At Days Close Hardcover – Jun 14 2005
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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)
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*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
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Top Customer Reviews
Of particular interest is Ekirch's discussion of "second sleep," a bygone type of sleeping that is now considered by scientists to be something lost due to the rise of artificial light and modern lifestyles. Ekirch shows that in times past people arose approximately halfway during the night and engaged in numerous activities (writing, sexual intercourse, etc.) for an hour or so before returning to sleep again until the morning. This was quite natural and something many people did, with that time providing a beneficial period for reflection or intimacy.
The best thing Ekirch accomplishes here is giving us a real sense of just how different and scary the world must've been when it was so dark at night. People stumbled into holes and died, heard strange noises, saw glimpses of dastardly deeds or seemingly paranormal occurrences, and generally feared the time when they were at the mercy of their inability to see a few feet beyond themselves. It is a world that seems so foreign to us, and yet those of us who have camped far from the city and been at the mercy of night time with no artificial lights can attest to how quickly that world can come back to us. Ekirch has done us all a great service in bringing such an interesting and relatively neglected subject to light, pardon the pun.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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. Imagine living back then and feeling that the dreams were part of a larger, evil force that took control once the sun was down and that dreams were forced on you!
The book has something startling on every page. How many other books can make that claim? Besides that, it brings the past to us in a nearly visceral way. I found myself looking at the sun, a-feared as I watched it near the earth.
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. Of gradual municipal responsibility.
I found this book so good I read it through again to pick up what I missed the first time through. Truly extraodinary work and very enjoyable. My highest recommendation.
He also gives a good many of his own opinions and generalizations, sometimes footnoted, sometimes not. Some I would question, such as (to take a random example) "Pre-industrial folk, in facing the natural world, drew on a deep reservoir of rural culture, one fed by many wellsprings, including both pagan and Christian traditions." I wish he had given some examples of pagan and Christian practices used to navigate the nightscape (the subject of the chapter), but he doesn't. Many sections are loosely written like this, throwing out a lot of ideas without really following any of them up. (My question in this case is whether anything truly pagan, as opposed to merely traditional practices for "luck," existed this late in Western European history.)
Since I do have a background in history, I was actually disappointed in this book. Here's why: because it told me a good many things I already knew, but the one idea that was really news to me wasn't expanded on as much as I'd like: the idea that pre-industrial Europeans regarded sleeping in two sessions per night (routinely waking for awhile around midnight) as the norm. This insight was promoted as something new and different about this book (which it is) but in fact it gets less than ten pages in a 340-page text before veering off into a discussion of dreams. I would have liked to hear much more.
All in all, this looks to me like an author trying to cram too much material into one book. A lot of what's in there is interesting, but the material could have been pared down, tightened up, and then expanded in selected spots, to make a much better book that discussed fewer topics in more depth. There's enough in here that is NOT generally known to most people that a fascinating book could have been constructed.