Night History

“For people steeped in bliblical wonders and supernatural lore, alterations in the night sky, including the aurora borealis in northern latitudes, carried even greater portent. ‘Terrible sights were in the sky all night,’ George Booth of Chester recorded in 1727. ‘All my family were up and in tears, or there prayers, the heavens flashing in a perpetual flame.’ As in the Middle Ages, comets, meteors, and lunar eclipses inspired awe and trepidation, as either omens of God’s will or marks of his wrath. Known as ‘blazing stars,’ comets, it was said, foretold ‘destruction & corruption of earthly things,’ whether from tempests, earthquakes, wars, plagues, or famine. In 1618, an entry in the parish register of Nantwich noted, ‘Many times there appeared eastward a blazing star, betokenninge godds judgements towards us for sine.’ …”


Also shared communal hallucinations wherein everybody sees the same things in the shapes of the clouds? Including “a horrendous scene that included a marching column of headless men” and “images of coffins, crosses, or bloody swords.” And everyone in the town falls down on their knees and prays? “Dear God, please please please don’t kill us, we’re sorry, we’re so sorry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! QUICK FIND A WITCH TO BURN AT THE STAKE!”

So obviously I am reading a history of nighttime before the industrial revolution, when nighttime was DARK AS SHIT, darker than any of us can imagine it, even me who grew up in the middle of nowhere, where there was almost no light pollution, but still our HOUSE had light, plus we had flashlights. Apparently people in these times did not see night as a natural counterpart to day. They saw night as the descent of foul vapors that came from the moon and could kill you. They saw night as the literal encroachment of Evil and the Devil on their tiny shuttered homes. They were religiously afraid of being outside at night, for, at night, friend becomes foe, wolves look like hounds, men look like hedges. They didn’t perceive night as being a consequence of the earth turning away from the sun; they thought night actually fell down on them–they thought the darkness was a result of “noysom vapors” obscuring the light. Hence the term “nightfall.” There is a 16th century paper published by a scientist called “On Nightfall, What It Is, and Whether it Falls on Us.”

Scientists trying to convince everybody that nightfall is “nothing more than the obscurity or darkness of the air as a result of the absence of the sun”!!! And everybody’s like “WITCH!!!!!!”

Witches and vampires and demons and ghosts roam about at night, obviously, what kind of fool would go traipsing around out there? People also thought breathing too much night air would kill you. There are many reports of big groups of people dying instantly when exposed to a nightly vapor. People shut themselves up in their homes, often while dying of cholera (everybody had cholera), and just lay in bed breathing in everybody’s cholera germs for fear of opening a window.

Towns and cities enacted strict nighttime curfews and blocked off streets and roads so no one could travel around at night. Night watchmen prowled the streets, periodically yelling that everything was okay. If you were seen outside at night, you were basically a murderer or a ghost. Or a prostitute.

Oh, and the stuff about the moon!!!!! There is this incredible woodcut called “The influence of the Moon on the Heads of Women” that shows the evil moon with all these long snaky arrows coming out of it and going into the heads of women. Who knows what kind of crazy shit it’s planting in their defenseless brains! You surely were not supposed to be exposed to the moon’s rays. People went bonkers at the drop of a hat, if the moon touched them. Hence “moon-struck” and of course “lunatic.” Also werewolves.

Most amazingly, in the time before artificial light, people’s sleep cycle was apparently very different from ours. They went to bed when it got dark, and woke up when it got light, but, especially in the winter, that is an extremely long time to be asleep. It turns out from diaries that they DIDN’T sleep that entire time. They got up in the middle of the night and ate and talked and those who were literate wrote at great length about their dreams. Dreams were very important to them. After hanging out for awhile, they went back to bed. And woke up with the cock’s crow at like zero o’clock.

“The night is more quiet than the day, and yet we feare in it what we doe not regard by day. A mouse running, a board cracking, a dog howling, an owle scritching put us often in a cold sweat.”

I know what you mean, Jacobean writer George Herbert. I surely do. (Also “owle scritching”!!)
The author makes it all about VISION, which I find interesting. “Night brutally robbed men and women of their vision, the most treasured of human senses. None of sight’s sister senses, not even hearing or touch, permitted individuals such mastery over their environs…these were small-scale, traditional societies in which face-to-face encounters predominated, in urban as well as rural settings. Vision allowed people to gauge character and demeanor, vital aspects of identity in the preindustrial world.” Vision allowed you to see who was rich and poor, who was a gentleman and who a ruffian. Some cities even had laws allowing only the gentle classes to wear silk and satin, to make it easier to tell who was who. “But at night, lamented the Scottish poet James Thomson, ‘order confounded lies; all beauty void; distinction lost; and gay variety one universal blot.'”


Get into it. It’s called “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past,” and it is by A. Roger Ekirch. Just the chapter titles are probably enough to hook a person:

– Terrors of the Night: Heavens and Earth
– A Man’s House Is His Castle: Domestic Fortifications
– Knightwalkers: Princes and Peers
– Ordinances of the Bedchamber: Rituals
– etc.

The other day I handed the old man a martini and he immediately dumped its entire contents onto his lap and then he yelled “WHAT????” Then last night we were sitting quietly watching Cowards Bend the Knee when suddenly I heard a huge crash and his wine glass was on the floor and all the wine spilled out of it and he yelled “WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME????”
!!! It’s like “The Story of the Story of Everest.” He’s not allowed to have drinks anymore, except in sippy cups.


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