tailor's guild in Bologna state that the tailors should not work on Sunday. Gaudenzi, Augusto, Statuti delle società del popolo di Bologna, vol. 2: Società delle arti (Rome, 1896), 279–80.

26 Thompson, “Time, Work–Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” 75.

27 Hall–Cole, et al. , Giovanni di Guiberto, document number 412: 197–98.

28 Bilfinger, Mittelalterlichen Horen, 16, with some minor changes. Umberto Eco produces a similar table at the beginning of his novel, The Name of the Rose.

29 Cocito, Luciana, Anonimo Genovese: Poesie (Rome, 1970), 308. The poem is in Genoese, a far cry from Tuscan:

Lo dì no è da fir loao

se no de poi vespo passao

che la fin si è tuto–or

zuxe de ogni lavor.

30 Elisabeth Pavan has examined the night as a time of violence; see Recherches sur la nuit venitienne à la fin du moyen age,” Journal of Medieval History 7, no. 4 (1981): 339–56. A fear of crime, not unique to Venice, helps to explain the hesitancy about cash transactions at night.

31 See Cohn, Samuel K., The Laboring Classes in Renaissance Florence (New York, 1980), 117–23, for marriage patterns among the artisans of Florence.

32 Epstein, Steven, Wills and Wealth in Medieval Genoa, 1150–1250 (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 4950.

33 Murray, Alexander, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford, England, 1978), 105–7, discusses the important connection between time and ambition.

Business Cycles and the Sense of Time in Medieval Genoa

  • Steven A. Epstein (a1)


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