More on the History of Darkness

I just got to the part in my nighttime history book that is about outdoor lighting. Everyone was agitating for outdoor lighting! Come on, you assholes, it’s the 16th century, why can’t we get some lanterns strung up here and there so that I might walk safely to my physician’s home at night without being waylaid by ruffians or falling into a cellar? How the denizens of 16th century Paris would envy us our incandescents, our fluorescents, our constant stream of artificial lighting that pours into every bedroom window 24 hours a day! And yet, I must point out that you should be careful what you wish for. Artificial lighting sucks. It’s way too much of a good thing. This is the one thing I really wish could be different about Western Humanity: if only we could learn the word “enough.” Artificial lighting? Sure, in certain places, during certain hours, this is a great thing and makes life easier. But why does this so quickly become ALWAYS EVERYWHERE BRIGHTER BRIGHTER BRIGHTER! SEE IT FROM SPACE!!!!!!!!?

Sugar? Cool! But not in everything we eat constantly every day! Scientific research? Definitely! But can we stop with the monkey with four asses and the glow-in-the-dark baby squirrels? Pollution? Sure, you’re going to have a little pollution. But really, just flat-out dumping mercury in the ocean?? An island of plastic the size of Texas?? COME ON! (Gob voice)

Anyway, back to simpler times: the provenance of the word “lantern” was unbeknownst to me until I took up this heavy tome. Apparently in olden times, when one had zero access to “glass” much less “plastic,” in order to make a lantern (i.e. something to block the wind that was nonetheless see-through (isn’t “see-through” an amazing adjective?)), you took the horn of a cow and boiled it and pounded it until it was translucent and then you took very thin slices of it and bent those slices around a frame and stuck a candle inside. Hence “lanthorn,” which has become “lantern.” Wow!

In these times, carrying a “dark lantern”–a lantern built to shine out of only one side, thus keeping the bearer in obscurity–was often punishable by death! Then again, what WASN’T? Anyway, if you were a night watchman and you saw a fire and you didn’t ring a bell fast enough you could be “broken on the rack.” Fire was a big deal, obviously, and since everyone was carrying candles around, the danger was great. Hence also “curfew,” descending from the French “couvre-feu” meaning “cover fire,” meaning “PUT OUT YOUR CANDLES AND GO TO SLEEP SO THE ENTIRE TOWN DOESN’T BURN DOWN (OR BE BROKEN UPON THE RACK)!!”

So, the dark lantern was something carried by thieves and murderers, so they could see you to stab you and take all your golden pence and doubloons, but you couldn’t see them to thwart their stabbing motions and/or to identify them to the constabulary were you so blessed as to survive the attack.

Samuel Pepys had a morbid fear of being burgled, e.g., yet also he loathed the cries of the night watchmen which woke him every hour from his slumber. You can’t have it both ways, fancypants.

Night watchmen! Here’s a classic example of capitalist bureaucracy for you: at first, everybody had to take a turn as night watchman. Then after awhile, rich people started paying poor people to take their turns for them. After awhile, thus, the only people who were night watchmen were the destitute, old, infirm, or bonkers, thus pretty much destroying the whole purpose of having a night watchman to begin with. Nice one!

People were obsessed with the night watchmen. How can we make sure they aren’t falling asleep on the job? Ok every hour on the hour, they have to sing a little song telling us what time it is and that “all’s well.” But how can we make sure they aren’t sleeping in between each hour?? Ok every five minutes of each hour they have to ring this little bell. So basically in order for the townspeople to sleep soundly knowing someone was keeping watch, they had to be basically kept awake all night by these troops of poor old men ringing bells and yelling. Everyone hated this, but no one wanted to live in a world without night watchmen. Man, the corollaries with modern life are pretty amazing, right? I’m looking at you, police helicopter waking me up at five a.m. in West Hollywood.

