Darkness Visible

A scholar illuminates the vanished culture of the night.

By William Howarth

At Day's Close: Night in Times Past
By A. Roger Ekirch
W.W. Norton, $25.95

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A. roger Eekirch has written a clear, fast-paced history of "nocturnal life" in the early modern era (1500 to 1750), describing how people in Europe and America experienced night before the Industrial Revolution. He paints a vivid panorama of nighttime customs in city and country, among peasants and courtiers. Postmodern readers may find this evocation of lost culture a bit shaming, if they peruse the book after dark under a good reading lamp, with a cold drink and a remote control handy: At Day's Close relentlessly makes clear how much our comforts separate us from previous generations—and how much our conquest of night has cost us in fellowship and imagination.

Mining diaries and newspapers for evidence, Ekirch provides a rich fund of stories about how early folk passed the hours of darkness. From Italy to England, many shut out the night air, regarding it as evil or diseased, an atmosphere in which thieves and whores prospered. The absence of public lighting led such towns as Berlin and New York to employ night watchmen, whose loud cries often disturbed citizens' sleep. Defenses against the dark consisted of candles and torches; persons obliged to walk at night prudently hired a "linkboy" to light the way with an oil lantern.

In preindustrial times, some trades kept overnight schedules: Bakers and brewers, the "nightmen" who emptied privies, doctors, and undertakers all worked late. Yet three of every four adults spent their days tilling the soil. After long hours in the fields, farmers mended tools and planned the next day's work. At night they tended stock or loaded wagons for predawn rides to market. Women found their labors were never done, since they often rose early to tend sick children or prepare morning meals.

Ekirch argues that such nocturnal activities had far-reaching social and psychological consequences. If night was a fearful time of ghosts and demons, it also gave commoners a valuable sense of privacy. Night was a time to work for oneself, not a master, to tell stories or enjoy a jolly drink and song. For unmarried couples, the dark meant opportunities for courting and "bundling"—lying together fully clothed in bed (eligible daughters sometimes placed both legs in a single stocking), as long as parents slept nearby.

Night also shaped the future, giving scholars time to meditate on new ideas. While the rich idled away at masques and balls, populist forces gathered in night meetings, whether for religious or political ends. Ekirch nearly credits night for the 18th-century revolutions—a not-far-fetched claim, considering the after-dark heroics of Paul Revere, or George Washington's daring night maneuvers at Brooklyn and Trenton.

Some of the author's best sleuthing reveals how families often took a "first sleep" up to midnight and, after a wakeful period of one or two hours, a "second sleep" until dawn. During the interval they might read or write diary entries, usually about their dreams—a boon to later historians looking for scraps of memory or desire, the hints of "prospects ahead as of times past."

One central idea of this book is that night offers an alternate side to life, liberating and renewing forces that daylight represses. That romantic interpretation tends to favor secrecy and imagination—loosed from "the tethers of the visible world"—but now and then Ekirch draws on science. Citing a recent experiment, he explains that artificial light is "a drug that affects how we will sleep."

Ekirch also notes that historians have largely ignored the night, but he does not say why: Until the 1970s, history mainly recounted the lives of rich and powerful men. Then scholars began to examine the "margins" of society—women, minorities, the natural world—and argue that they in fact form its center. At Day's Close contributes to that tradition, especially in its abundance of incident and detail. Ekirch worked two decades on this book, and sometimes its details obscure his speculative themes; one might wish for a stronger line of interpretive argument, but the book ably stands with other pioneering scholarship on natural phenomena (Stephen Pyne on fire, John Stilgoe on land, Donald Worster on dust) that has taught us how much culture needs nature, perhaps more than the other way around.

After 1800, science and technology freed us from night's terrors, only to furnish new strains on body and spirit: As overtime and night shifts became the norm, streets glowed with light and sleep became a brief respite from exhaustion, not the realm of fantasy and release. Today our gleaming cities obscure the stars, and Ekirch warns that both ecological and cultural suffering may follow: "[W]e stand to lose a vital element of our humanity—one as precious as it is timeless."