At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past

Moonlit Landscape with a View of the New Amstel River and Castle Kostverloren by Aert van der Neer

Is it time for another book review? I think so. I recently read A. Roger Ekirch’s book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. The book is a collection of historical facts and anecdotes that illuminate the western world’s relationship to night.

It’s hard to appreciate the fear that was once associated with the night. Reading this book makes clear the range of terrors that must be faced each night in the pre-industrial world; real threats such as crime, accidental injury, fires, wild animals; imagined threats such as evil spirits and night vapors.

Abundant historical anecdotes are provided to explain the very real night time threats. The rule of law largely came to halt at night, so crime was rampant. If you needed light or heat, you needed fire, which frequently got out of control when everyone was asleep. The darkness cut off each family from the rest of the world, leaving them surrounded by the unknown.

The range of dangerous night creatures dreamed up by superstitious minds and encouraged by pre-industrial churches is truly amazing: duergars, kelpies, ghosts, boggles, boggarts, demons, fallen angels, dobbies, trolls, wafts, elves, foliots, pixies, fairies, and werewolves to name just a few. The most feared creatures of the night were witches and Satan himself, who appears to have spent quite a bit of his time wandering the streets of pre-industrial Europe making odd noises and tripping drunks on their way home from the tavern.

Throughout most of the western world, being out at night was frowned upon or even illegal. But there were exceptions: night watchmen, prostitutes, workers at kilns and glassmakers who kept fires burning, nightmen cleaning cesspools and dumping the waste into the streets, gravediggers, known as vespillons, who worked in the cemeteries. Sometimes the poor went out during the night to scavenge horse manure from the streets.

Early scientists and inventors dreamed of putting an end to the horrors of night by various means. First they built city walls, then they added systems of ringing bells and shouting watchmen to inform residents that all was well, and eventually they struck on the idea of city-wide artificial illumination. It was not hard to convince governments that it was worth the expense to spread the rule of law into the night, allowing citizens to carry on business and industry with less risk. New street lighting technology invented by Edmund Heming and Jan van der Heyden used reflectors to amplify the light of oil lamps.

The Church had other ideas of course, as fear of night was good for their business. Both Catholic and Protestant Churches fought artificial illumination for public safety (despite using it themselves to illuminate religious festivals). “God does not agree with the use of lanterns”, wrote a Genevan Catholic. “We ought not turn day into night, nor night into day”, warned a London pastor in 1662. Over time reason won out and nations started lighting their cities, usually beginning with the capitals. Paris was illuminated by 1667, Amsterdam in 1669, Berlin in 1682, London in 1683, and Vienna in 1688.

There are also chapters on dreams, on sexual intrigues, on the mundane details of securing a common household against the dangers of the night, on nocturnal visits to taverns, on the terror of those forced to travel at night. The book even posits, based on anecdotal evidence, that prior to the industrial age, it was common for humans to sleep twice each night; first sleep and second sleep, with a short period of wakefulness between. Much of what I read in this book was surprising and new. It’s hard to believe no one has written about this subject before! The book is well-illustrated with historical paintings and other period art.

The book is not perfect, however. It’s a bit less readable than similar historical non-fiction I’ve read. It lacks a cohesive narrative or even a clearly defined reason for the particular progression of topics in the chapters. The book is not chronological but seemingly a random collection of notes grouped roughly into arbitrary, night-related topics. It feels almost like you’re reading research notes for what could be a really great book, instead of the book itself. But, in the end, the information imparted is so fascinating that it makes up for the less than stellar writing.