Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Review: At Day's Close

At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past
A. Roger Ekirch
New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005 & 2006
447 pages, including: Illustrations, Acknowledgements, Preface, Notes and Index
Reviewed by Rev. Eclecticity 

This volume is a rather unique contribution to the study of night—an eclectic potpourri of history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and more, dating from the late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. An engaging and entertaining read, yet at times tedious, having to contend with around seventy pages of endnotes.

The structure of this work is divided up into four parts and twelve chapters. Part One, “In the Shadow of Death,” describes the negative, evil, threatening nature of night. Part Two, “Laws of Nature,” portrays how religious and civil authorities attempted to employ suppressive measures like curfews and watchmen to control nocturnal human activities. Part Three, “Benighted Realms,” examines men and women at work and at play; and how night transformed the traditional, class-oriented daytime roles. Part Four, “Private Worlds,” addresses the world of sleep and dreams, as well as evening rituals.

Each of the four parts and chapters begins with a thought-provoking quotation, such as: “Never greet a stranger in the night, for he may be a demon.” THE TALMUD “The law is not the same at morning and at night.” GEORGE HERBERT “Many things even go best in the raw night-hours.” VIRGIL, 1ST CENTURY B.C. “Happy are those who can get rid of their problems when sleeping.” GUILLAUME BOUCHET

In addition to the familiar beliefs associated with night, the author points out other factors that torment human beings after dark, such as: strange sounds, distorted sights, the fear of robbers, rapists, murderers, and other malevolent beings. The nocturnal habits of royalty, clergy, the rich and the poor, prostitutes and outcasts of all kinds. Even a husband or wife would kill their spouse while they were asleep. Many a fire started from burning candles and melting wax when folks fell asleep—claiming lives and homes. Sometimes fires were deliberately started and could destroy entire streets because the buildings were so close together and people had little or no equipment to put them out. Accidents occurred on city streets at night when horses and carriages ran over pedestrians who were unable to find safety on narrow streets. People were injured or killed from falls into cisterns, holes, and cellars at night. Many were afraid to travel at night for fear of being robbed, mistakenly killed or beaten, or getting lost due to darkness.

On the upside of night, in both Jewish and Christian traditions, clergy encouraged reading, study, prayers and devotions. Religious minorities often met secretly at night and held their worship services, including weddings and burials.

Ekirch also ponders such traditions as: the origin of bedtime clothing for the middle and upper classes in the sixteenth century, while the poor slept in their day clothing and without blankets, sleep as terror for those who fear their enemies or have nightmares, sleep as a blessing for those who have visions and ecstatic dreams, the recommended hours of sleep for a healthy life, and the influence of gas lighting in cities during the nineteenth century, among various and sundry other subjects.


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