- Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe
Historians of the early modern period are always looking for new revolutions, and Craig Koslofsky is the latest to have found one. He calls it “nocturnalization,” which he defines as “the ongoing expansion of the legitimate social and symbolic uses of the night.” Nocturnalization, it turns out, embraces everything from the fireworks that lit up the sky in the theatrical displays staged by baroque absolute monarchs to the artistic use of chiaroscuro and the belief of some devotional writers that God was more accessible in the nighttime. Its most decisive aspect was the adoption of street lighting (with oil lamps) in most of the major North European cities between 1660 and 1700. By making urban spaces safe at night, the new lighting allowed respectable social life to extend into the hours of darkness. The times of meals, theater openings, and other forms of polite sociability all moved forward by several hours, at least for the well-to-do classes; manual workers and artisans began their day when their superiors were still in bed. As the night was tamed or, in Koslofsky’s terminology, “colonized,” its terrors receded. Ghosts, witches, and hell, all associated with fearful darkness, were now debunked by freethinkers, conducting their nocturnal discussions in coffeehouses, taverns, and printing houses. Would the Enlightenment have been impossible without the invention of street lighting? Craig Koslofsky does not explicitly say so, but his learned and imaginative, if occasionally rather schematic book suggests that it might have been. [End Page 133]
Sir Keith Thomas, professor emeritus of modern history at Oxford University and Distinguished Fellow of All Souls College, is the author of The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England; Changing Conceptions of National Biography; Man and the Natural World; and Religion and the Decline of Magic, for which he received the Wolfson History Prize in its inaugural year. An honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was president of the British Academy from 1993 to 1997 and president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, from 1986 to 2000.