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  • At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past
  • Vladimir Jankovic
A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005). Pp. xxxii, 447. $16.95.

This book offers a formidable coverage of early modern night in literature, epistolary prose, and the popular press, with a comprehensive treatment of social, economic, and cultural domains shaped by and during nighttime. It is divided into four parts (or twelve chapters) that treat night as a phenomenon with profound social consequences and as a trope with the capacity to inform ideas, behaviors, morality, and social practices of all description. The larger portion of the text examines the nocturnal aspects of European and American early modernity. It is a fascinating exercise that draws on numerous textual and visual sources and that enables Ekirch to see night as something that “revolutionized the social landscape” (227) by creating “an alternate reality, a realm of its own that challenged the institutions of the workaday world” (255). A host of examples substantiate this claim—starting from those exhibiting the social, ethical, and institutional role of visual communication to those defining the nocturnal regimes of labor and rest, to those effecting varied semiotics and supernatural engagements with the entities of benighted realms. The interest here seems to be to provide the thickest possible description of nighttime’s potential to generate an “alternate reality” by drawing on sources that show how night links ocular with social obscurity. The repertoire is so expansive that it sometimes feels overwhelming, ranging from what Hermann Muthesius called the history of the obvious—injuries in night accidents, night sounds, disorientation, fatigue, sleep, fear of darkness, night smells, the changing sense of time and space—to those related to curfews, night watch, crime, arson, debauchery, prostitution, dissent, night labor, and night bacchanal.

Ekirch moves rapidly (sometimes too rapidly) across space, time, and latitude to provide a compelling but also a complex account of early modern night. On the one hand, it is a depopulated sphere, ruled by retreat, privacy, and rest. On the other, it is a sphere teeming with activity and protest of those for whom darkness was a preferred stage of action. For miscreants, vandals, scholars, dissenters, gamblers, and fugitives, night was the “part of day” that enabled rather than thwarted. It was a refuge for those vampiric actions otherwise instantly annihilated by light. It helped break ties of subordination and inferiority, poverty and shame, and hid sin and physical disfigurement to the point that, Ekirch asserts, “one finds lower orders in de facto control of the nocturnal landscape” (249) even though “the threat of nighttime violence enforced conformity” (254). Such seemingly opposite statements reveal the composite nature of nightlife that might invite rethinking of the usual accounts of historical (and environmental) origins of social subversion. But could the origins of dissent and class struggle be associated with the licence usurped by the silent minorities fighting for rights in low light? Or had early modern [End Page 599] night perhaps served to compensate for diurnal obedience and submission to institutional injustice?

In chapter 12, “Sleep We Have Lost,” early modern night dissolves into normality. Lighting, shop displays, watchmen, nightshifts, partying, transportation, and urban regulations during the period 1730–1830 are said to have initiated a transformation, even demise, of night’s rich semiotics into ordinariness. More than ever there was a “greater freedom” (one may ask, for whom?) of movement in the streets that “appeared safer” (for whom?) (333). Night became less private and more accessible while personal behavior—subject to an increased scrutiny and surveillance—came under the influence of diurnal patriarchy and institutional order. Social and biological clocks of preindustrial folks underwent changes of such magnitude, Ekirch laments, that should we lose the darkness entirely, “we stand to lose a vital element of our humanity” (339). It is reasonable to believe that this would be the case if, of course, night were indeed yielding ground before the powers of light. But is this really so and to what extent? It seems striking that the varied nocturnal cultures that the book brings to light should be so rapidly obliterated by the advances in urban life...


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pp. 599-600
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