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Book Review

 

Ekirch, A. Roger. At Day's Close: Night in Times Past (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005). 447 pp., $25.95.
 
   

     Works that challenge prevailing perceptions of the ways we view history are generally satisfying, and Roger Ekirch's examination of night in early modern times is no exception. Professor Ekirch of Virginia Tech compels his readers to examine the period from 1500 to 1750 through a lens darkened by the realities and fantasies of night. Here, readers find a world that parallels the day, potentially governed by chaos and disorder as well as opportunity. His lens illuminates a period shaped in part by sleep but at the same time at odds with rules of law and society that set the tempo for the daylight hours. While the volume's primary focus is Europe, there are also sections that draw in customs and attitudes from Colonial America. The study is valuable to students and teachers because of its approach to western history before the Industrial Revolution, its methodology, and its rich and varied use of evidence. Though the focus is western, the themes developed have global implications and its clearly organized, well written chapters will reward a close reading and inspire questions about the night in other cultures and regions around the world.

     Professor Ekirch's study is a labor of love, with a gestation period encompassing nearly two decades. He has used his time effectively to master a broad range of sources which he uses to recreate the cultural history of night, reproducing its sounds, sights, and textures. Among his sources are the expected diaries, letters, memoirs, and travelers' accounts; however, these are skillfully complemented by the Old Bailey Session Papers and other legal records, collections of proverbs, relevant samples from "high" and "low" literature, and many other manuscript and printed materials. The resulting twelve chapters, divided into four sections, offer a myriad of insights into the night's terrors and perils, the efforts of traditional institutions of authority to control it, those who labored or otherwise were out and about during its hours, and the worlds of slumber. Ekirch argues convincingly that night was more than a change of time; rather, it represented a shift in norms of thought, behavior, and actions.

     The opening chapters explore the fears created by the night, occasioned in part by the manner in which the senses were affected by it. Darkness influenced sight and sound as people saw threats and dangers in commonplace landmarks and structures. Everyday trees, bushes, and hedges by day assumed mysterious and dangerous identities at night. As Professor Ekirch argues, part of the explanation for the fear night engendered is found in cultural beliefs. Changes in the night skies, like those seen after the Great Fire of 1666, were often interpreted as signs of destruction, doom and disaster.

     The second section of the book explores official and popular responses to the night, demonstrating how such things as curfews, the ringing of bells, walls around cities, and night watchmen existed to limit individual mobility after dark. Women especially were confined to their houses after dark as citizens feared for their safety. Atypical sounds were also regulated. For instance, a 1595 London regulation barred sudden shouts in the night because of the fears they might arouse. Night was a time to be wary.

     Ekirch's study goes beyond the terrors inspired by the night to analyze the possibilities it offered. Night made the social orders more equal as it guarded the lowly against the deference that dominated their daily interactions with their social superiors. Pots of human waste were emptied into the streets at night. Sumptuary regulations were more easily ignored. The darkness also offered sanctuary to unsanctioned liaisons. In short, the night served as a social equalizerĐa time when conventions were turned upside down in early modern times.

     To single out any portion of this fine study for special notice is difficult because its chapters are all rich in their creative narratives, use of evidence, and themes; however, the final section on sleep merits special comment. In it, Professor Ekirch illustrates how the nature of sleep has changed since industrial times. Because early modern people lived in a world in which little light existed after sunset, their sleeping patterns differed significantly from their modern descendants. He provides numerous accounts about the time following "first sleep" when people were awake in bed for long periods before falling back to their slumber. These reflective periods gave early modern people fuller access to their own dreams than later generations, and suggests they may have had a greater capacity for psychological insight than their successors. His argument is underscored in Carla Gerona's Night Journeys, which studies dreams in Quaker society in the same period. Both provide useful access to what early modern people thought about, and deepen our understanding of the mental worlds of everyday people.

     In sum, Ekirch's volume merits close reading for its fascinating interpretation of the other half of early modern times, for its careful analysis of evidence, for its rich narrative, and for the kinds of questions it raises for students and teachers of history. Its topics are explained in a manner that readily transfers to the World history classroom. Having students explore how diverse cultures defined the various patterns of the night or interpreted them may help them to better understand how societies interpreted their universe and how individuals and groups responded to it. It also provides extremely valuable insights for differentiating urban and rural responses to darkness. As Ekirch observes, for instance, in rural societies night rises, it does not fall. Because the work is focused on "the other" in history (night rather than day), its approach and arguments may be effectively explored to help students understand another dimension of any topic or region. This highly original work is a wonderful read and a sound panorama to a long neglected aspect of history.

 

Michael J. Galgano
James Madison University

 

 
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