Call for Papers: The Organisation and Measurement of Time in the European Countryside, from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century

RHN 13/2016 | Call

Organisers: University of Lausanne (Arts Faculty, History Department), the Canton of Valais (Department of Culture, State Archives of Valais and Médiathèque Valais) and the Swiss Rural History Society

20-21 October 2016, University of Lausanne and Les Arsenaux, Sion, Switzerland

Deadline for submissions: 30 April 2016

International Colloquium
The Organisation and Measurement of Time in the European Countryside,
from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century

General outline of the issue
In the European historiographic tradition, the economic and social history of time is very strongly connected with the city environment, elites, pre-industry and business. Furthermore, most researchers tend to prioritise the things which signalled and prepared the way for modern methods of understanding, living and measuring time, from the Middle Ages onwards.

Legitimate as they may be, those choices have had a rather unfortunate consequence: other environments with their own ways of organizing and measuring time have been very much neglected by historians. This applies in particular to peasants and the rural environment which are just as fundamental for European civilisation.

This colloquium seeks to rectify this situation by demonstrating, based on examples, that rural areas were able to compete with towns in terms of their work organisation and their subtle interplay of the moment, place and individual.

Three topics

I: The management of time in the European countryside

Rural time has a significant impact on all kinds of activities taking place within a complex system and carried out over different timescales, often simultaneously and in the same space, involving the past and the future and being subject to some significant constraints at the human and the environmental level. How are the lives of humans, their animals and their plants organised and coordinated? How can time be manipulated to reduce the tension between conflicting activities and to benefit from any potential synergies? A great deal needs to be done in terms of reinterpreting the rural activities of the past.

  • Assessing the significance of a given activity for both the individual and the collective time budget; identifying obstacles and possibly supportive factors; defining the challenges and the level of priority allocated to them; documenting links to economic, social and environmental structures.
  • Identifying possibilities to save time and thus to reduce efforts, which may be indicative of a desire to rationalise activities. There are numerous strategies, such as limiting ways to go, redistributing tasks, undertaking tasks together and improving techniques and tools.
  • Examining any tensions between the different time requirements of a stockbreeder and a farmer, a lord and a peasant, a country-dweller and a city-dweller, as well as between economic life and religious obligations.
  • More generally, evaluating within a long period of time and a variety of geo- historical contexts, the impact on ‘time requirements’ given the increasing complexity of agro-pastoral practices and the development of the social framework.

II: Time according to the mountain-dwellers

In the mountains, the vertical extension of different climates, combined with different levels of sun exposure and soil types, creates a wide range of micro-environments within a limited area, each of which favours a different kind of use. However, in order to benefit from these advantages by possessing well-situated fields, meadows, gardens and vineyards, each household has to accept the significant constraints imposed by a region fragmented into plots of land distributed over a vast area, from the lowlands (vineyards) to the mountain pastures in the mountain uplands as well as the intermediate levels where cereals and grass are grown.

In addition to knowing the specific potential of each part of the land, a detailed knowledge of the timescale of plants and animals is required. The fragmentation of family holdings involves constant and very time-consuming movements which affect either a member of the household or the family as a whole. These movements cannot take place without a distribution of tasks either within the household or on a wider scale, including relatives, friends and neighbours.

In terms of their fundamental choices, the economic practices of the mountain-dwellers do not differ much from those of the people living on the plains. As a result, the time requirements are also quite similar in the two types of environment. However, given that the mountain region is more complex, the management of time, its ingenuity and its constraints are generally more deeply expressed here than elsewhere.

Finally, there is one more reason to choose the mountains. The main mountain chains in Europe (Alps and Pyrenees) have been the focus of extensive multidisciplinary research considering a very long period of time. This provides researchers with a solid grounding to reflect on time requirements and their long-term development.

III: The spread of clocks through the European countryside

Compared to the common historiography of time, the presence of clocks in the countryside of Europe in ancient times can be seen as something of an anomaly. Why this device made to divide up time and announce the hour, in a world which appears to be a paradise of indistinct temporality ? Why this tool made to divide time into hours of equal length throughout the year, in a world where the pace is set by the irregular course of the sun throughout the seasons ? And finally, use this symbol of the city, of the emerging state and of evolving modernity, in a world which is deemed to be conservative and immutable ?

Rather than ignoring this anomaly, we should take advantage of the fascinating enigma created by these questions, in order to change our manner of contemplating the social, cultural and economic history of rural areas, the history of techniques and of innovation spread, and finally the history of the clock itself.

We propose doing this on two levels:

  • Outlining a chronology and geography of the presence of clocks in rural Europe. Simultaneously, making an inventory of technical means of measuring time prior to the clock, means which coexisted with the clock for a long time. Trying to interpret these observations by identifying the factors explaining a given geographical distribution or chronology, as, for example, links (or lack of links) to the towns, to commercial routes, to proto-industrial activities... Paying special attention to everything that could tell us something about the countryside, its inhabitants and its culture.
  • Highlighting concrete rural clock stories which will tell us a great deal about the instigators of these devices, their institutional framework and their financing, about the clocks themselves, their day-to-day lives and history, their maintenance, about those who used them, but also those who doubted them and did not want them around.

Practical guidelines
This colloquium is organised by the University of Lausanne (Arts Faculty, History Department), the Canton of Valais (Department of Culture, State Archives of Valais and Médiathèque Valais) and the Swiss Rural History Society.
It will take place in Lausanne (University) on October 20, 2016, and in Sion (Les Arsenaux) on October 21, 2016.

Those who would like to attend and give a paper are invited to submit their proposal (title and summary) before April 30, 2016 to one of the following addresses: or
In the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact us – we look forward to answering your questions!