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June 14, 2010 / Tracey

Review: At Day’s Close – A History of Nighttime | A. Roger Ekirch

This is a non-fiction book about nighttime in the period 1500 – 1750. Impeccably researched, Ekirch regularly quotes from poems, diaries, court transcripts, news articles and other records to illustrate his point. Covering Europe and early colonial America, the book is divided into ‘themes,’ which makes it easy to read about the topics that interest the reader (but of course I read it all).

It would be obvious to most that danger increased after the sun went down as did the number and the nature of crimes which are described in the book. A common term of ‘shutting in’ described how people in towns and rural areas would shut themselves in their homes at the same time each day, closing shutters, barring doors etc. Superstitions and fears were rife and included witches, demons, faeries, monsters and satan amongst fear of burglary. People even feared the damp night air, which gave birth to the night cap, to keep the damp night air from settling on the head.

Most households would light a rush light, tallow candle, (made from animal fat) or a lantern for light, at least an hour after shut in to save on costs (candles and other methods of producing light were expensive). In fact, it was very common to move furniture back against the wall at night so as to remove obstacles while moving around in the dark.

These fears kept many shut in at night, but social activities and gatherings did occur at night, especially during a full moon or a clear night, where the light from the night sky was at it’s brightest. Ekirch informs the reader about many of the activities men and women of all backgrounds indulged in at night time.

It is believed that most people went to bed between 9pm and 10pm when all forms of light were extinguished and the fire was raked over. The most interesting revelation in this book is that during this period, sleep patterns were drastically different to today. This fact is relatively unknown today, but hundreds of years ago, people enjoyed two sleeps in one night! Ekirch provided many quotes from plays, diaries etc to support his research and I was quite astonished to say the least. After the ‘first sleep’, a person would wake up for anywhere up to 2 hours or more. This time was generally used to ponder their dreams and ‘visions’ and for quiet contemplation and prayer. This is the time most lovemaking took place given that most laborers were too tired when they went to bed. It was also considered to be the best time for conception!

The second sleep then took place, followed by the ‘cock crow’ (roosters crowing) and dawn. These marked the time of night for most people living during this time. In London and Paris, it was interesting to learn about the ‘night watch’ whose job it was to patrol the streets, apprehending criminals or thieves, watching for signs of fire (a serious danger in any city or town) as well as calling out the time. They usually called out the time accompanied by a rhyme or catch cry. Ironically, many residents often complained that they were continually woken up by the nightwatch who were on duty primarily to keep people safe from fire and burglary.

With the introduction of artificial light, this sleep pattern slowly dissolved and Ekirch claims that our connection to our dreams (an extremely important practice during these times) has been lost as has our time for peaceful inner reflection.

It was interesting to learn that the Churches across Europe were not in favour of the introduction of artificial light, as they viewed night time the time for prayer and worship.

Did you know that when walking at night in a town or city, it was best to walk as close as you could to the wall, so as not to be showered with the contents of chamber pots being emptied from above? In fact, if two men were walking towards each other, the poorer man would always give the ‘gentleman’ the wall and walk on the side closest to the street. Walking close to the wall wasn’t without it’s own perils though, and falling down into cellars and coal shutes was common.

Anyway, I could go on and on about this book, because it was so fascinating and such a great read! Did you know that men used to urinate into the fireplace at night time, if they didn’t have a chamber pot? Gross!

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history and especially an interest in ‘night in times past’.

My rating = *****

That’s my four bucks!
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