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How was the current month and day disseminated to the townspeople of the Medieval Europe?

I'm quite sure that personal calendars weren't a thing back then... but I could be wrong...

If they had a shared calendar... where was it stored and how did the information of the date get to the people from that location?

I think it wasn't newsprint... as Oldest Newspapers has the oldest European Newspaper start in 1605...

It might be Avvisi, the precursor of European newspapers... but those only existed from 1500s onwards... and mainly for Italy...

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    Was it necessary to disseminate this information on a daily basis? Or would just announcements of festivals and religious days/holidays be good enough? See this. – Rajib Apr 11 '15 at 14:45
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    They would know from the church's feast days for saints, at the least. – Semaphore Apr 11 '15 at 15:00
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    It is funny how modern couch potatoes think people in 1300 were somehow dumber than they are; like they are some kind of cavemen or something. – Tyler Durden Apr 11 '15 at 20:02
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    @TylerDurden: Dumb and illiterate are two different things. – Ben Crowell Apr 11 '15 at 22:04
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    @jwenting: Not knowing the calendar date is different from not knowing what time of year it is. My comment stated that "peasants were illiterate and innumerate," and I think this is entirely accurate in the medieval context. The literate class was the priesthood. – Ben Crowell Apr 12 '15 at 4:08
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For the most part, church and celestial events.

In particular, midsummer and midwinter and the equinoxes were both easy to detect and were important events, at least in the colder climates of Europe. One problem with this approach was that the Julian calendar, which was used pretty much everywhere during the middle ages, by the 1500s had gotten seriously out of sync with the seasons (by about 15 days).

Church was a natural mechanism for announcing Sundays (or Fridays or Sabbath, depending), and for disseminating news about upcoming holidays.

Also don't underestimate the power of networking. If one village lost track of which day of the week it was (say, due to being preoccupied with a natural disaster), they would re-synchronize easily with nearby villages. Or, if they could not connect to anybody else, then the exact day and month may not have mattered much in the first place.

Incidentally, not all parts of the medieval world necessarily agreed on the month and day in the first place, although that happened mostly after the church replaced the Julian calendar with the Gregorian one. Rome changed in the 1500s, but the rest of Europe changed at various times over the next 400 or so years. Russia didn't change until 1917, and the Orthodox church still hasn't changed (which is why Russian Christmas is on a different day).

  • "Church was a natural mechanism for announcing Sundays". Could you provide the mechanism for this announcement? And some references please? – Rajib Apr 12 '15 at 5:23
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    The mechanism would have been the schedule of Sunday service. Pretty much everybody was required to adhere to that schedule, and it was announced with church bells etc. Sorry, no references, just general common sense. – Kevin Keane Apr 12 '15 at 19:02
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    @Rajib Here's a pretty good illustration of the mechanism in question: hostyn.cz/ima/jubileum/P1170667.JPG – Mike L. Apr 13 '15 at 13:55
  • Right. There was a similar mechanism for the Jews and Saturday and the Muslims and Friday. The Jews still keep their lunar-solar calendar (I believe it's the official calendar for the State of Israel) and the Muslims still keep their lunar calendar. – Paul Rowe Apr 14 '15 at 15:03
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This question is very vague, but I assume you are asking about the Middle Ages in Western Europe, though there is no reason why it should not be about Byzantium, Islam, India, China or any other mediaeval civilisation. But let us stick to Western Europe.

In Western Christendom (and also in Byzantium) the universal system of time-keeping was the Julian calendar. You have asked specifically about “townspeople”. Unlike other respondents to this question, I am not convinced that the majority of the population in mediaeval European towns were illiterate. But literate or not, there is no reason to doubt that they knew what the date was according to the Julian calendar. Merchants (for example) needed to know this. But also in the countryside people needed to know the date so as to plant their crops at the correct time of year. Calendars are very much part of popular culture in all civilisations. And this has nothing to do with newspapers.

  • Good looking data on literacy rates here: ourworldindata.org/data/education-knowledge/literacy – memphisslim Apr 12 '15 at 19:54
  • You will note literacy did not climb above 50% and then only in Great Britain and the Low Countries until the mid 17th century. – memphisslim Apr 12 '15 at 19:55
  • I was, of course, talking about "towns". But my point is that literacy has nothing to do with awareness of what date it is. – fdb Apr 12 '15 at 20:03
  • Yes, we moderns all see calendars in our heads, with their rows of numbers, but our less lettered ancestors would likely have had more kinesthetic perceptions of a date, especially a festival or holy day, featuring religious rituals and on some occasions, special food, music and entertainments. – memphisslim Apr 12 '15 at 20:16
3

It is certainly easy to keep track of the days of the week.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

And if someone forgot the weekday, he would be reminded when the church bells rang on the next Sunday.

Country people were often serfs who had obligations to work for their lord so many days a week or so many days a month. So naturally they tended to keep track of time so the lord's agents didn't trick them into working for him twice a month.

And there ere feast days. Every day of the year has one or more saint's feast days. And the more important feast days were celebrated with masses and rituals. For example, Candlemas is on February 2.

Many or most towns in medieval western Europe were the seats of bishops of dioceses. So many or most towns in medieval western Europe had Bishop's cathedrals, cathedral schools, bishop's palaces, etc., etc. And there were often one or more monasteries in or near a town.

One task of a medieval bishop was to make sure that church holidays were celebrated at the right time, especially movable feasts like Easter. Elaborate calculations were needed to determine which day Easter should be celebrated each year.

So most bishop's headquarters would have people who kept track of the date.

Many medieval craftsmen and their subordinates would make a lot of identical products and put them up for sale. But some would make a lot of custom products to the order of their customers. Thus they would often need to keep track of getting their orders finished before any deadlines and/or whether they were paid at the agreed date.

