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  • Evening's Empire. A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe
  • Elisabeth Bronfen
Craig Koslofsky , Evening's Empire. A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Pp. 431. $90.00 (hardcover); $29.99 (paperback).

For a historian of early modern Europe, the night, conceived as a time zone with a jurisdiction of its own, remains hard to pin down. As Evening's Empire documents, while the new meanings that came to be attributed to the night can be seen as a key element in the transition from the medieval universe, the socio-cultural value of the world after nightfall took on contradictory shapes. To some it was a site of diabolic temptation and witchcraft, given that Christian doctrine had long associated darkness with Satan, death, and evil. Yet during the turbulent time between the Reformation and the Enlightenment, marked as this period was by confessional conflict, those persecuted as heretics were forced to meet in secret under the cover of darkness. As a result, the night also emerged as a site for communal prayer and an encounter with the divine, with religious visionaries like John of the Cross recasting it as a sacred space for mystical devotion. Equally conflicted values can also be found regarding the distinction between the urban and the rural experience of the night. While public street lighting in cities made possible an expansion of night work, it also rendered fluid the boundary between consumer leisure, drunken excess, and political conspiracy. In rural communities, in turn, where nocturnal folk beliefs had always resisted a straightforward demonization of the night, gatherings such as spinning bees became seminal to the social exchange in village life, bringing with them courtship customs that undermined any attempt on the part of religious authorities to discipline the rural night.

"Nocturnalization" is the concept Craig Koslofsky proposes for discussing the origins, development, and effects of the ongoing expansion of the night in Northern Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Focusing on the court, the city, and the countryside as public arenas with very distinct attitudes toward a night that, by becoming increasingly illuminated, was rendered ever more respectable, he presents a rich narrative about how new conceptions of the night [End Page 307] reflect on the transformation of public space characteristic of this period. Taking the changes in daily life as the main category for his analysis, Koslofsky adroitly zeros in on the reciprocal relation between the night as a distinct social space and its deployment as a symbol. His project, he explains, consists in showing "how early modern men and women mapped the contrast between darkness and light— a fundamental distinction of daily life—onto early modern culture, and how this culture in turn helped structure the distinction between night and day" (14). While there is a bit too much signposting throughout this study, giving the impression at times that the historical evidence is molded to fit a prescribed formula, it remains compelling in its claims about the often conflicted interaction between phenomenological experiences of the night and its deployment as a metaphor for both religious and political expressions.

Indeed, Evening's Empire is most illuminating when, building on Foucault's claim for a mutual implication of power and repression, the study discusses the political agendas subtending the expansion of the night's social respectability. An anecdote about Louis XIV, performing his first court ballet on 23 February 1653, in a piece entitled Ballet de la Nuit, proves to be paradigmatic. Even though the French king used this spectacle to present himself as "le roi soleil" for the first time, the nocturnal background was explicitly chosen to enhance his position as a radiant ruler who could dispel any shadow that might fall on his reign. Thus there is poignancy in the way a nocturnalization of court life during the Baroque period thrived on secularizing the sacred light mystic writers such as John of the Cross had located in the night. The dazzling illuminations and fireworks put on display during court festivities not only made use of the lighting-up of a darkened world on an unprecedented scale; by extending the day into the...


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