- At Day's Close: Night in Times Past
At Day's Close makes a compelling case that "nighttime in the early modern age embodied a distinct culture" (xxv). The author offers a rich and evocative portrayal of nocturnal life in Western Europe and British North America from the sixteenth to the end of the eighteenth century. That a premodern rhythm came to an end with the industrial revolution and, in the early nineteenth century, with the widespread adoption of gas lighting in cities on both sides of the Atlantic points to a genuine break with earlier times, when the setting and the rising of the sun were by no means trivial events. The starting point for this history seems more arbitrary, since it appears that no equivalent break in the ways people experienced darkness occurred between the late medieval and early modern periods.
Ekirch stresses commonalities. Perhaps his most interesting finding is that "Western Europeans on most evenings experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness" (300). People routinely spoke of their "first sleep" and their "second" or "morning sleep" They awoke in the dead of night to make love, to chat intimately, to say their devotions, to [End Page 565] accomplish a few chores, or to experience a sort of drowsy meditative and often introspective state — Ekirch's "quiet wakefulness" — before falling back asleep.
Part 1 of his book explores the dangers of the night. It was a period of anxiety, provoked by fears real and imagined. The night belonged to Satan, to witchcraft, to evil spirits, and to ghosts, but it also was the dark span of the day when crimes, often violent ones, as well as fires, from carelessly-placed candles, were most likely to occur, and when one ventured out into the city or the rural landscape at one's own risk. Part 2 examines the relation of the night to civil and religious authorities, both of which encouraged people to stay indoors and to tend to their families and to prayer. Magistrates locked city gates, imposed curfews, and organized night-watches, while individual families shut themselves in against the perils of darkness. Part 3 offers a fascinating portrait both of the sorts of labor as well as transgressions that took place after dark: visits to taverns and prostitutes as well as gambling and adulterous liaisons. This was the time of day when people, otherwise accustomed to the daylight scrutiny of coworkers and neighbors, had the greatest autonomy. Finally, part 4 examines the history of sleep, night's greatest purpose. In the early modern period sleep was simultaneously communal and solitary. Perhaps more than any other time of day, Ekirch argues, the night allowed individuals, even those in crowded rooms or beds, to slip into self-reflection and a meditative self-awareness.
Ekirch's history is the disenchantment, in Weber's sense, that has come about as a result of our near eradication of the night in our high-tech, 24\7 world. He makes a convincing case that the early modern night afforded men and women far greater opportunities for self-reflection and self-knowledge than do our own artificially-illuminated public and private places. In addition to providing a refuge for introspection, the night also enabled deep thought and strengthened the imagination. Scholars of the Renaissance will be most familiar with Machiavelli's description of his practice when writing The Prince. In the first part of the night, as Machiavelli wrote in a celebrated letter, he studied ancient authors, noting: "And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I am wholly absorbed in them." But Ekirch cites other Renaissance figures for whom the night was a fertile and creative period. In the darkness, Leonardo da Vinci turned to his imagination to revisit the forms he had studied the previous day; when sleepless, Girolamo Cardano...