Night in Times Past

By A. Roger Ekirch. Norton. 447 pp. $25.95 The world in which we live is, as the cliche has it, 24/7. Thanks mainly to artificial illumination, which A. Roger Ekirch correctly calls "the greatest symbol of modern progress," nothing ever has to stop. Businesses run 'round the clock, late shows featuring one comic or another keep people happily awake into the late hours, trucks pick up shipments and make deliveries. In Spain and Latin America, people sit down to dinner at 10 p.m. and stay at table into the early morning. Criminals still operate under cover of darkness, but there's plenty of street light from which they must flee, and law-enforcement officers have sophisticated equipment for spotlighting them.

It's been thus for so many generations that we take it for granted: Night is when we go out, when we entertain, when we read, when -- of course -- we sleep. Yet in the long span of human history this is a relatively recent development. Not until "the period from 1730 to 1830," Ekirch argues in this interesting, original book, did the Western world undergo "such a sustained assault upon the nocturnal realm," and not until the 20th century and its near-universal use of artificial light did nighttime become what we know now. So At Day's Close is uncommonly welcome, for it covers ground that just about all others have ignored:

"This book sets out to explore the history of nighttime in Western society before the advent of the Industrial Revolution. My chief interest lies in the way of life people fashioned after dark in the face of both real and supernatural perils. Notwithstanding major studies on crime and witchcraft, night, in its own right, has received scant attention, principally due to the longstanding presumption that little else of consequence transpired. 'No occupation but sleepe, feed, and fart,' to quote the Jacobean poet Thomas Middleton, might best express this traditional mindset. . . . Nighttime has remained a terra incognita of peripheral concern, the forgotten half of the human experience, even though families spent long hours in obscurity."

Ekirch, who teaches history at Virginia Tech and who writes exceptionally well, has spent a couple of decades on this book, with impressive results. The range of his research is both broad and deep, including poems and diaries, public documents and the press, pamphlets and court papers. The "British Isles form the heart of my inquiry," he writes, "but extensive material is included from across the Continent. In addition, I have incorporated relevant information from early America and Eastern Europe. The book's time period is equally broad, stretching from the late Middle Ages to the early nineteenth century, though the principal focus is the early modern era (ca. 1500-1750)."

The first thing to understand about nighttime half a millennium ago is that it inspired fear. It still does in many people, of course, but today's uneasiness about the dark is nothing compared to that of the 16th century, when "evening appeared fraught with menace." Night "in the early modern world summoned the worst elements in man, nature, and the cosmos. Murderers and thieves, terrible calamities and satanic spirits lurked everywhere." People died at night, when, for various reasons now commonly understood by physicians and scientists, resistance to illness weakened. Ghosts, demons, spirits, banshees, vampires and fairies were understood to venture abroad at night, and Satan himself was on the prowl, "indeed darkness had become Satan's unholy realm on earth, a shadow government from which to wage perpetual warfare against the kingdom of Christ."

Apart from the fears inspired by nature and superstition, people did plenty to make things worse. Alcohol, "the lubricant of early modern life," led to drowning, accidents and violence. Then as now, "human malevolence" was widespread, especially under cover of night. What families "feared most was the invasion of their dwellings by burglars," so "every evening, men retired with their families to the shelter of their homes, whose sanctity they were charged with preserving." The "worst bloodletting" in a world where bloodletting was common occurred at night, "not only from armed robbers but, more often, from street fracases and personal assaults. An Italian proverb warned, 'Who goes out at night looks for a beating.' "

The English called nightfall "shutting-in," which literally meant the shutting-in of daylight but came to mean "the need for households to bolt portals against the advancing darkness." All "doors, shutters, and windows were closed tight and latched," and "seldom was God's protection more valued than at night." The fervor with which people prayed was deep and real: They feared violence, fire, death, even the possibility that the next day the sun itself would fail to rise. Cities provided primitive illumination with lanterns, and watchmen patrolled the streets, but the light was dim and inconsistent at best, and the watchmen inspired more laughter than fear, to wit, the constable Dogberry in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," under whose "merry command, parish officers turned a willing backside to benches but a blind eye to thieves."

Yet all was not fear and danger. People did go out at night, though they sometimes ran afoul of rutted roads and highwaymen. Inside their houses, people discovered the pleasures of privacy. Some made love. By candlelight some played cards, dice, whist, backgammon and quadrille. Many raised (and raised again) the glass of hospitality and cheer. A British diarist named Thomas Turner had a high old time:

"We were very merry tonight & kept it up late. . . . Not one of us went to bed sober. . . . We continued drinking like horses (as the vulgar phrase is) and singing till many of us was very drunk, and then we went to dancing and pulling off wigs, caps, and hats. And there we continued in this frantic manner (behaving more like mad people than they that profess the name of Christians)."

The upper classes soon discovered more sophisticated (and more expensive) pleasures. In the late Middle Ages, "across Europe, from London to Vienna, noble courts staged lavish entertainments against the blackness of night. . . . Spectacular fireworks displays enjoyed immense popularity, as did theatrical performances utilizing new techniques of stage lighting." Rich young men with time on their hands went wild: "Bloods, bucks, and blades, roarers and gallants . . . embraced night as a time of boundless freedom" and pursued "gratification, free of social obligations and constraints." Samuel Johnson dismissed them as "lords of the street. . . flushed as they are with folly, youth and wine."

Others went to work at night. The human excreta deposited in cesspools and gutters had to be removed, and so did the bodies of the dead; these unpleasant tasks were carried out by "professional nightmen" and other functionaries. In Paris, at the famous market Les Halles, an 18th-century writer noted that "the noise of voices never stops, there is hardly a light to be seen; most of the deals are done in the dark, as though these were people of a different race, hiding in their caverns from the light of the sun." Country neighbors had nocturnal "work parties," in which men and women shared various tasks, from stripping corn to spinning wool. These "bees," as they were called in England and America, became occasions for socializing as well as working, and nighttime encouraged people to lower their inhibitions against loose talk and laughter.

While they worked, most other people slept, but precisely why they did so is a matter of considerable mystery. Whether human beings are genetically programmed to sleep at night is far from clear: "The custom of reserving nighttime for rest, some psychologists now surmise, evolved gradually among prehistoric peoples. Only with the passage of time did these first generations learn to sleep away the dangers of darkness by resting in caves, sheltered from foraging predators." By the Middle Ages nocturnal sleep had been programmed into the human clock, but it was different from what we know now. Because people feared "the evil aire of the night," windows were tightly closed; bedfellows were common and numerous, less for amatory reasons than for security against burglars and hobgoblins; "lice, fleas, and bedbugs, the unholy trinity of early modern entomology," invaded the sleeping quarters of rich and poor alike.

By the mid-18th century, all of these conditions began to change. For a variety of reasons -- "the rapid spread of scientific rationalism during the early stages of the Enlightenment," the rise of "consumerism and nascent industrialization," and "the leisured affluence of urban households" -- many of the old fears about night diminished or vanished. It was the beginning of the modern world, one in which, as Ekirch wisely notes, "with darkness diminished, opportunities for privacy, intimacy, and self-reflection will grow more scarce." In this, as with so much else about progress, there is much to welcome and much to mourn. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

"Young Man Holding a Candle," by Thomas Frye