Evening's Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe

Ronald Hutton welcomes an ambitious study of post-medieval society's leap into the darkness

June 23, 2011

What Craig Koslofsky offers here is a survey of changing attitudes to the night and to darkness, across Western and Central Europe, between the early 16th and mid-18th centuries. In other words, it is a broad-based cultural history of the fashionable kind, taking a big and exciting subject - which this one certainly is - and charting apparent shifts in belief and action related to it through a range of sources. Most of these are secondary works, synthesised to produce a larger whole, but they span a large amount of recent scholarship in English, French and (in particular) German that will be unfamiliar to scholars specialising in one of those languages, let alone general readers. In addition, a fairly large number of German archival records and edited primary texts in all three tongues are quarried for relevant decrees and comments. These are then crafted together in the usual manner of current cultural history to produce an unusually large and ambitious example of that genre.

The dark and the night, although intimately related, are of course not the same thing, and Koslofsky stretches himself hard, even within a generous word count, to cover as many aspects of them as possible. His general argument is that a medieval situation in which the night was associated with evil, menace and ignorance, and a time in which few people in practice ventured out of doors, was substantially transformed during the early modern period: in his lovely expression, Europeans were "nocturnalised".

The Reformation crisis increased confessional division, and so persecution, to the point at which religious sects were often obliged to meet after dark, while some mystics regarded the dark hours as times of privacy and peace in which best to encounter the divine. The courts of rulers increasingly staged entertainments and spectacles in the evenings, in newly enlarged and illuminated interior spaces. They were imitated by the social elite in general, and by the inhabitants of towns, as curfews were abandoned and a full social life became available after dark in wealthy households and on urban streets.

Both as a consequence and a cause of this development, the streets concerned were given lamps: between 1660 and 1700 northern European cities moved from a situation in which none had permanent illumination into one in which most had. These developments were naturally controversial, as moralists often deplored the new tendency of their neighbours to stay up at night and, by extension, to sleep in during the morning.

Koslofsky portrays the illumination and reclamation of the streets for the new social life as being a process of colonisation in which the night was wrested from the poorer and more disreputable citizens who had formerly been the most active in it. He views it, in effect, as an extension of established authority, sometimes brutally enforced, with horsewhips and (at least once) hand grenades. Upper-class women, in particular, could go out after dark as never before, while lower-class women were driven indoors. In the rural areas of Germany and France, nocturnal sociability remained centred as before on pubs and on gatherings for communal spinning, according to gender. Here, reform took the form of official campaigns to regulate or suppress these institutions, usually without success. The book closes with a study of how authors of the Enlightenment appropriated the traditional Christian language that glorified light, without necessarily demonising darkness as that language had done.

A study as ambitious as this naturally succeeds better in some areas than others. The consideration of intellectual responses uses too small a selection of texts to be more than suggestive, whereas street lighting and social reform are more substantially treated. Medieval attitudes to night also seem to have been more complex than is implied here: whereas darkness as such had (and still has) few friends, it was possible to appreciate the beauty of moonlight and starlight. Urban authorities often fought as hard to control their precincts after dark, by enforcing curfews and closing gates, as they later did to make them safe for respectable partygoers.

At the core of this book, however, is a valuable study, and a genuinely supranational one, of the way in which night-life in the modern sense was created, as the essentially urban phenomenon it remains. It was, as the author clearly shows, one expression of the increasing self-confidence and aggression of early modern European humanity.

Evening's Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe

By Craig Koslofsky

Cambridge University Press 448pp, £55.00 and £18.99

ISBN 9780521896436 and 721066

Published 2 June 2011

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