If you were out past curfew you got in a lot of trouble. This was called “nightwalking,” and if you were caught nightwalking you went to jail, and, if your behavior was deemed troubling or menacing enough (i.e. you were a foreigner or had raggedy clothes or had any kind of weapon on you), you could be beheaded or broken on the rack. Obviously this made the job of prostitute difficult, although prostitutes didn’t seem to be in the same category as nightwalkers. Prostitutes were more a salacious menace than an actual physical threat. So they would just be thrown in various dungeons for awhile.

Middle Ages and Renaissance towns had such a fear of people walking around at night that they actually fashioned enormous chains that were stretched across roads once darkness fell, so you couldn’t walk down the street on a moonless night without running into them and causing a ruckus. And you certainly couldn’t drive your horse or carriage down a street. In Paris they even made these huge chains that stretched all the way across the Seine! To keep boats from going through the city at night!! And you want to talk about water-based nighttime anxiety, don’t even get me started on Venice.

Towns had walls surrounding them–walls of stone, or, for small villages, even just little earthen piles. Sometimes ditches filled with water. Once the bell rang to let you know darkness was falling, you had an hour to get inside. If you missed it–if the drawbridge went up, all the doors closed and locked–you were S.O.L. and had to sleep outside overnight, which of course people had a mortal terror of doing because of all the ruffians, murderers, and wild beasts which were the whole reason for the walls, moats, and sentries in the first place. My old buddy J.J. Rousseau had this happen to him once–he heard the bell ring while he was still half a league away, and he ran and ran and ran, and just as he came in sight of the town he saw the doors closing, and he screamed and screamed, but to no avail, because he was just some dude and had no fancy papers like the ones a doctor or a king would have, so he couldn’t get in. He had to sleep in the woods. Which is probably where he developed his very compelling theories on breastfeeding and/or the constitution of Poland.

Even just walking up to the wall of a town past nightfall was often grounds for imprisonment. You at least had to pay a bunch of money to get inside a town past dark. And there’s this story of a guardsman who, on market day, decided to make a bunch of money by ringing the “doors are closing” bell half an hour earlier than usual, thus forcing all the returning townspeople to pay him to get inside. However, his plan backfired when all the townspeople, terrified of missing the doors, totally panicked and stampeded and a bunch of them got trampled by livestock and some of them fell off the drawbridge into the moat and drowned. And the guardsman was broken upon the rack.

So anyway, they started realizing that sticking some candles up during the night would make nighttime less scary, so they started legislating it! If you had a house along certain roads, you were law-bound to post a lantern and make sure the candle stayed lit all night. People complained about the cost of tallow, but that’s what you get when you agree to be governed as a group of citizenry. Somebody devised a way of stringing lanterns up over streets so you could drive a carriage at night. etc. etc. Slowly the night became leached of its terrors and people more and more said “F you” to the curfew and went out to parties at night and stuff.

Interestingly, this new development was heavily lobbied against by THE CHURCH. For eons, night and day had been extremely separate from one another, not only for obvious reasons but for those ecclesiastical as well. Night was a time for prayer, for quiet thought, and specifically it was a time for contemplating the sins of the daytime, the hustle and bustle of commerce, the adulterous thoughts, the envy, the pride, etc. Once night becomes as day, and people are able to move around unhindered, what becomes of this important time of rest and contemplation??? God created LIGHT but he didn’t do away with DARKNESS, it’s all there in the Bible, we need both!

Sad to find yourself kind of agreeing with medieval religious fanatics on any issue whatsoever, but there you go: I agree! I wish night was a bit nightier, I really do. I wish we could turn off some of these lights obscuring our view of the stars. I wish people weren’t allowed to play dated top 40 hits right outside my window at three a.m. Well, I guess technically they aren’t allowed. But I specifically wish that those damn kids would be broken upon the rack!!!!!!! Omg just kidding

