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

Justin Champion delves into an engaging study of Europe’s nocturnal hours and the people who inhabited them

Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe
Author: Craig Koslofsky
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Reviewed by: Justin Champion
Price (RRP): £55

This fascinating book explores how changing understandings of the nature of the night between 1500 and 1800 altered the way people (kings, queens and aristocrats in their city courts, as well as peasants in rural cottages and pubs in the countryside, and churchmen in their studies) behaved under cover of the night.

Using an impressive and extensive range of primary sources as well as a comprehensive bibliography of other historical writings, American historian Craig Koslofsky has produced a very readable and engaging book exploring nocturnalisation over the course of the early modern period.

Put simply the book examines the changing nature of night life and the transformation of practical behaviour in (for example) sleeping patterns, city and village sociability, domestic and public gender relations. It also explores changes in cultural attitudes to ‘darkness’ as well as routines of activity.

The impact of the technology of the street lantern did more than simply enlighten the shadowy alleys of the early modern town, it denoted a revolution in the power of ‘darkness’ as a metaphor for spiritual and political ignorance.

Copernicus’s insight that the earth’s rotation explained why night time happened coincided with state ambitions for disciplining the disorder of darkness.

The result was the many civic initiatives to install lanterns in the streets. By the 1700s the great cities of Europe and many smaller ones (there is a helpful map which plots this) implemented lighting. Often this happened in the face of fierce local opposition since there was a cost in both financial terms and in constraining the freedoms of those that exploited the cover of darkness to practise their trade or pleasures.

This innovation prompted a fundamental shift in the rhythm of daily life: especially in cities people stayed up longer and slept in later.

In Leipzig the street lighting schedules were published for the convenience of all; by 1702 there were 5,200 public lights in Paris. Some lanterns were erected on poles, some strung across streets on ropes. In some cities like Strasbourg they were subject to vandalism and attack.

This new night time offered more opportunities for leisure and work. Coffee houses and theatre-going became part of a more respectable public sociability: the dangerous frontier of darkness remained for some less polite groups. In rural communities the hearth and the candle remained the focus of night time activity.

Darkness also carried theological meaning because the night was regarded as the playground of the nocturnal spirits – ghosts, witches, wandering souls.

The darkness of night was the kingdom of the devil – Koslofsky explores both theology and drama (from Macbeth to Nashe’s 1594 Terrors of the Night) to suggest that between the 16th and 18th centuries (for some) the diabolical dominion of the night intensified, whereas for others the darkness offered possibilities for quiet spiritual introspection.

The Enlightenment war against superstition was also conducted in the dark: worldly banter, freethinking and coffee-house conversation displaced the night fears of religious delusion.
That the darkness of night became an opportunity for new activities is best shown in the account of how monarchies and courts around Europe grasped the possibilities that darkness was a canvas for the display of state power and authority.

The use of light and fireworks to confect impressive nocturnal spectacles of majesty saw a shift across the period from the daytime joust to the candlelight masque. Court life became nocturnal – dancing, gaming and clubbing all colonised the late hours.

This is a tremendous read, full of human stories and suggestive argument. Like many of the best history books it makes one pause for thought not only about the past but about the present too. 

Professor Justin Champion, Royal Holloway, University of London

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