Quarantine in Ghent and Time in History

Guided Tours in Gent — Quarantine and Time

First, some time-related news:

1. Last night, the Belgian government extended the quarantine measures adopted on March 18th, until April 19th.

2. Tonight at midnight all clocks in Belgium go forward 1 hour, moving the country to the Daylight Saving Time.

The concepts of quarantine and time are in fact quite closely related. Indeed, even the word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Italian ‘quaranta giorni’ – ‘forty days’: ships arriving in Venice during plague epidemics were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. And although the coronavirus is no match for the plague, our present quarantine will last longer.

Many people notice that self-isolation makes them lose the sense of time and forget about dates and days of the week. We are so much accustomed to timing and schedules that it’s hard to even imagine that people once had to cope without a watch and a calendar. Before mechanical watches appeared in Europe in the 14th century, Europeans had to rely on devices like sundials. Not very practical as you can imagine, especially in Flanders where rains often last for weeks.

In the 14th century, mechanical clocks finally appeared on the city towers of Western European cities, but … those clocks did not have a minute hand! Can you imagine how differently the time was perceived by the Europeans back then?

And then, I’ve always wondered how medieval Europeans could manage without a clock in the kitchen. How could Flemish cooks measure for how long to let their rabbits simmer in the beer sauce? The answer is simple: ancient recipes provide you with creative guidelines, like ‘stew until you recite the Lord’s prayer 30 times, or ‘until two candles are burned down’. Incredibly convenient, isn’t it?

The medieval notion of the calendar was quite peculiar as well. Emile Mal writes the following in his book Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century: ‘Thus the year began sometimes in March or April (the Annunciation or the Passion), sometimes on December 25 or January 1 (the Nativity or the Circumcision). In neighbouring towns such as Reims and Soissons the year began on the feast of the Annunciation (March 25) and on Christmas Day respectively’. And we are worried that time in Latvia and Finland may differ by an hour if one country decides to stay in winter time while the other chooses summer time!

And what about the clock in the picture? It’s the clock at Saint Peter’s Train Station in Ghent. The Latin inscription on the ribbon under the dial Tarda fluit pigris, velox operantibus hora means ‘Time stretches slowly for the lazy, it flows fast for the industrious’. The station was built for the World Exhibition in Ghent in 1913, and clocks were mandatory back then: industrialization with its precise schedules had everyone in its grip. It’s ironic that it took us an epidemic to escape from this firm grip for the first time.