Before the Industrial Revolution, the daily departure of the sun had effects on people far different from those we experience in our own brightly illuminated age. Why? A first-time author explains.
Here, Ekirch (History/Virginia Tech) argues—and persuasively demonstrates—that darkness in earlier eras fostered “a distinct culture with many of its own customs and rituals.” And he should know. He’s researched his subject thoroughly (the endnotes run to 109 pages), trying with moderate success to cram into categories all he’s discovered. Unquestionably, Ekirch gives us a vast number of arresting details: Earlier generations, for example, believed that noxious vapors came with night; they didn’t admire sunsets; hanging the hearts of pigs over the hearth kept demons out of the chimney; humans have better night vision than most other animals; Pepys’ wife (worried about his carnal dreams) would periodically inspect his penis during his sleep; and some early thinkers believed sleep was caused by fumes rising to the brain from the belly of the sleeper. But there are also a number of observations that seem too patent for the attention Ekirch gives them. He tells us that dark was more dangerous than light, that the night facilitated storytelling, that people drank a lot, that lovers and criminals used the cover of darkness, that some people had bad dreams, that bundling was fun, that chamber pots could smell bad. Nonetheless, he’s done a creditable job of cataloguing the activities of the night—from nightwatching (a profession, he quips, probably older than prostitution) to enjoying masquerades to dung-burning to praying. He shows, too, that informal youth gangs sometimes ruled the dark streets in A Clockwork Orange fashion, and he reveals that sleeping the entire night through was a rarity in an earlier age. Too many potential dangers (fire!), suspicious sounds, foul odors, strange bedfellows and inconsistent diets routinely ruined rest.
A fascinating tale but, unfortunately, often in need of more graceful telling. (60 b&w illustrations, 8 pp. color illustrations, not seen)