The British Sundial Society

Scratch dials at West Hendred in Oxfordshire (ABOVE AND BELOW) and Alfriston, East Sussex illustrating the range of types, from freehand circles to compass-drawn, and with various numbers of lines. In theory, each line represents an hour: fix a peg of wood or iron in lead in the hole at the centre of the dial and the peg’s shadow will give you the time. In reality, they might function more as injunctions to prayer rather than accurate sundials – or simply be a form of pious graffiti.

The British Sundial Society is compiling a register of all the Mass dials (also known as scratch dials) in the country. So far, 5,500 examples have been recorded and the society is keen to hear from anyone who can help them find more.

A typical Mass dial consists of a circle divided in two equal parts by a horizontal line. If you then draw lines to divide the lower semicircle into four equal parts, you will have five lines that mark the canonical times of day, when ordained priests, monks, and devout Christians were expected to read psalms and prayers set out in a breviary or Book of Hours. The canonical hours, still in use today, are: ‘prime’ (sunrise), ‘terce’ (mid-morning), ‘sext’ (noon), ‘none’ (mid-afternoon), and ‘vespers’ (sunset). ‘Compline’ and ‘lauds’ occur during the night, making seven sets of prayer in each day.

People have been making scratch dials for a long time. There are inscribed and dated examples known from the 5th century, and there are 18th- and 19th-century examples. They are found all over Christendom, especially scratched into the exterior walls of churches on major pilgrimage routes (there are 212 examples in France and 25 in Spain), though England has far more than any other nation.

So far so good, but what are we to make of scratch dials that are found on the north side of the church, or inside a crypt, porch, or nave, where no sun penetrates? The traditional explanation is that they must be the result of reusing masonry that was originally located on a south wall, but there is plenty of evidence to show that this is not the case.

Why do some churches have multiple examples? And why do you need a scratch dial at all if the church has a clock or a bell that marks the passing hours? Anyway, is it likely that even the most devout Christian would be constantly popping round to the church to check the time rather than getting on with their daily tasks? Would it not make more sense for the scratch dial to be located on a secular building, workshop, or fence-post close to home?

The truth is that we don’t know, but perhaps scratch dials had no practical function: they may have been designed as a reminder to passers-by of the value of regular prayer.

Further information: dials_menu/mass-dials/
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Text & photos: C Catling.