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At Day's Close. A History of Nighttime
A. Roger Ekirch

London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005.
xxxii-447 pages with index, £20. ISBN-13 9 780297 829928 (hardback)


Reviewed by Philippe Vervaecke



Ekirch's study of nighttime in early modern Europe fills a major historiographical gap on the "the forgotten half of the human experience,” as Ekirch states it in his preface [xxv]. Based on an impressive array of primary sources, including numerous diaries, this richly illustrated book draws upon archival material taken from the whole Western world, with a chronological scope extending from the later Middle Ages to the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Part One focuses on the dangers of the early modern night, with discussion ranging from supernatural forces to more mundane hazards such as fires, burglaries and assaults. This section on the "Terrors of the Night" sometimes states the obvious concerning the nighttime and its "mortal perils,” but it sets the contours of the early modern nightscape, "a forbidding place plagued by pestilential vapors, diabolical spirits, natural calamity and human depravity, the four horsemen of the nocturnal apocalypse" [56].

Part Two describes and analyses the ways in which the early modern European citizenry rather ineffectually tried to protect itself from those dangers through curfews, fortifications, night watches and rudimentary street lighting. Within the domestic sphere, bolts and candlelight provided reassurance, while neighbours could be counted upon in case of emergencies. For those compelled to venture outside, torches, weapons, full moons and starry nights made it possible to "navigate the nightscape" [118], although the pitfalls, whether real, in the shape of thieves, or imagined, in the case of evil spirits, were so daunting that most refrained from such nocturnal rambles. Ekirch's view is that Church and State were equally impotent in their wish to domesticate the night, at a time when watchmen were the butt of jokes and contempt for their inefficacy.

Part Three outlines the extent of activities, from work to amusements, that took place during nighttime. Tradesmen, glassmakers, agricultural labourers, servants, but also "goldfinders" [166], namely those whose business it was to empty cesspools, were part of the crowds who could be found toiling at night, which was the moment when labourers—especially women—could hope to supplement their income through spinning, weaving, or beer-making. Work could be performed communally and thus be synonymous with moments of sociability, as in the case of female-only spinning sessions that took place in écreignes, outdoor shelters which were then common in France. For all the terrors with which it came to be associated, the night was also seen as "the common benefactress" [185] as it offered respite for pre-industrial workers who enjoyed the warmth and the licence of the alehouse, or the boisterous Spinnstuben, the infamous spinning parties which ecclesiastical authorities frowned upon as they saw these rural, nocturnal working parties as conducive to sexual misconduct. The night was indeed the realm of lovers and adulterers.
In that chapter, Ekirch pays particular attention to bundling, one early modern custom prevalent in North America but, as Ekirch demonstrates, in no ways specific to that area, which consisted in allowing young lovers to stay overnight in the same room in the home of the young girl's parents. Apart from the pleasures of the flesh, Ekirch also considers those of the mind, such as reflection, meditation, reading, and writing, at a time when, in affluent households in particular, silent reading little by little became the norm. In the last two parts of this section of the book, Ekirch contrasts the aristocratic night with the plebeian night. For the social élites, the night offered respite from the dictates of courtly behaviour and the possibility to mix with the lower sections of society, in particular during "rowdy escapades" [217], for example masquerades, which "by stripping persons of their identity, […] undermined distinctions between social ranks" [214]. As for the plebeian sections of society, the nighttime provided the opportunity to indulge in such unlawful activities as smuggling, poaching, stealing, or in more benign merry-making. Similarly, for slaves and apprentices, the nighttime was a moment during which these early-modern-world outcasts could temporarily escape from the constraints of their daily lives. These chapters go a long way to explain how, according to Ekirch, "night revolutionised the social landscape" [227], and by insisting on how the night was also "The Common Benefactress,” to borrow the title of Chapter Seven, Ekirch manages to paint the night in less foreboding tones than in the initial chapters.

