Duck Duck Book

39 – at day’s close
11.28.2006, 1:24 pm
Filed under: social sciences

At day’s close : night in times past / A. Roger Ekirch. 
New York : W.W. Norton, c2005.
[MCL call number: 306.4 E36a 2005; five copies, no holds]

Being a city dweller my whole life, I have only rarely experienced the almost complete darkness of stormy or moonless nights, seen the true glory of the Milky Way, or walked in the bright light of the full moon.  The modern world I live in places a high value on lighted streets, 24-hour grocery stores, and late night public transportation.  Night is nothing particularly awesome, it is just the dark period between the days.

In modern times people, especially city dwellers, have conquered the regular advance of nighttime with shift work, central heating, scientific notions to chase away fears of ghosts and goblins, and of course, artificial lighting.  Before these innovations, night fell and we could do nothing about it.  Darkness stopped work and play, changed the familiar landscape into something frightening and strange, and put people to bed early.  All we could do was wait for morning.

A. Roger Ekirch’s history of night in pre-industrial Western Europe (with occasional mention of North America) opens a space for modern readers to begin to understand how very different the world was before technology gave us ways to believe night wasn’t so powerful after all.  In a beautifully written and careful narrative, he discusses how night influenced or manipulated morality, work, leisure activities, the details of family and household life, sex, sleep, dreaming, and many other aspects of early modern existence.  And the differences between night then and now are greater than one might think. 

For example, Ekirch explains that there is good evidence to show that before widespread industrialization, most Western Europeans experienced two periods of sleep each night.  They slept soundly for a few hours, then lay in peaceful wakefulness for an hour or more, then returned to sleep until morning.  This pattern is widely reported in diaries and other anecdotal evidence of normal life; and it is the same sleep pattern experienced by people who live under conditions that have some similarities with early modern Europe — chiefly the absence of sophisticated and widespread methods for providing artificial light.   The interval between periods of sleep seems to have been a truly restful one for many people, a time in which people contemplated dreams or pondered philosophical or political questions, lovers had sex, babies nursed, and bedfellows conversed.  Then, as now, many people had very little time just for themselves, due to long working hours and crowded households, so this time awake in the middle of the night was valuable for its inherent privacy as well.
The window Ekirch provides into nighttime before the Industrial Revolution is fascinating both for its familiarity and for its strangeness.  Most everyone has been afraid of the dark — we fear unknown creatures in the shadows under the trees, the creaks and bumps that houses make after everyone is in bed, and the anxious waiting for morning that comes with insomnia.  But it is very hard to imagine living in a community where everyone believed wholly in ghosts, where darkness changed the world outside into a foreign, dangerous  landscape, and where people went to bed because it was just too dark to do anything else.


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[…] but because I so enjoyed Ekirch’s earlier book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (reviewed in duck duck book number 39).  Anything else he cared to write, I thought, must be worth my time.  And indeed it […]

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