A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe
Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe
Cambridge University Press 448pp £18.99
This engaging book, the winner of the Longman-History Today Prize for 2011, examines the practices and cultural meanings attached to something both ubiquitous and (at least historiographically) almost invisible: the night and its attendant darkness. It proposes that in 16th- and 17th-century Europe the boundaries of the night were driven back and simultaneously the associations of darkness were enriched and transformed. The schedule of the day changed. The traditional two-part, segmented sleep (with a waking interval) of rural communities was replaced in cities with a single phase of sleep. The schedule of the urban day slipped back, so rising, mealtimes and sleep occurred later. But the meaning of the night also changed – its symbolisms and associations were re-imagined and re-invented.
Evening’s Empire offers a fertile and richly European account of deep and sometimes unexpected cultural associations, exploring witchcraft, religion, court spectacle, street lighting, coffee houses, the urban-rural divide and the Enlightenment.
Koslofsky’s night is both real and imaginary. The process of ‘nocturnalisation’ he describes involves the invasion of the hours of darkness, the associated dispelling of darkness and a cultural shift – a ‘revolution’ he suggests – manifested in several contrasting domains. By the late 16th century, darkness was no longer simply negative, the province of demons and witches. Instead it became also a time for spiritual insight, for comprehending the ineffable Word. This was especially so for those Protestant sects that were obliged, through persecution, to worship under cover of night. Yet it was not only radical Protestants who reinvested night with spiritual revelation. The figure of Nicodemus suggested to wider networks of Christians the nocturnal arrival of spiritual light.
The weakening of the traditional association of darkness with malign spirits was uneven, however. While scholars (using the dichotomies characteristic of European intellectual culture at this time) pushed to associate the night with diabolical activity popular culture preserved a view in which some nocturnal activities – such as spinning bees, night-time meetings, where women’s labour sometimes served as a pretence for courtship – were regarded as intrinsically ambivalent or positive.
There was a practical dimension to these developments. The night retreated under the glare of street lighting, which transformed urban spaces and enabled new uses for streets at night. Across Europe it was variously imposed by princes or voluntarily introduced by city governors. By contrast stage lighting meant that European courts exploited darkness as a context for theatrical spectacles that magnified the glory of the ruler. Nocturnal theatre invaded night’s territories and used the dark for cultural, civilised purposes. While light was associated with power and virtue only through its relationship with darkness was this association maintained and by this means the reciprocity of the two was recognised, much as in chiaroscuro painting.
Another nocturnal cultural activity involved coffee houses. Koslofsky argues that debates usually took place during evening, another sign of the advance of culture into later hours. The urban night ceased to be a time fraught with danger, outlaws and vice and became a socially acceptable occasion for cultural activity. The night became polite. However, like the public sphere of popular opinion itself, this shift was not gender blind – nocturnal activity by women continued to be morally suspect.
With politeness came two means by which nocturnalisation was associated with Enlightenment. The Enlightenment involved conversations that took place at night and its written texts picked up on the light-dark dichotomy to articulate Europe’s self-proclaimed superiority over the unenlightened or pagan world. The central trope of the Enlightenment, therefore, was invested in this process of nocturnalisation. This philosophical use of night was in some respects reductive: while in many other contexts the night was placed on both sides of a series of antitheses, Enlightenment philosophers positioned it as simply negative.
This incomplete summary indicates the richness of the book. My criticisms are minor: there is no discussion of latitude (or longitude) and some of Koslofsky’s themes are supported by insufficient evidence – the use of darkness in court poetry or in the language of the stage, for example – which in any case only indirectly relate to the process of nocturnalisation and do not contribute to his chronology. However, a fully schematic version would undoubtedly misrepresent the shaded contours of reality. Instead Koslofsky offers a rich series of sketches from incomplete perspectives that suggest the intensive associations of night and a broad pattern of change. This is a valuable contribution to the history of the everyday and, especially, of the experience of temporality.
Joad Raymond is Professor of English Literature at the University of East Anglia.
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