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Reviewed by:
  • At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past
  • Susannah Ottaway
At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. By A. Roger Ekirch ( New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005. xxxii plus 447 pp. $25.95).

At Day's Close is a social history of night in pre-industrial Europe and America, with particularly deep coverage of English sources. In this attractively illustrated and very accessible book, A. Roger Ekirch paints a picture of nighttime as a magical landscape full of "opportunity and promise" for the disenfranchised. But this alternative realm is also characterized by fear of the treacherous unknown. The dark of night could conceal wolves, demons, thieves and arsonists and, perhaps worst of all in urban areas, destructive, upper-class rakes. Ekirch covers uncharted territory here—night has not previously been considered a worthy topic of study in and of itself—but his sources and conclusions are, in many cases, comfortably familiar. Generations of historians have explored evening phenomena like bundling, charivaris, spinnestube, storytelling, witchcraft, fear of fire and fear of the dark. The plentiful anecdotes that form the base of Ekirch's evidence reveal pre-industrial people doing pretty much what we always thought they did at nighttime. Nonetheless, when all of these cases are put together with Ekirch's insights and his path-breaking conclusions about pre-industrial sleep patterns, we have a work that makes a major impact on our understanding of the social history of this era.

Two aspects of Ekirch's book merit particular attention. First, his discussion of sleeping habits in pre-industrial Europe and America, which was first introduced in an American Historical Review article, is innovative and provocative. Ekirch argues that before the introduction of artificial light, people's sleep was actually broken into two parts: "first sleep", followed by a period of an hour or so when individuals experienced restful meditation ("quiet wakefulness", p. 300), and then a second sleep through to morning time. Ekirch's evidence for this is suggestive, but not truly definitive: In the English sources, for example, he found eighty-three references to "first sleep" in seventy-two different sources from the period 1300-1800. He also clearly has massive amounts of evidence that people's sleep was often disrupted (by the need to urinate, the calls of the night watch, the bites of fleas and the snores of bedmates, etc.). In addition, there have been a few modern studies that suggest that subjects who are deprived of artificial lighting develop sleep habits that mirror the disrupted, bipartite model Ekirch has found. Putting all of this together, Ekirch concludes that pre-industrial sleep patterns were profoundly different from our own, and that the opportunity to lie awake and reflect on their dreams in the middle of the night "allowed many to absorb fresh visions before returning to unconsciousness," visions that may have been "sources of self-revelation, solace and spirituality" (322). While this is a fascinating idea that may offer profound insights into early modern psyches, more direct evidence and deeper analysis of this phenomenon is necessary to render this conclusion completely compelling. [End Page 745]

Second, Ekirch's view of the relationship of the "lower orders" to the night time is a complex and intriguing one. On one hand, those who did not enjoy security, privacy and warmth were especially subject to all of night's worst ills: the threat of fire, crime, interrupted sleep. On the other hand, the laboring poor, and those who worked in crafts and trades had particular opportunities for self expression after dark, and Ekirch even portrays them as having "de facto control", with their "cluster of overlapping subcultures dominating the landscape at night" (249-51). Their night time carousals may have enhanced their sense of autonomy and served as a safety valve, releasing the steam of social disorder, but Ekirch comes to the inescapable conclusion that the lower classes must also have suffered severe and chronic sleep deprivation. This is a simple and compelling insight that demands that we think in new ways about the lived experience of pre-industrial laborers and artisans. Less compelling is Ekirch's attempt to extend the analysis of the empowering qualities...


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