The cultural history of night is the subject of two recent books. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past is a broad history of the uses and symbolism of night prior to the invention of electric lighting. One of his most fascinating discoveries was the habit of segmented sleep, the practice of dividing the night into “first” and “second” sleep, with a period of wakefulness in between. This custom had come to an end by the mid-seventeenth century (Pepys doesn’t mention it, for instance), in urban settings. Intriguingly, people didn’t sleep for an unbroken 8-hour stretch until about the time that night began to be illuminated with street lights (the transition occurred 1660-1700).
Craig Koslofsky’s Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe (New Studies in European History) has a narrower temporal focus than Ekirch and Koslofsky is more interested in the symbolic character of night in theology and philosophy. He too makes some surprising discoveries about night in early modern Europe. For instance:
Contrary to popular myth, the work day did not begin and end with the sun. Rather, “In large cities, work rhythms were uncoupled from sunrise by the end of the Middle Ages. Evidence from sixteenth-century England and France and from a detailed study of Hamburg shows that activity began around 6 a.m. regardless of sunrise. This pattern applied to merchants, clerks, masters, apprentices, and domestic servants – all rose around 5.30 a.m., often in the dark, to breakfast and begin work, perhaps attending a church service first.” In the seventeenth century, the day began later, and continued hours beyond sunset: “The urban workday included several long breaks and ended between 7 and 10 p.m.: extending the day’s work after sunset by candlelight was always a possibility.” Even in the country, people “often filled the ‘extra’ time on long winter evenings with less skilled tasks or those that required less light, such as carding wool or spinning. Village spinning bees were an extraordinarily important part of sociability in the rural night” (6-7).
Koslofsky describes the early modern process of “nocturnalization,” defined as “the ongoing expansion of the legitimate social and symbolic uses of night.” The uses were multiple: “In the early modern centuries spiritual authors from John of the Cross to John Milton used the night to express contrariety, self-denial, and the ineffable nature of the Divine. At royal courts and in cities, nocturnzalisation unfolded . . . in the years after 1650, when mealtimes, the closing schedules of city games, the beginning of theatrical performances and balls, and closing times of taverns all moved several hours later.” Rulers used nighttime fireworks and other displays to enhance the splendor of their regime (2).
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, September 3, 2012 at 10:34 am
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