At Day’s Close [A. Roger Ekirch]

Start Date: 8 May, 2020

Finish Date: 28 May, 2020

Source: Amazon India Kindle Edition

Goodreads link.

Goodreads summary:

At Day’s Close charts a fresh realm of Western culture, nocturnal life from the late medieval period to the Industrial Revolution.

The book focuses on the cadences of daily life, investigating nighttime in its own right and resurrecting a rich and complex universe in which persons passed nearly half of their lives – a world, long-lost to historians, of blanket fairs, night freaks, and curtain lectures, of sun-suckers, moon-cursers and night-kings.

It is not only the vocabulary that has disappeared: At Day’s Close will restitute many facts which have been either lost or forgotten. It is a significant and newsworthy contribution to social history, filled with substantial research, stories and new discoveries.

Ekirch uses a wide range of sources to reconstruct how the night was lived in the past: travel accounts, memoirs, letters, poems, plays, court records, coroner’s reports, depositions and laws dealing with curfews, crime and lighting. He has analysed working-class autobiographies, proverbs, nursery rhymes, ballads and sermons, and folklore, as well as consulting medical, psychological and anthropological papers.


  • I came to know about this book from the Flash Forward episode Enter Night. That was a great episode. This was unfortunately not a great book.
  • My biggest crib with the book is that it’s long, massively long, but there’s no clear narrative that ties the different chapters together. Even worse, chapters contradict each other. There’s one chapter which brings out example after example of how the night was full of crime and terror; and a few chapters later, is an entire chapter about how people used to enjoy themselves at night.
  • Now, of course, human experience is vast and wide, so I don’t doubt that the night could have been both terrifying and still full of pleasure depending on the person in question or the time in question. I’m just exasperated at how each chapter seemed to be in its own world.
  • On the bright side, each chapter was marvelous in the breadth of what it cited.

Special mention to Discworld connections. This especially put in context:

  • How the night watch of Guards! Guards! running away in terror from actual criminals was historically accurate.
  • The importance of candles as seen in Feet of Clay. This passage about Louis XIV in particular.

Introduced by the Phoenicians, the beeswax candle first became popular among European aristocrats during the late Middle Ages. Renowned for its pleasant odor and clear flame, it was long favored by genteel households. According to the Boke of Curtasye (ca. 1477–1478), it was the chandler’s duty to see that “in the chamber no light there shall be burned but of wax.” Such was the extravagance of the court of Louis XIV that used candles were never relit. Of comparable quality, with the rise of whale hunting in the North Atlantic during the early eighteenth century, were spermaceti candles, fashioned from a rose-colored liquid wax found in the head of sperm whales—thus the mission of Captain Ahab’s vessel, the Pequod, in Moby-Dick (1851)

  • And this connects to The Fifth Elephant

Tallow candles, by contrast, offered a less expensive alternative. The mainstay of many families, their shaft consisted of animal fat, preferably rendered from mutton that was sometimes mixed with beef tallow. (Hog fat, which emitted a thick black smoke, did not burn nearly as well, though early Americans were known to employ bear and deer fat.)

  • Well, hello, Commander Vimes:

In cities, differences in pavement could alert pedestrians to their location, as they struggled to keep to the beaten track. Of navigating London’s streets, Gay wrote, “Has not wise nature strung the legs and feet / With finest nerves, design’d to walk the street? / Has she not given us hands to groap aright, / Amidst the frequent dangers of the night?”

  • And Harry King:

Persons scavenged deserted market stalls, hunting for bread, vegetables, and scraps of meat to sell. Others collected excrement from lanes to peddle in the country for fertilizer. There was money in manure. In Naples, Goethe discovered boys and farmhands “reluctant to leave the streets at nightfall,” such was the “gold mine” to be had from the “droppings of mules and horses.”

Other interesting passages:

One can only speculate about when an inherent fear of darkness might first have taken root in the human psyche. In view of the terror that must have struck our earliest ancestors, very likely this most ancient of human anxieties has existed from time immemorial, much as Burke contended. Some psychologists, however, have surmised that prehistoric peoples, rather than naturally fearing darkness in its own right, may have first feared specific perils arising in the dark. Only then, as night grew increasingly synonymous with danger, might early populations, across a span of many generations, have acquired an instinctive terror.

