Monday, August 26, 2013

At Day's Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch

Apparently I care about how our ancestors spent their time after dusk.

Wow, that sounded dirty. I didn’t mean it to be. Well, I suppose I did because did you know that they use to hang cowdung at the foot of their beds to detract fleas? That everyone washed only their feet before bed and everything was disgusting? That clean linen (and remember people gave birth and died on beds ) was almost unheard of in the lower classes? That spacial constraints forced entire families to sleep in one or two beds, that any visiting parties became a bedfellow and ALSO shared a bed?

It goes on and on.  People had a better sense of using their other senses to wade through the dark: especially merchants returning home by horse after a long market day. In the same vein, however, and so unfortunately, our forebears were prone to any and all kind of accidents: falling in ditches, losing their footing and ending up in a well.  Thank the lord for flashlights.

Night was  a time of superstition, of theft and murder, of a world unhindered by social obligations for the most part ( those crept in in the upper classes during the 18th Century and the Industrial Revolution changed it all ) where sleep and rest was a God-given gift after the toil of the day.

The book speaks to everything about night. Everything that kept our forebears ticking after the clock settled beyond the dusk hours.

The most interesting bit of the extensive research? The fact that we used to sleep in bi-modal and segmented patterns.  Get this, blog readers, research (which cites greats works of literature, primary sources and numerous first hand accounts from Barnaby Rudge to  Jane Eyre and Chaucer) proves that our ancestors went to be at 9 or so and woke up in the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT for a few hours thus concluding what they called “First Sleep.”  While awake, they would smoke tobacco, talk to their bedfellows, engage in “other” night-time activities (wink-wink, nudge), even visit neighbours, say their prayers (special matins created for early morning that fit so tightly into the research here) before settling into SECOND SLEEP.

With the Industrial Revolution, gas-lamps and electricity, with the rise of coffee houses and the ability for those who were respectable to embark on social escapades outside of the region of the local pub or tavern (where hooligans and ladies of the night reigned supreme), people began going to bed later and sleeping through the night. No First Sleep and Second Sleep with a couple of interesting hours of waking interval betwixt. No. Just sleeping straight through.

We’ve changed a lot and this book gave me the best sort of glance into the secrets of yesteryear.  There is fascinating research in here; but a lot of it and a lot of citations. So if you are willing to spend some time meandering through extensive musings on night in centuries of yore, then this is your book.

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