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Life in the dark

Created date

May 21st, 2013
At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past

We don’t give it a second thought. As night falls, our headlights brighten our paths of travel, neighborhood streetlights make quiet evening strolls safer, and lamps perched on bedside tables illuminate the pages of our favorite books.

With the flip of a switch, our world goes from night to day. But prior to the advent of efficient and readily accessible light by oil, gas, and electricity, the simplest of nocturnal activities were difficult.

“Night was quite different for people hundreds of years ago,” says historian Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (Norton, 2006). “While they weren’t exactly helpless, they were well aware of the myriad dangers they faced once the sun went down.”

Dangers in the dark

Those who dared travel at night met with an inky darkness that obscured ruts, ditches, and slippery rocks. A simple misstep might send a pedestrian tumbling to his death, a horse-drawn carriage plummeting into a ravine.

The criminal element also proved a threat, using darkness to its advantage. According to an Italian proverb, “Every cat [was] a leopard at night.”

“Naturally, criminals thrived during the night hours,” says Ekirch, whose 20 years of research turned up numerous instances of theft, murder, and violent home invasions dating back centuries. “Across Europe, burglaries could turn particularly brutal and, without light, victims were all the more vulnerable.”

In place of flood lights and electronic security systems, people frequently relied on watchdogs to guard against intruders; and by the 1600s, even humble country homes had glass windows secured with latch locks and heavy shutters. Still, no matter how well residents fortified their houses against outside threats, night imposed necessities that created hazards indoors.

After sunset, open flames were common, and especially in homes built of wood and thatch, a constant menace. A dropped candle or a few rogue sparks from a fireplace were enough to obliterate single homes and entire villages.

“Before electricity, night life was more complicated; however, it’s wrong to assume that people were unable to cope with these challenges,” notes Ekirch. “In certain parts of England, for example, they built mounds of chalky white soil called ‘land lights’ to guide nocturnal travelers through fields and along roads.

“Furthermore, those who insisted on traveling at night moved in groups when possible. People went to great practical lengths to navigate darkness.”

Of course, electric light was the most practical of them all. What could be easier than the flip of a switch?