At Day's Close

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

A historian of the fringes of American colonial society, A. Roger Ekirch began At Day’s Close as an exploration of nightlife in the American colonies. Over some twenty years of research, Ekirch became more interested in nighttime activities of Western Europeans during the sixteenth through the mid-eighteenth centuries. At Day’s Close focuses on European customs and beliefs with occasional references to Colonial America, describing in some detail a rich and varied culture involving a wide range of after-dark activities in both rural and urban neighborhoods, and involving all social strata from European aristocrats to colonial plantation slaves.

Ekirch was familiar with scholarly studies of early modern crime and the practice of witchcraft (occupations often pursued under cover of darkness) but found little research addressing the more common nighttime activities of preindustrial people. He drew upon more than one thousand primary resources including personal documents such as letters, memoirs, and diaries; books of proverbs; glossaries; literature, including novels, plays, and poetry as well as extant versions of popular fables and ballads; legal documents and court records; journals and autobiographies; newspapers; sermons; and advice books. Ekirch’s research also extended to the visual arts; At Day’s Close includes more than seventy examples of drawings, paintings, woodcuts, and cartoons illustrating nighttime activities.

These documents revealed that preindustrial people did not simply go to sleep at night but were involved in myriad after-dark activities. The nighttime had its own customs, rituals, and beliefs, forming a rich culture apart from that of the day. Social encounters, social events, work habits, and even morality changed after dark.

At Day’s Close is organized into twelve chapters arranged by topic rather than chronology or geography. The first part, “In the Shadow of Death,” discusses the many physical and spiritual dangers preindustrial people faced after sundown. Although educated people at the end of the Middle Ages knew darkness occurred in the absence of sunlight, many still believed that darkness descended like a cloud falling from the sky, and felt threatened by darkness and night air. Without artificial light, people perceived themselves to be surrounded and engulfed by impenetrable darkness.

The air itself was thought to have toxic effects on the body, with the potential for causing disease and even death. Women were thought to be especially susceptible to the dangers of breathing night air. People may have actually been more likely to sicken and die in the nighttime than in daytime because of customs based on erroneous beliefssuch as preventing air from circulating in sleeping chambers to avoid contamination, thereby preventing the healthful circulation of fresh air.

In preindustrial Europe, darkness was also a reminder of the darkness of Hell or the absence of God’s light. Astronomical phenomena in the night skycomets, meteors, and eclipseswere often interpreted as portents of doom sent from God. Preindustrial people believed strongly in Satan as an actual entity who came to torment them with illness or death. Misfortune could also come from the Devil’s many minionslesser devils, hobgoblins, ghosts, and witches.

People also feared the burglars and thieves for whom darkness provided cover. Households managed their own protection from crime; most families owned weapons and made sure to shut and bolt doors and windows at dusk. Ekirch provides many examples of the techniques employed by burglars as well as their typical modes of dress, colloquial expressions, and the methods they used for avoiding light (often simply waiting until the moon’s light was lessened or obscured).

Law enforcement was provided by night watchmen in many cities, who were expected to prevent arson as well as lesser crimes, but watchmen tended to be boisterous and morally corrupt, more often an annoyance than a help. They were disparaged by the general populace and frequently subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Watchmen checked doors of...

(The entire section is 1703 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 18 (May 15, 2005): 1621.

Harper’s Magazine 310 (June, 2005): 81.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 6 (March 15, 2005): 330.

The Nation 281, no. 6 (August 29, 2005): 38-40.

The New York Times 154 (July 24, 2005): 18.

The New Yorker 81, no. 15 (May 30, 2005): 86-90.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 14 (April 4, 2005): 52.

Spectator 298 (July 16, 2005): 36-37.