Fear of the dark

Fear of the dark

I have a constant fear that someone’s always near


Enlisted in Satan’s service were vast hordes of witches, having each entered into a solemn covenant with the Prince of Darkness. Armed with fresh powers, they reputedly congregated to worship the devil at nocturnal festivals initially called “synagogues” and, later, “sabbaths.” Besides engaging in sexual perversions and diabolical rites, they devoured young children, whose flesh enabled them to fly.

Torches blazed

And sacred chants were phrased

As they start to cry

Hands held to the sky

In the night

The fires burning bright

The ritual has begun

Satan’s work is done

  • This reminded me of notebandi:

In a French community, the sergeant of the guard, hoping to reap a small fortune from the throngs of citizens attending a distant fair, ordered the town’s bell rung a half-hour early, with tardy souls forced either to pay a penny or remain abroad all evening. Such was the mad crush of panicked crowds as they neared the gate that more than one hundred persons perished, most trampled in the stampede, others pushed from the drawbridge, including a coach and six horses. For his rapacity, the guardsman was broken upon the wheel.


Thus the watch in Paris refrained from dispersing late-night revelers at a cabaret for they were “honnêtes gens.”

reminded me of Deirdre McCloskey’s point that the meaning of ‘honest’ has changed since the time Ekirch is writing about.

Then there was this marvelous suggestion for how to keep people awake at night to make sure there was no fire or theft happening:

The Florentine Leon Battista Alberti urged in the mid-1400s that not just dogs but also geese patrol inside homes—“one wakes the other and calls out the whole crowd, and so the household is always safe.”

And this passage:

It would be wrong to conclude that privacy is a modern priority neither known nor valued by earlier generations. While its importance has varied by period and place, the appeal of privacy has been an enduring characteristic of Western culture. Common throughout the classical world, concern for privacy seems to have intensified during the late Middle Ages with the increasing accumulation of personal possessions and greater interest in their safekeeping. First used in the 1400s, the words “privacy” and “private” became part of popular parlance by the time of Shakespeare, as his plays reflect. Clearly, for early modern folk, the close scrutiny of communities did not diminish privacy’s appeal.

reminded me of an article whose link I’ve now lost that pointed out that “Privacy is a Western concept not relevant in Eastern societies” has lots of counterexamples too.

No connection to this passage, it just struck me as particularly horrifying:

Standard equipment at a Jamaican sugar works toured by Lady Nugent was a hatchet used to sever the forearms of slaves who, from falling asleep, caught their fingers in the mill—the sole means, she noted, of saving their lives.

And this passage from the department of unintended consequences, and how the end of medieval fairs and saints’ days in England led to people boozing and whoring more:

Writing of the late sixteenth century, Richard Rawlidge remarked in 1628: When the people generally were forbidden their old and ancient familiar meetings and sportings, what then followed? Why, sure ale-house haunting: . . . so that the people would have meetings, either publicely with pastimes abroad, or else privately in drunken alehouses. . . . The preachers did then reprove dailliance, and dancings of maides and young men together; but now they have more cause to reprove drunkennesse and whoring, that is done privately in ale-houses.

The original passage may be just “things were so much better back in the day”, but I also remembered the Our Fake History episode on Santa Claus, and how trying to suppress saints’ days ended up making pagan celebrations part of Protestant Christianity.

Ambrose Bierce is that you?

(In provincial Massachusetts, taverns bore a similar reputation. Adams complained in 1761, “Here diseases, vicious habits, bastards and legislators are frequently begotten.”)

Then this:

Leering husbands, spouses suspected, committed adultery without once leaving their sides. Such visions Pepys cherished all the more dearly during the height of London’s Great Plague. After dreaming of a liaison with Lady Castlemaine (“the best that ever was dreamed”—“all the dalliance I desired with her”), Pepys reflected: “What a happy thing it would be, if when we are in our graves . . . we could dream, and dream but such dreams as this.” “Then,” he added, “we should not need to be so fearful of death as we are this plague-time.” So suspicious of his visions was Pepys’s wife that she took to feeling his penis while he slept for signs of an erection.

Was Pepys sure that’s why she was doing it, and did he completely rule out the possibility that she was feeling amorous?


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