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5.0 out of 5 stars Narratives of nightfall, November 22, 2005
This review is from: At Day's Close: Night in Times Past (Hardcover)
Most creation myths open with light dispelling the dark. Night and day are the most fundamental divisions of time in human experience, and so reflected in many myths. The lack of light brings thoughts on the unknown, usually fearful ones. We don't understand what we can't see and impart threatening purposes to shadowy shapes and subtle sounds. Ekirch, in an outstanding compendium of the history of night in Western Europe, describes the feelings about after-sunset hours and how people reacted to night.

Night-time, Ekirch says, wasn't simply a reduction or hiatus in the sequence of daily activities. Night bred a distinct cultural milieu of its own. Many operated well in the dark hours, but not always for productive or socially acceptable purpose. Those who coped well with darkness, he suggests, did so because they needed to shun the light. As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, a new social structure classified society in new ways. Attempting to cope with the changes, some found the night the best time for acitivities legal and otherwise. For the rising middle class, the onset of night was a threat and an opportunity. From their poverty-stricken ancestry, the new rich often turned to "bedfellows" to quell fears of burglars or arsonists. The poor still crowded beds for warmth, but the newer wealthy also turned to friends for common protection, conversation and security. When alone and not terrified, these new, educated aristocrats might use the night for thought, reflection and writing.

The threats, however, were real. The new commercial and pre-industrial society fostered a new class of displaced or disadvantaged humanity. Women were particularly imposed upon as the need for income in poor households led them to assume extra tasks. Spinning and weaving, clothing manufacture, husking corn or boiling syrup, took place in countless households in the dark hours. The women competed in a highly variable market and the income was minimal. In frustration, many men took out their resentments in burning houses and barns of the landlords and entrepreneurs. Some burnings were simple animosity, while others used the distraction of fire to rob houses or wharves. The "highwayman" rose supreme in this age in men who knew intimately the patches of country to strike at the right time and place, then escaping easily.

An interesting division in Ekirch's narrative is the distinction between religion and commerce in this period. The Roman Catholic church saw advantages in the night as the time for prayer and meditation in cloisters. Commerce, however, needed daylight for the proper transmission of goods and maintaining inventory security. In the early period of this era [17th and 18th Centuries], shops were usually banned from maintaining operations past "curfew". The shutting of city gates reduced trade opportunities. Threats to homes and shops after curfew led to the beginnings of city police forces. Ekirch's denies prostitution the primacy of longevity as "the world's oldest profession" to grant that status to the nightwatch [Pratchett fans take note!]. Although hardly effective, the nightwatch laid the foundation for today's constables. While some nations like France and Spain attempted to impart status to the nightwatch, the British resisted them as a "junior" form of autocracy. The rising middle class, especially, objected to the watchmen's mandate to sequester anyone on the streets considered "suspicious".

Graced with numerous excellent renditions of paintings and drawings of the night's environment and activities, Ekirch lifts this book above a purely academic study. His "Notes" concluding the book are a research jaunt for the reader. Thinking of what the author endured to bring this mass of material together and present it in a coherent volume is almost staggering. He manages the task skillfully, imparting a wealth of records, diaries, poetry and letters in an easily readable, if not light-hearted style. His theme is the change of views of the night at the beginning of the pre-industrial era. He concludes by stating that the rise of artificial lighting revised again our view of the night. Sleep patterns, often broken among all classes in that era, have now, at least in the West, settled into a new form of long hours of continuous sleep. Does that mean our view of the night has truly changed? [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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