Ian Pindar enjoys A Roger Ekirch's history of human activity after dark, At Day's Close
Saturday July 30, 2005
At Day's Close: A History of Nighttime
by A Roger Ekirch
480pp, Weidenfeld, £20
Night was demonised in the middle ages as Satan's playtime. If you didn't bump into Old Nick himself on your travels, you were sure to encounter one of his minions. An imp, perhaps, or a hobgoblin, a will-o'-the-wisp, a sprite, a pixie, a dobby, a kelpie, an elf, a troll, a boggle, a boggart or a waft. Witches were especially feared. They were thought to be responsible for deaths, broken legs, withered arms and even "bewitched genitals".
"Nightwalkers" were obviously up to no good. Honest people were too exhausted from working all day to wander abroad at night. As one French adage put it: "The good people love the day and the bad the night." In fact, as A Roger Ekirch reveals in this wise and compendious history of nighttime during the early modern era (c1500-1750), the reason why the night had such a bad reputation was because it undermined the social order that prevailed during the day. Under cover of darkness adolescents, servants and the poor escaped from the prying eyes of their parents, masters, owners or employers, and they made the most of it.
This "nocturnal licence" encouraged an entire night culture very different from daily life. In the dark one could evade the vigilance of church and state. Fugitives fearful of arrest travelled freely, tenants slipped away without paying the rent, unmarried mothers abandoned their newborns, and homosexuals visited "molly-houses" or solicited in public gardens. People scavenged for food or fuel, pilfered livestock, poached, smuggled and robbed graves. They indulged in occult rituals or congregated to worship God in the nude. The night always offered greater opportunities for sexual misconduct, from adultery and prostitution to the wickedness of "self-pollution".
However, the greatest hazard at night was not running into Beelzebub but, as Thomas Hobbes complained, "being knockt on the head for five or ten pounds". Murderers and thieves exploited night's advantages. The hours of darkness belonged to bullies, bawds, pimps, rakes, fops and the occasional fribble. There was gratuitous and unprovoked violence and plenty of vandalism (one great wheeze was to hang a dead cat on someone's front door). Gangs such as the Scowrers, the Hectors and the Mohocks regularly abused pedestrians, knifing them in the face or standing women on their heads and "misusing them in a barbarous manner". Today's fear of "hoodies" , it turns out, is nothing new. Hooded cloaks or any kind of disguise or "false face" were prohibited in the middle ages.
So what did honest folk get up to at night? Most were in bed by nine or 10 o'clock and back at work by five or six. Before bed there was plenty to do: brew ale or make cheese, put the animals to bed or butcher them, repair tools, pick apples, haul lumber, catch birds, burn wasps' nests, recite folktales round the fire, play games or music, "rant and carouse, damn and drink". Most men spent the evening at an alehouse. It was safer to drink ale, beer or wine than water or milk, so almost everyone lived in an alcoholic fog (which might explain the pixies).
A literate minority read before bed, usually the Bible, or wrote in their journals - like Pepys, who is often quoted in this entertaining patchwork of citations. Ekirch's command of his material is impressive as he raids chapbooks and sermons, poems, plays and fables for references to the night. It truly is a labour of love.
The book's most fascinating revelation is that our pre-industrial ancestors experienced what Ekirch calls "segmented sleep": there was "first sleep" until midnight, then a "second sleep". In between, they tended the fire, read or talked, had sex, smoked and meditated on the events of the previous day. Electric lighting has altered our sleep patterns and robbed us of this nocturnal hiatus.
In fact, Ekirch contends that the "gradual elimination" of night has actually impaired the quality of our dreams and deprived us of "a better understanding of our inner selves". What began as a history of nighttime becomes by the end a lament for a night we have lost.
· Ian Pindar's Joyce is published by Haas.