Moneylenders and bankers, and the people they made loans to, had to keep track of the date to be sure they paid and/or were paid on time.

Many properties in a town, or rooms in the buildings, would be rented, and the renters and landlords had to keep track of when the rent was due.

So a lot of townspeople had to keep track of the date, and no doubt they found ways to do so.

So perhaps some churches or town halls or moneylender's offices had exterior bulletin boards with the date posted every day for those who could read.

in the later middle ages mechanical clocks were installed in many town hall towers. They often did not have just dials but elaborate mechanical displays. So perhaps they sometimes displayed the date.

2

The date (under the liturgical year) would be announced at each mass in Catholic areas throughout the medieval era in Europe. So everyone would have a good general idea of dates. There is a nice picture of a liturgical calendar (used by priests in the 1200s) here. The Catholic Encyclopedia has a long article on the history of the Christian calendar.

To give an idea about how well the calendar was 'nailed down' even quite early, here is the list of dates (and events) from an English liturgical calendar from the 700s (around AD 702). These dates would all have been announced to the townsfolk.

JANUARY

1 Circumcision 
3 St. Genevieve of Paris 
6 Epiphany 
13 St. Hilary 
14 St. Felix of Nola 
17 St. Anthony, Hermit 
18 St. Peter's Chair at Rome and the Assumption of Holy Mary 
20 St. Sebastian
21 St. Agnes (Virgin) 
24 St. Babilas, Bishop and Martyr 
25 Conversion of St. Paul at Damascus 
29 St. Valerius, Bishop, and St. Lucy (Virgin) at Treves

FEBRUARY

1 St. Denis, St. Polycarp and St. Brigid (Virgin) 
2 St. Symeon, Patriarch 
5 St. Agatha 
6 St. Amandus 
16 St. Juliana 
22 The Chair of Peter at Antioch

MARCH

1 Donatus 
7 Perpetua and Felicitas 
12 St. Gregory at Rome 
17 St. Patrick, Bishop in Ireland 
20 St. Cuthbert, Bishop 
21 St. Benedict, Abbot 
25 The Lord was crucified and St. James the brother of Our Lord 
27 The Resurrection of Our Lord

APRIL

4 St. Ambrose 
22 Philip, Apostle

MAY

1 St. Philip, Apostle 
5 The Ascension of the Lord 
7 The Invention of the Holy Cross 
11 Pancratius, Martyr 
14 Earliest date for Pentecost 
31 St. Maximinius at Treves

JUNE

2 Erasmus, Martyr 
8 Barnabas, Apostle 
9 St. Columkill 
22 James the son of Alpheus 
24 Nativity of John the Baptist 
29 Sts. Peter and Paul at Rome

JULY

15 St. James of Nisibis 
26 St. James, Apostle, Brother of John 
26 St. Symeon, Monk in Syria 
29 St. Lupus

AUGUST

1 The Machabees, seven brothers with their mother 
5 St. Oswald, King 
6 St. Syxtus, Bishop 
10 St. Laurence, Deacon 
13 Hippolitus, Martyr 
16 (Sic) [erasure] St. Mary 
25 St. Bartholomew, Apostle 
28 Augustine and Faustinus, Bishops 
29 Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist 
31 St. Paulinus, Bishop at Trier

SEPTEMBER

7 Sergius, Pope at Rome 
9 (Sic) Nativity of St. Mary at Jerusalem 
13 Cornelius and Cyprian 
15 St. Euphemia, Martyr 
19 Januarius. Martyr 
21 Matthew, Apostle 
22 Passion of St. Maurice 
24 Conception of St. John the Baptist 
27 Cosmas and Damian at Jerusalem 
29 St. Michael, Archangel

OCTOBER

1 Remedius and Germanus 
4 Sts. Heuwald and Hewald, Martyrs 
14 Paulinus, Bishop in Canterbury 
18 Luke, Evangelist 
28 Simon and Jude, Apostles 
31 St. Quintinus, Martyr

NOVEMBER

10 St. Leo, Pope 
11 St. Martin, Bishop at Tours 
22 St. Cecilia 
23 Clement at Rome 
24 Crisogonus 
30 St. Andrew, Apostle
DECEMBER

10 St. Eulalia and seventy-five others 
20 St. Ignatius, Bishop and Martyr 
21 St. Thomas, Apostle in India 
25 Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ 
26 St. Stephen, Martyr 
27 John, Apostle, and James, his brother 
28 The Innocents 
31 St. Silvester, Bishop
1

The villagers lived with a set of rights and obligations to their feudal overlords and the church. A dozen geese on Martini, three days of labor maintaining roads in the spring, regular church services, ...

They'd have to track that, even if they didn't use the names of months and numbered days in the month.

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    I don't see how this answers the question. – Rajib Apr 12 '15 at 5:21
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    They would be generally aware of the day of the week and upcoming religious festivals, since those marked the time when obligations came due. If one villager wasn't sure if it was Friday or Saturday, he could ask the others. Would there be a need to "disseminate" the information unless some improbable event made everybody forget? – o.m. Apr 12 '15 at 11:26
  • The question was actually about "townspeople", not "villagers". – fdb Apr 12 '15 at 16:27
1

Books of Hours were a popular form of devotion during the Middle Ages. While not exactly a personal planner most did contain a calendar presented in a graphic format. The calendar pages contained labor of the month and illustrations of people enjoying seasonal activities (see people skating on a frozen river in this image.) Many calendar pages also included astrological images which would tie the date to real world stars (sorta).

Calendar pages for January, Hours of Joanna of Castile, Bruges, between 1496 and 1506, Additional 18852, ff. 1v-2 enter image description here

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