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At Day's Close: Night in Times Past by A…
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At Day's Close: Night in Times Past (edition 2006)

by A Roger Ekirch

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4051326,316 (3.79)16
Member:dylanwolf
Title:At Day's Close: Night in Times Past
Authors:A Roger Ekirch
Info:W. W. Norton & Co. (2006), Paperback, 480 pages
Collections:Sociology
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Tags:Sociology

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At Day's Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch

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I was determined to finish this book but it wasn't easy! I kept getting bored, but I wanted the information. Some parts were so interesting, then pages of BORING, but that may just be my preference for the particular subject matter. This is a social history of nighttime or darkness and sleep. It's something I had pretty set opinions about e.g. people are made to get up with the sun and go to bed and sleep when the sun goes down. Sleep longer in winter, less in summer. Well turns out there's a lot more to it than that. I had read about the concept of segmented sleeping and really wanted to know more. I was wondering if I would ever get to THAT part of the book, but here are some of these things I found interesting on my way:

When people could not see while traveling at night, their other senses could guide them. They could smell the hops from their village, animals, piles of dung, and they could hear different animals e.g. village dogs. Now I keep wanting to go for smell walks. I think I'm already pretty attuned to sounds. I just moved awhile back and that was something I noticed a LOT. I missed the sounds of particular birds, until I adjusted to the different birds in my new home.

Clothing of course was also effected- in obvious ways regarding cool air at night calling for heavier clothing, but also they could wear their poorer clothes at night because they would not be so visible, and save their better clothing for daytime. Some women put pots of hot embers hanging on their petticoats to keep them warm. Made me laugh, remembering when I actually stuffed some of those thin first aid ice packs in strategic places in my clothing when I was attending an outdoor wedding and it was 105 degrees F.

And perhaps the best part of night and darkness was more privacy - but then you remember that from high school right? Climbing out the windows and sneaking out? Freedom from the constraints of daylight!

And yes, finally, the section on segmented sleep, also called first sleep and second sleep. It appears that at certain times in history some populations habitually slept a few hours, arose after midnight for a couple of hours, and slept again until daylight. That awake period might be a time for reflection, meditation, sex, going for a walk outside, visiting with neighbors even. The number one complaint about sex in the U.S. in our time, is that people are too tired to have sex. Something wrong with a culture where people are too freakin tired to have sex! But that is addressed here historically also. People were often too tired, then awakened refreshed after a couple of hours for a pleasurable interlude of both emotional and physical intimacy. Sounds very intriguing to me and certainly goes against my ideas about 8 hours a night! in a row!

I do think this is an important piece of research and history that needs to be recorded and the author has done a wonderful job of that. I just might have done a little skimming! ( )
2 vote mkboylan | Apr 21, 2013 |


If you want to understand how people really spent their daily (or rather nightly) lives in preindustrial worlds or even third world societies that are not electrified, this is it. It is also quite entertaining. Would also be useful to fantasy writers working on pseudo-medieval milieus. ( )
  clmerle | Apr 2, 2013 |
As someone who's always been a little freaked out by being out in the middle of nowhere at night, I've often wondered what it must have been like back a few centuries when it got really dark at night. That's what prompted me to pick up this book, which promises to tell you how people dealt with night when there were nothing more than candles to illuminate a couple of feet in front of you.

The book is divided up into different sections by topic - the first section, for example, is about the supernatural forces that people thought were afoot during darkness. A couple of the others talk about the very real dangers night brought, and the customs surrounding bedrooms and going to sleep.

Some of the types of things covered:

How people managed to visit friends or come home from the pub after dark - I can't imagine knowing fields and surroundings well enough to navigate them with nothing but moonlight to guide me. Of course, that's part of what he talks about: how many people suffered accidents brought on by being disoriented or drunk (or both) while trying to find their way home.

As for crime, it was amusing to me that even back then, people were advised to yell "Fire!" if they were being attacked instead of "Murder!" (And don't get me started on how melodramatic it is to yell "murder!" anyway.) Now I think the conventional wisdom is that people are more likely to help just because a fire probably doesn't involve a violent altercation, but back then it was because a fire was a serious business that was just as likely to burn down your entire village as one house.

