Sign in or register
for additional privileges

Time, Space, and the Itinerary

Mapping the Siege of Jerusalem

Alyssa McLeod, Author

You appear to be using an older verion of Internet Explorer. For the best experience please upgrade your IE version or switch to a another web browser.

Time in Medieval Poetry

Infamously nicknamed the "chocolate-covered tarantula of the alliterative movement" by Ralph Hanna (109), the Siege of Jerusalem, composed between 1370 and 1390, details the Roman conquest of the city of Jerusalem, a siege historically linked to the first Roman-Jewish War of 66-73. [1] Yet the poem assigns fourteenth-century motives to the first-century Roman soldiers, portraying the Roman generals, Titus and Vespasian, as recent converts to Christianity who seek to avenge Christ's crucifixion against the city’s Jewish residents: "Y schal buske me boun hem bale forto wyrche," Titus swears to God, "To do the develes of dawe and Thy deth venge!" (187-8). [2] The poem's narrative moves freely between Rome and Jerusalem, 70 CE and 33 CE, collapsing historical accounts of the Roman siege with biblical accounts of the crucifixion. [3] In The Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade labels these phenomena of temporal and spatial simultaneity as instances of sacred time and sacred space, marks of a religious culture’s heterogeneous, relative understanding of spatiotemporality (20).

A destination for both pilgrims and crusaders, Jerusalem in the Middle Ages was a city of layered meanings. Even today, Martin Smith points out in Religion, Culture, and Space, Muslims, Christians, and Jews recognize very different cities in Jerusalem (9-10). The poem manifests the different temporalities of all who experience the city, from the biblical time of Christ's life and death on the streets of Jerusalem [4]; to the historical time of the Roman siege, well-documented by classical historians; to the individual, embodied time of the poem's readers, a group that includes ourselves. Yet these varying temporalities present a problem for current readers of the Siege of Jerusalem, who are accustomed to the minute-to-minute accuracy of the digital clock that divides our days into discrete temporal units. Medieval thinkers embraced the relativity of individual temporal experience.

In medieval thought, time was a "totalized system, bounded by eternity," as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen aptly summarizes (4). As the creator of time and space, God is not subject to their limitations; the created world may not be able to escape temporality, but there still exists a point outside of it. Time, then, is not an absolute, a precept reflected by the many different kinds of medieval dating systems, several of which appear in the text of Siege of Jerusalem. [5] Classical and medieval historians would often rely on regnal years, the practice of dating a document to the reign of the current king or emperor (Deliyannis 12). [6] The opening lines of the Siege, for example, date Christ's crucifixion to the reign of Tiberius, emperor in Rome from 42 BCE until 37 CE: "In Tyberyus tyme, the trewe emperour, / Sire Sesar hymsulf, seysed in Rome" (Siege 1-2). [7] The more familiar system of continuous numerical years in use today stems from the medieval preoccupation with calculating Easter, a holiday controversial in its scheduling because of its connection to the Jewish holiday of Passover. [8] Rather ominously, the most violent battles in the Siege occur during "Paske tyme" (161, 320, 1215), a phrase that in Middle English can refer to either the Easter or Passover holiday season (Johnston 159, "paske," n.).

Even the hourly structure of the medieval day differed drastically from our own. Until the late fourteenth century, most villages and cities operated on the temporal hours system: daylight was divided into twelve hours, which would vary in length depending on the time of year (Humphrey 106). Human experience is bound by temporality, but temporality is bound by lived experience [9]. The rise and set of the sun and mentions of experiential temporal markers such as "soper-tym" (260) indicate the procession of hourly time in the Siege of Jerusalem.
Comment on this page

Discussion of "Time in Medieval Poetry"

Add your voice to this discussion.

Checking your signed in status ...

Previous page on path Siege of Jerusalem, page 2 of 11 Next page on path