Skip to content Skip to footer

Book review: “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past” by A. Roger Ekirch

young man holding candle by thomas frye......I found A. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published in 2004, endlessly fascinating — and endlessly irritating.

What Ekirch set out to do in this book was to look at the myriad aspects of life after dark for the people in preindustrial Europe and North America (generally 1500 through 1750). He looks at how people got around (and didn’t) in the dark, how they used moonlight and candlelight to see after sunset, how they acted on the roadways and in their homes at night, and much, much, much more.

And he succeeds wonderfully in examining hundreds of ways in which life after dark was different than life in the daylight — and, by implication, the ways in which life at night in the preindustrial world was different than life at night in the present-day.

For instance, did you ever wonder what it must have been like to fall ill in a world before electricity and other artificial illumination? Ekirch did, and he reports:

Not only was sickness common, but darkness contributed its share of injuries. Families possessed a passing knowledge of remedies and cures, combined with a small inventory of potions, plasters, and possets, some acquired from the local cunning men [folk healers]…Tormented one evening by a throbbing earache, [Parson Woodforde] placed a roasted onion in his ear. When shortly before midnight, the Virginia squire Landon Carter thought his slave Daniel near death, he prescribed twenty or thirty drops of liquid laudanum in mint water, followed an hour later by a “vomit of Ipecacuana.”


A single paragraph

That’s interesting, right? Yet, with the addition of a sentence I trimmed out for space reasons, that’s Ekirch’s entire discussion of sickness at night.

This is how he handles almost every subject — in the space of a single paragraph. He makes a general comment or two and cites two or three examples, and then it’s on to the next subject.

For achieving his goals, this is a useful approach for Ekirch. By condensing a particular aspect of the night into a single paragraph, he’s able to deal with hundreds of such aspects in a book with a text that runs only 339 pages (plus 75 pages of notes).

As a result, the book is a treasure trove for historians and fiction writers who want to get a sense of, say, how people read in bed (dangerously, by candlelight) or dealt with thieves in the dark (with difficulty).

But, for the general reader, this approach produces an endless series of questions.


night by hogarth......Then what?

Consider the paragraph quoted above. The parson with the earache puts a roasted onion in his ear — and then what? Did it work? And, after those heroic efforts by the squire to drug his slave to health, did Daniel take a turn for the better?

I fully understand Ekirch’s dilemma. If he had added just a single extra sentence to such examples to give a little more of the picture, his text could have easily been over 600 pages.

But, boy, there is so much more that I want to know, and not just what happened next.


No synthesis

Because of his approach, Ekirch doesn’t do much analysis. He doesn’t try to pull aspects together to give a clearer sense of the totality of living in the dark. What I mean is that each of the hundreds of aspects he addresses are handled separately. True, they are grouped with other similar or related elements, but Ekirch makes no effort to synthesize those into what an individual might have experienced at a given moment at night.

Again, I recognize that he wasn’t aiming to synthesize, but to list. And, for scholars and others interested in particular elements of night life, his listings will be very helpful.

Yet, for me, they were, as I’ve said, irritating.


Engaging, compelling and….limited

ekrich.close..cover........Here are some examples of observations Ekirch makes that are engaging, compelling and thought-provoking — but doesn’t examine. Alas.:

• “Enhanced self-awareness”: For all the opportunities that nighttime afforded for courting and companionship, it also permitted preindustrial folk unprecedented freedom to explore their own individuality. On myriad evenings, growing numbers of men and women devoted an hour or more to solitude and mental reflection, resulting ultimately in an enhanced self-awareness.
• “An intimate atmosphere”: On top of everything else, darkness generated an intimate atmosphere in which words of affection flowed more freely. Low levels of light, whether from a candle or lamp, brought couples closer together, physically and emotionally…With sight impaired, hearing, touch, and smell, with their greater power to arouse emotions, all acquired heightened importance.
• “An alternate reality”: Night…represented an alternate reality for a substantial segment of the preindustrial population, a realm of its own that, at a minimum, implicitly challenged the institutions of the workaday world. As a resident of Maryland said of slaves, “Though you have them slaves all the day, they are not so at night.”
• “Hunts”: In preparation for sleep, families engaged in “hunts” of furniture and bedding for both fleas (palex irritans) and bedbugs (cimex lectularius), which had arrived in Britain by the sixteenth century. Lice (pediculus humanus) needed to be combed from hair and picked from clothing and skin….To keep gnats at bay, families in the fen county of East Anglia hung lumps of cow dung at the foot of their beds, whereas John Locke advised placing the leaves of kidney beans about a bed to avert insect bites.
• “A state of mind”: More important still, nighttime, by its very nature, connoted freedom from the constraints of daily life, the innumerable rules and obligations that repressed gaiety and playfulness. Night…was a state of mind.
• “Ordure”: “Night soil” was the euphemism coined for the ordure that professional nightmen hauled in buckets [out of cesspits] to waiting carts. Some families, like the Pepys household, benefited from sharing their cellar with a neighbor. “So to bed,” Samuel wrote in July 1863, “leaving the man below in the cellar emptying the turds up through Mr. Turner’s own house…”
• “Beyond government control”: Ultimately, night lay beyond government control, a natural law that neither courts nor constables could change. A tenacious fatalism, grounded in an awareness of God’s omnipotence and man’s frailty, undergirded the official mindset.

Patrick T. Reardon

Leave a comment