The term century in the more common connotation that refers to a period of 100 years is relatively recent:

  • The Modern English meaning is attested from 1650s, short for century of years (1620s). (Etymonline)

  • From Middle English centuria ‎ (a) A division of the Roman army: a century; (b) a Roman land measure. (Middle English Dictionary)

It appears that the Middle English term was used only to refer to a Roman army company consisting of approximately 100 men and to a land measure, and I can find no evidence it was used to refer to a cycle of 100 years.

What term or expression was used to refer to a period of 100 years or to a specific century, the 11th or the 12th for instance in Middle English and/or in Shakespeare's times?

  • 3
    maybe just 'hundred years', as in the hundred years' war
    – user180089
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 19:43
  • 4
    There may have been an occasional need to refer to a period of 100 years, but the idea of talking about "the xxxth century" is part of a view of history which did not arise until around that time.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 20:23
  • 3
    @ColinFine - that is very interesting and plausible, evidence to support it would be helpful for general usage.
    – user66974
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 20:25
  • 2
    @Josh61: I was afraid you'd ask that. I've been racking my brains to think where I might find clear evidence. I think most of the evidence is negative: ancient and mediaeval texts rarely even give dates, and if they do they're often relative to local events such as the accession of rulers. They might characterise a period as "the reign of X", but I don't think they had the concept of a particular century as a classification, nor of the succession of centuries.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 20:33
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA - You appear to be right: books.google.com/ngrams/… - but "SHAKESPEARE'S LIFE AND TIMES" by the Royal Shakespeare Company : rsc.org.uk/shakespeares-life-and-times
    – user66974
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 18:04

2 Answers 2


A century is equivalent to hundred years and the origin of hundred dates back to Old English

From Old English hundred, from Proto-Germanic * hundaradą, from * hundą (from Proto-Indo-European *ḱm̥tóm) + * radą ‎(“count”). Compare West Frisian hûndert, Dutch honderd, Low German hunnert, hunnerd, German Hundert, Danish hundred.

Old English
From Proto-Germanic *hundaradą ‎(“telling of 100”), from *hundą (< Proto-Indo-European *ḱm̥tóm) + *radą ‎(“count”). Cognate with Old Frisian hundred, Old Saxon hunderod, Middle Dutch hondert (Dutch honderd), Old High German hundert (German Hundert), Old Norse hundrað ‎(“120; 100”) (Swedish hundra ‎(“100”)).

hunnert ‎(plural hunnerts)

  1. Eye dialect spelling of hundred.

From Middle English yeer, yere, from Old English ġēr, ġēar ‎(“year”),


From On the interaction between constructional & lexical change Copular, Passive and related Constructions in Old and Middle English

  • Ær ðam ðe Romeburh getimbred wære eahta < hund > wintra, mid ...
    before that that Rome built were eight hundred winters with ...

  • þa beoð on lenge hundteontiges fotmæla lange & fiftiges. Hy beoð
    Modern English
    who are in length hundred:GEN feet:GEN long and fifty:GEN they are

  • greate swa stænene sweras micle.
    Modern English
    great as stone pillars great

It appears in early Modern English, before the concept of century (i.e. 100 years) was adopted, phrases had to be employed. In A Christian directorie guiding men to their salvation, printed in 1585 the following phrases are used:

“... complained in their Talmud, that ther seemed to them in thos dayes, seven hundred & fourtiene years past, since Christ by the scriptures, should have appeared;...”

enter image description here

“... thou hast to remember (loving brother) that for the space of three hundred years together after Christs departure out of this world; he sent almost continual temptations, that is to say continual tribulatios affliction ...”

enter image description here
Many thanks to @V0ight who posted the relevant link

Today, we might express the first date as the 8th century / 714 A.D,
while the second, as being the 4th century / 333 A.D (or CE)

Lastly, the works of William Shakespeare contain eight citations for “hundred years

  1. No, I'll nor sell nor give him: lend you him I will
    For half a hundred years. Summon the town

  2. Over whose acres walk'd those blessed feet
    Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail'd
    For our advantage on the bitter cross.

  3. Was not devised for the realm of France:
    Nor did the French possess the Salique land
    Until four hundred one and twenty years
    After defunction of King Pharamond,

  4. Who died within the year of our redemption
    Four hundred twenty-six; and Charles the Great
    Subdued the Saxons, and did seat the French
    Beyond the river Sala, in the year
    Eight hundred five
    . Besides, their writers say,
    King Pepin, which deposed Childeric,

  5. Ay, that I do; and have done any time these three hundred years.

  6. As in a vault, an ancient receptacle,
    Where, for these many hundred years, the bones
    Of all my buried ancestors are packed:

  7. Traitors, away! he rests not in this tomb:
    This monument five hundred years hath stood,
    Which I have sumptuously re-edified:
    Here none but soldiers and Rome's servitors
    Repose in fame; none basely slain in brawls:

  • So, what you mean is that before "century" entered common usage the expression used was "hundred years"?
    – user66974
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 21:14
  • 3
    @Josh61: that's what Shakespeare seems to have used. "those holy fields Over whose acres walk'd those blessed feet Which fourteen hundred years ago were nail'd For our advantage on the bitter cross." German has Jahrhundert, but there doesn't seem to have been a corresponding compound word in English. Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 21:22
  • I believe ordinal dates e.g. 12th century, were expressed as "Twelve hundred years after the birth of our Lord" or words to that effect. I haven't done any searches, but that's my hunch. Either that or the Latin word seculum was used.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 22:06
  • here's an instance of 'hundred years after': 1577, 1586 .. put it in your answer if you'd like. And here are some of just 'hundred years': 1585, 1586, 1596
    – user180089
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 22:58
  • @V0ight thanks, I think I'll wait until tomorrow morning before editing though. I don't think I could read all the links and then post something coherent at this late hour. But definitely, will look at the links.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 23:08

The Latin word for "century" was "saeculum". Is that old enough?

From: Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary

The OED has a reference for "secle" in an English text from about 1533. That makes it more than a century earlier than the earliest reference for "century".

  • 1
    Etruscans were not English people... and although Latin was spoken in Medieval Britain, I don't think it's appropriate to call it English. The OP is asking for Middle and Early Modern English equivalent of century meaning 100 years.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 22:29
  • @Mari-LouA. The OED has a reference for "secle" in an English text from about 1533. That makes it more than a century earlier than the earliest reference for "century": exactly what the OP was asking for.
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 22:57
  • @ab2. Thank you for your help. Unfortunately I have had to omit your reference to Wikipedia because of its incorrect statement that the term "saeculum" was used by Etruscans. Typical wiki-nonsense in fact.
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 23:00
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    The you should add the OED citation, I would be very interested to read it. Unfortunately, I do not have access to the venerable OED.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 23:10
  • 1
    @Mazura. The Roman author Varro (1st century BC) says explicitly that "the period of 100 years was called saeclum" (saeclum spatium annorum centum vocārunt). Wikipedia is wrong to claim that this meaning "evolved within Romance languages".
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 11:41

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