Night was often a leveler; on the streets, few could tell whether someone approaching was a peasant or nobility. People who worked hard all day were able to relax away from the watchful eyes of their betters. Women could get together in spinning or knitting groups and talk more freely. Even slaves were often able to leave their quarters and visit each other, sacrificing sleep to cover the long distances between plantations.

It seems that people used to sleep on a more segmented schedule, sleeping for a few hours, waking up and staying awake for a while, and then going back to sleep until daybreak. I am pretty sure I just recently saw an article going by about exactly this sort of sleep schedule and how it might be more natural/better for us. The arrival of artificial light in common usage stretched our waking hours and probably compressed the sleeping ones into one block.

So basically, this book has a lot of interesting tidbits, and that's what kept me going although the writing was hit-or-miss for me. It was obviously well-researched, but the difficulty is that there wasn't a lot of source material. Not that many people in those times kept diaries, and the ones who did often didn't write about what they considered mundane, which leaves Ekirch talking about some habit, and then citing a lone diary entry by someone as if that meant whatever the event was happened all the time to all sorts of people. I don't really doubt that many of the examples he used were relatively frequent occurrences (as I said, the book seems well-researched), but it irked me as a reader because it broke up the flow of the writing. Recommended for people with a particular interest in what people really did and what they were really afraid of when the sun went down, who aren't easily bored.*

*There is a blurb on the back of the book which made me wonder if it was a backhanded compliment: "Perfect reading for insomniacs and star-gazers alike." ( )
1 vote ursula | Jan 1, 2013 |
History books mostly record what happened during daylight hours. "At Day's Close," the 2005 book by Virginia Tech history professor A. Roger Ekirch, is an engrossing history of what happened after the sun went down.

Even today the world is a very different place at night than during the day, but in earlier centuries the differences were even more pronounced. Bedtime for most people was between 9 and 10 p.m. and most were up before sunrise. Even so, there was plenty of activity after dark.

Workers customarily put in long hours, but once the sun set they were free of their employers or, in the case of American slaves, their owners. They could drink, dance, make love, read or just sleep as they chose. There were many people who hated to see the sun rise again.

Crime was a serious problem everywhere at night for that is when burglars, smugglers, poachers, rapists and vandals did their work, just as is true today. But in earlier times, those responsible for keeping the peace were usually home in bed at night. Protecting one's home and property was up to each individual, though sometimes with the help of one's neighbors.

The problem of juvenile delinquency is certainly nothing new. At night gangs of young thugs roamed the villages and countryside, intimidating everyone they came across. Young noblemen were a particular problem. Though they adhered to proper manners during daylight hours, they would engage in all manner of mischief after dark.

Some wealthy people liked to dress as common laborers when they went out at night because they would be less likely to be robbed. Some just believed the poor had more fun at night.

Much in Ekirich's book might seem surprising to modern readers. At one time, many parents deliberately instilled a fear of the night in their children by telling stories about ghosts and boogeymen. This was their way of keeping their children safe in their own homes at night.

In some areas, it was illegal to beat one's wife or servants at night. This was so as to not disturb the slumber of neighbors.

Today smokers are often forced to go outdoors to smoke. In colonial America, laws prohibited outdoor smoke after dark because of the fire danger it posed to other people's homes.

Before the invention of artificial lighting, which has affected the human sleep cycle, most people woke up, often for a couple of hours, in the middle of the night. This was a favorite time for conversation, lovemaking, prayer, contemplation of the dreams from one's "first sleep" or even to get an early start on the next day's work before returning to bed for the rest of the night.

So common was sharing a bed, even with total strangers, that French phrase books for English travelers to France included such helpful translations as "You are an ill bed-fellow" and "You do nothing but kick about."

Ekirch's book makes lively reading about a part of history that, for the most part, has been kept in the dark. ( )
1 vote hardlyhardy | Jul 21, 2012 |
This is a non-fiction book about nighttime in the period 1500 - 1750. Impeccably researched, Ekirch regularly quotes from poems, diaries, court transcripts, news articles and other records to illustrate his point. Covering Europe and early colonial America, the book is divided into 'themes,' which makes it easy to read about the topics that interest the reader (but of course I read it all).

