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The Regular Sound of the Cock: Context-Dependent Time Reckoning in the Middle Ages 1

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Abstract Despite frequent references to cockcrow in medieval literature, the uses and limits of cockcrow as a means of reckoning time in this period have not been thoroughly explored. Through an approach that combines chronobiology, the archaeology of faunal remains, and a discussion of medieval texts, this article argues that cockcrow was a useful and widespread context-dependent indicator of time. Its limits were that it was only relevant before dawn, but in a society that organized itself around seasonally variable canonical hours, the variation of cockcrow with the relative lengths of daylight and night was useful. The article concludes with a discussion of how the biases toward homogeneity and context-independence in modern time-reckoning are an obstacle for understanding pre-clock context-dependent time-telling techniques, and that moreover, modern time-telling opts for humanly constructed arbitrary signs over locally embedded indicators of time tied to biological or environmental cycles.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Anthropology Queens College, City University of New York 65-30 Kissena Boulevard Flushing, NY 11367, Email:, URL:; 2: Department of Anthropology Queens College, City University of New York 65-30 Kissena Boulevard Flushing, NY 11367


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