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At Day's Close: Night in Times Past Paperback – October 17, 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 82 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Engrossing, leisurely paced and richly researched, this history finds Ekirch reminding us of how preindustrial Westerners lived during the nocturnal hours, when most were plunged into almost total darkness. By describing how that darkness spelled heightened risk—of stumbles, drowning, fires and other dangers—Ekirch accounts for the traditional association of nighttime with fear and suspicion, illuminating the foundations of popular beliefs in satanic forces and the occult. He also describes how the night literally provided a cloak of darkness for crimes and insurrections, and how fear of the night sometimes led to racist blame and accusation. A professor of history at Virginia Tech, Ekirch ranges across the archives of Europe and early colonial America to paint a portrait of how the forces of law and order operated at night, and he provides fascinating insight into nocturnal labor—of masons, carpenters, bakers, glassmakers and iron smelters, among many others. The hardest nocturnal workers were women, Ekirch writes, doing laundry after a full day's domestic work. Ekirch also evokes benign nighttime activities, such as drinking and alehouse camaraderie; the thrill of aristocratic masquerades; the merrymaking of harvest suppers and dances. A rich weave of citation and archival evidence, Ekirch's narrative is rooted in the material realities of the past, evoking a bygone world of extreme physicality and preindustrial survival stratagems. 8 pages of color and 60 b&w illus. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Historian Ekirch re-creates the ambience of the European nocturnal world prior to the advent of artificial lighting in a fresh and thought-provoking cultural inquiry. Drawing on works of literature, letters, diaries, and criminal court documents, and maintaining throughout an infectious sense of wonder, Ekirch ignites the reader's imagination with example-rich descriptions of humankind's "age-old fear of darkness" and belief that the night is the domain of demons, witches, and ghosts. Turning to science to document the fact that we are more prone to illness, accidents, and death at night, Ekrich then lists a plague of former nighttime hazards, including spooked horses, emptied chamber pots, fire, and the dastardly crimes of the time. He compares the rural night with the city night, night as endured by the poor and enjoyed by the wealthy, and discusses sleep habits, romance, storytelling, dreams, and the liberation under the stars of the otherwise oppressed and maligned, from slaves to gays and lesbians. As Ekirch so vividly evokes the old magic of true night, he casts a skeptical eye on our brightly lit, 24/7 life, in which the heavens are obscured and we sit enraptured before computer and TV screens, oblivious to nature. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (October 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393329011
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393329018
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #170,678 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Kevin Killian HALL OF FAME on July 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I first heard about this book from Fritz Lanham's marvelous review of it in the Houston Chronicle some weeks back. As usual, Lanham makes you curious and excited about the books he likes and, though he had some reservations about Ekirch's prose style and sometimes cumbrous way of writing, he still made the book sound great. I have to agree, AT DAY'S CLOSE is one of those books which, once finished, you can't stop thinking about and which you want to tell all your friends about. For anyone who has thought much about the world before the modern era, it has a particularly magical touch, for it asks us to re-imagine what life was like before the electric and gas light came to be, when once the sun fell people were plunged into mostly inpenetrable darkness. No wonder they made such a cult of the moon! It must have been a blessing to them. "Ill met by moonlight" indeed.

Ekirch reports that the ordinary householder spent more on his bed than on anything else in the house. People must have been confined pretty much to bed. It made me think of the way Shakespeare's will leaves his "second best bed" to his wife, a bequest biographers sometimes take to mean that they didn't have a very good marriage, but now that Ekirch's reportage is in, I think of it in a different way. In A MIDSUMMER'S NIGHT DREAM, which takes place almost entirely during the night, the audience is allowed to "see" things it could never have seen even in moonlight and thus this must have contributed to the "magical" factor of the play for contemporary audience, a feeling we have long lost.

For us moderns, day and night are pretty much the same. Perhaps that's why our belief in elves, fairies, trolls, etc., has diminished. Thanks to Freud even our dreams have become more understandable.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book has done more to improve my understanding of pre-Enlightenment Western civilization, than, quite possibly, any one other work I can think of. The influence of the church on daily life, giving both fears (demons, Satan) and saviors - both of which were imminently more pressing when the only remedy for darkness was a candle whose poor light you could ill afford. (By the way, "burning the midnight oil" doesn't quite mean what you think it does.) The spread of disease, which was thought to be a result of the "bad night air", yet fear of it caused people to sleep, often all in one room, with the windows closed - thus practically ensuring that infection would spread to the whole family. One of the most surprising facts in the book is divided sleep, a phenomenon that the author maintains occurs in all primitive societies without electricity. People apparently become so well-rested that, going to bed near the fall of night, they have their "first sleep", awaken about midnight, lie awake (or find something to do) for 2-3 hours, then sleep some more. Ekrich points out that the body's hormones had completely adapted to this pattern. Thus, the aberration is our modern 6-8 hours at a stretch, something humans have not been doing that long really. This book is full of ideas like that. They are the kind of every day things that people think every one knows, so they are not written down, and, therefore, a bit of a challenge for the historian to unearth. (We all have these sort of "everybody knows that!" assumptions; just try coordinating a wedding. You'll soon find out both families have certain, largely unspoken, ideas of what a wedding should be.) Ekrich has written an enlightening book about a topic that has, amazingly, escaped scholarly light until now. A wonderful study of the dark half of our past.
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Format: Hardcover
What a great book, absorbing, thought-provoking and totally unputdownable. I have been waiting for so long to read this book and when I finally picked it up I just couldn't put it down. It is amazing. Culturally, we still have a fear of night, of the dark, and of what might happen. It is what makes horror movies so successful. Yet previous centuries, without the benefit of electric lighting, had a far deeper cultural attitude to day and night, and this is ably explained by Ekirch.

He explains just how pervasive night and dark was. Of people lost off dangerous roads, of streets hidden from daylight and moon light at night - and of falling into ditches, (or the kennels as they were then called) and having to chose the risk of falling into coal cellars on one side, or slipping into the kennels on the other. Of footpaths so ill formed that they were dangers in themselves. Of the distrust of anyone abroad at night, women not carrying candles were thought to be prostitutes and generally treated as thus. thefts at night were deemed burglaries and therefore viewed much more seriously than daylight thefts - indeed they were punishable by death.

The cultural icons of night were the devil, witches, werewolves and other nasty images, and in Italy they had a saying that dusk was when you couldn't tell a hound from a wolf. Interesting imagery.

The book suffers in some ways from not following a time line, or indeed a country, so quotes from the 14th century might easilyl follow a roman anecdote or something from 18th century England.

thematically it works though. It follows the general concepts of how night affected human psyche, of fires that were lit, and how they threw light. Of the types of lighting available, of curfews to prevent people being abroad.
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