It would be obvious to most that danger increased after the sun went down as did the number and the nature of crimes which are described in the book. A common term of 'shutting in' described how people in towns and rural areas would shut themselves in their homes at the same time each day, closing shutters, barring doors etc. Superstitions and fears were rife and included witches, demons, faeries, monsters and satan amongst fear of burglary. People even feared the damp night air, which gave birth to the night cap, to keep the damp night air from settling on the head.

Most households would light a rush light, tallow candle, (made from animal fat) or a lantern for light, at least an hour after shut in to save on costs (candles and other methods of producing light were expensive). In fact, it was very common to move furniture back against the wall at night so as to remove obstacles while moving around in the dark.

These fears kept many shut in at night, but social activities and gatherings did occur at night, especially during a full moon or a clear night, where the light from the night sky was at it's brightest. Ekirch informs the reader about many of the activities men and women of all backgrounds indulged in at night time.

It is believed that most people went to bed between 9pm and 10pm when all forms of light were extinguished and the fire was raked over. The most interesting revelation in this book is that during this period, sleep patterns were drastically different to today. This fact is relatively unknown today, but hundreds of years ago, people enjoyed two sleeps in one night! Ekirch provided many quotes from plays, diaries etc to support his research and I was quite astonished to say the least. After the 'first sleep', a person would wake up for anywhere up to 2 hours or more. This time was generally used to ponder their dreams and 'visions' and for quiet contemplation and prayer. This is the time most lovemaking took place given that most laborers were too tired when they went to bed. It was also considered to be the best time for conception!

The second sleep then took place, followed by the 'cock crow' (roosters crowing) and dawn. These marked the time of night for most people living during this time. In London and Paris, it was interesting to learn about the 'night watch' whose job it was to patrol the streets, apprehending criminals or thieves, watching for signs of fire (a serious danger in any city or town) as well as calling out the time. They usually called out the time accompanied by a rhyme or catch cry. Ironically, many residents often complained that they were continually woken up by the nightwatch who were on duty primarily to keep people safe from fire and burglary.

With the introduction of artificial light, this sleep pattern slowly dissolved and Ekirch claims that our connection to our dreams (an extremely important practice during these times) has been lost as has our time for peaceful inner reflection.

It was interesting to learn that the Churches across Europe were not in favour of the introduction of artificial light, as they viewed night time the time for prayer and worship.

Did you know that when walking at night in a town or city, it was best to walk as close as you could to the wall, so as not to be showered with the contents of chamber pots being emptied from above? In fact, if two men were walking towards each other, the poorer man would always give the 'gentleman' the wall and walk on the side closest to the street. Walking close to the wall wasn't without it's own perils though, and falling down into cellars and coal shutes was common.

Anyway, I could go on and on about this book, because it was so fascinating and such a great read! Did you know that men used to urinate into the fireplace at night time, if they didn't have a chamber pot? Gross!

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history and especially an interest in 'night in times past'. ( )
1 vote Carpe_Librum | Dec 9, 2010 |
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It was an era of dire apocalyptic visions.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393329011, Paperback)

"Remarkable….Ekirch has emptied night's pockets, and laid the contents out before us."—Arthur Krystal, The New Yorker

Bringing light to the shadows of history through a "rich weave of citation and archival evidence" (Publishers Weekly), scholar A. Roger Ekirch illuminates the aspects of life most often overlooked by other historians—those that unfold at night. In this "triumph of social history" (Mail on Sunday), Ekirch's "enthralling anthropology" (Harper's) exposes the nightlife that spawned a distinct culture and a refuge from daily life.

Fear of crime, of fire, and of the supernatural; the importance of moonlight; the increased incidence of sickness and death at night; evening gatherings to spin wool and stories; masqued balls; inns, taverns, and brothels; the strategies of thieves, assassins, and conspirators; the protective uses of incantations, meditations, and prayers; the nature of our predecessors' sleep and dreams—Ekirch reveals all these and more in his "monumental study" (The Nation) of sociocultural history, "maintaining throughout an infectious sense of wonder" (Booklist).

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:41:39 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Crime, fire, and witches; navigating fields by starlight; work parties to spin wool and tales; masked balls and night-cellars; midnight liaisons and bundling; the rhythms of sleep and dreams - all these and more are interwoven in this study. Panoramic in scope, At Day's Close is fashioned on an intimate scale, enriched by personal stories and twenty years of research.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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