Oh and the women. To be a woman outside at night was to draw shame down upon your entire family, your neighborhood, your town! A woman outside at night could be up to only no good, unless she be a midwife–those awfully witchy women outside of society who help goodly ladies with their unmentionables. A woman outside at night IS A PROSTITUTE. It doesn’t matter who she is, or what she’s doing. She could be running to get the doctor; she could be sleepwalking; she could be searching for a lost child; she could just be taking a walk because she can’t sleep; she could be the wife of the mayor; she could be 90 years old; it doesn’t matter, if she’s out past dark she is a prostitute. AND we all know that prostitutes aren’t humans with rights. All you had to do to defend yourself of any violence against a woman was prove she was a prostitute; then it was okay whatever you had done to her.
If you think the rape laws our second-wave mothers were fighting against in the 70’s are amazing, try living in Renaissance England! Literally “your honor, she was outside, and it was NIGHTTIME. Of course I ripped off her clothes and raped her and beat her face into a bloody pulp and then peed on her! Ha ha ha ha!” And the magistrate goes “ha ha ha why didn’t you SAY it was nighttime, we could have avoided this whole trial, well done my good fellow” and then the lady’s husband is like “you have shamed me, devil woman,” and then she is broken upon the rack.

There’s this crazy part where the author talks about how some towns just released crazy snarling mastiffs into the streets at night, to keep everybody indoors!! WILD

In the 19th century nighttime got more normal. You could go dancing, go to the opera, all that stuff. You could take a walk. There were streetlamps and watchmen and police all over the place, etc. But still, imagine Jack the Ripper, wading into this exact period! As though punishing people for forgetting the nighttime.

Of course, he only punished prostitutes, so nobody ever caught him.
The more things change…
“You’re a naughty one / Saucy Jack / You’re a haughty one / Saucy Jack”
I think tonight I will flaunt my existence in the modern world by going out for martinis. And if a man tries to attack me I will punch him as hard as I can in the throat and then crouch over him and dig my thumbs into his eyeballs.

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5 Responses to More on the History of Darkness

  1. Kim says:

    Yeah, this reminds me of Oakland, and how I refused to leave my apartment after dark because a number of my neighbors got mugged. It’s weird how quickly we revert to old ways and habits. Remember all those “Take back the night” marches in the 90’s? I remember attending one of those and just being so angry that it was even necessary, and then swearing to myself that I was gonna walk by myself at night to prove to myself and others that I wasn’t afraid.
    I also remember my Russian history teacher describing Moscow in the time of Peter the Great. Apparently some men would just stand on a street corner and swing their cudgels until they hit someone. Then they would steal their money and dump the body in the river. The End. Harsh times. Makes me happy we don’t live that way anymore.

  2. h heckler says:

    What is the name of this book, please?

  3. sam says:

    hi, what is the title of the book??

  4. oops my bad says:

    “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past,” and it is by A. Roger Ekirch.

  5. Kerry says:

    So I am going to tell you about nighttime in Africa (as I have experienced it, and in Kenya, because Africa is not a country, HA HA CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?) We scurry inside our double-walled barbed-wire-and-electric-fenced compound as soon as the sun sets, guiltily edging our way past the night watchman (yes!) who looks about 70 years old, has rheumy eyes, grips your hand and won’t let go while asking “what you brought [him] tonight”. (Me: “I bring you…friendship!” He: “I can’t eat friendship.” Me: [dies inside]) Pass through the broken glass-topped inner gate, unlock fifteen thousand padlocks, relock fifteen thousand padlocks. Stay inside until dawn hearing the following: howling dogs, crying babies, seriously sick-sounding dance parties from the nearby slum (a Luo-language version of “One More Night”? Yes please.) Roosters from roughly two a.m. to six a.m. Get up in the morning, go to work, and hear about how your school’s chancellor got the shit beaten out of him in his own home the night before and his watchman machete’d. (Guess he should have been able to afford that electric fence, OH HO HO!) Feel guilty for being white, rush home before dark, repeat ad nauseum.
    NIGHTTIME!!!!!! SCARY EVEN TODAY.

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