At Day's Close. A History of Nighttime
London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005.
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" .
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" , 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" , 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"  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.
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".
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" . 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" , 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.