Part Four is a very original foray into the history of pre-industrial sleep. Ekirch studies the early modern medical discourses on sleep, such bedtime rituals as the English custom consisting in marking a cross in the ashes in the fireplace before praying. More prosaically, Ekirch also charts the evolution of bedding and the gradual disappearance of communal sleep, which was made possible by a rising prosperity which allowed the middling sort of people to have more rooms at their disposal and thus to abandon the large, family-sized beds of the past and to opt for more privacy for both parents and siblings. Ekirch then focuses on the various nocturnal disturbances, such as noisy bedfellows or a sudden need to relieve oneself, which tended to make sleep patterns more fitful than they are today, as the author suggests in a penultimate and very innovative chapter entitled "Sleep we have lost: Rhythms and revelations".
In this section, Ekirch demonstrates how sleep patterns have been dramatically altered in a few centuries. In the pre-modern era, the norm in the Western world was to have "two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness" [300], hence the distinction made by contemporaries between the first and the second sleep, evidence of which Ekirch draws from sources taken from his whole chronology and all across the Continent. For Ekirch, this moment of nocturnal wakefulness, likened by the chronobiologist Thomas Wehr to "an altered state of consciousness not unlike meditation" [304], was used for such purposes as reading, work, prayer, discussion with one's bedfellows, or sexual intercourse. Segmented sleep enhanced both fertility and the quality of dreams, as Ekirch claims with the backing of current medical experiments on sleep, which consist in recreating the pre-modern conditions to observe the impact of pre-industrial sleeping habits. What caused the gradual disappearance of the broken slumber of pre-modern times is modern lighting, which affects the body's temperature and the brain's release of melatonin.
This chapter is an impressive achievement, as it charts both pre-modern allusions to the first and second sleep and current medical experimentation in order to prove, quite convincingly, how much the rise of industrial, urban society did not just separate modern man from nature through rural exodus, but also from the time-worn rhythms of his pre-modern biological clock.

The concluding chapter, suitably entitled “Cock-Crow,” briefly discusses the shift towards a more recognisably modern nighttime, a process which Ekirch locates some time between 1730 and 1830, a period corresponding, in his view, to "a sustained assault upon the nocturnal realm" [324]. The rise of scientific rationalism and industrialisation, and in a more pedestrian manner, that of street lighting, conspired to obliterate pre-modern attitudes towards the nighttime. One just regrets that Ekirch did not devote more space to this transition, in particular to the various forms of resistance to this process, either in the shape of lantern smashing, of popular challenges against night work in factories, of the survival of superstitions associated with the night, or of religious objections towards the banalisation of nocturnal leisure activities. The last iconographic document chosen by Ekirch is a satellite photograph of Europe at night. The picture shows both how much of a rare commodity true nigthttime obscurity is on the European Continent and how far removed we now are from "a vital element of our humanity" [339], this pre-modern “Night We Have Lost.”

Ekirch's work is a very useful contribution to the cultural history and the history of material culture in the Western world. The voluminous, 73-page-long end-notes reveal how Ekirch's interpretations owe a lot to such classics as Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchman, Robert Muchembled's La Violence au Village, Peter Burke's Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe and Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic and to more recent works like Jean Verdon's Night in the Middle Ages, Daniel Roche's A History of Everyday Things and Raffaella Sarti's Europe at Home: Family and Material Culture, 1500-1800.
But, apart from Ekirch's serious engagement with and borrowing from the existing historiography, what makes his study both valuable and pleasurable to read is his eye for the telling detail taken from the numerous primary sources he consulted, among others, judicial archives narrating nocturnal incidents and pre-modern compilations of proverbs highlighting popular attitudes towards the nighttime. Those familiar with Pepys will be glad to find that Ekirch repeatedly returns towards this notorious testimony of life in London during the Restoration for examples and illustrations of his points. Jacques-Louis Ménétra's Journal of my Life, and Thomas Platter's Journal also regularly pop up in Ekirch's prose, but less accessible material is also included, for example the diaries of more anonymous figures like Robert Sanderson and Dame Sarah Cowper, which Ekirch retrieved from various British archival deposits. With its perceptive and original insights into a neglected object of study, the book will prove helpful for specialists in the literary, cultural, social, and gender history of early modern Europe.




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