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At Day's Close: Night in Times Past

3.66  ·  Rating details ·  881 ratings  ·  145 reviews
Bringing light to the shadows of history through a "rich weave of citation and archival evidence" (Publishers Weekly), scholar A. Roger Ekirch illuminates the aspects of life most often overlooked by other historians—those that unfold at night. In this "triumph of social history" (Mail on Sunday), Ekirch's "enthralling anthropology" (Harper's) exposes the nightlife that sp ...more
Paperback, 480 pages
Published October 17th 2006 by W. W. Norton Company (first published June 1st 2005)
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Jim Janssen Yes! I have been doing it for the last few years simply because it is what my body naturally wants to do. And just about a year ago, I learned that my…moreYes! I have been doing it for the last few years simply because it is what my body naturally wants to do. And just about a year ago, I learned that my brother follows exactly the same sleeping pattern! So I was inspired to read this book to learn more about why many other people once did the same thing I'm doing now.

Personally, I don't think you will like trying this idea if you need to use an alarm for the between-sleeps awakening. You have to go to bed early enough that you naturally wake up in the middle of the night and think, "Dang, it's way to early to just continue sleeping now! Why don't I do something relaxing for an hour or two before I go back to bed?"

An unexpected benefit of doing this is that you end up getting twice as many "days" in each week as you would otherwise! For me that is a sufficiently satisfying result that I have no expectation I'll ever change back to a 1-sleep guy.(less)

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Jan 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
In these days of electricity, neon and light pollution, it's hard to imagine just how DARK it must have been in times before artificial illumination. At set of sun, darkness descended, and superstition and worry ran rampant. Fearing robbers and murderers, doors were barred, prayers were said, and a fretful sleep was had until dawn lit the skies once again.

Adriaen Brouwer, Dune Landscape by Moonlight

But not everyone stayed indoors. While gathering gloom inspired fear in some, others finally felt
In my imagination, this book was incisive, poetic, amusing and able to offer a narrative that would make me want to listen to the Clair de Lune and read Seven Gothic Tales. In reality, this book is the reason that academics invented the word "undertheorized." Filled with scintillating revelations like "the devil is associated with nighttime," and piles of research notes organized into themes. There is no excuse for a boring book when your material includes fairy hills and witches' sabbaths. That ...more
Amanda Price
Dec 08, 2008 rated it liked it
There are some breathtaking revelations in this book--particularly the news (to me) that preindustrial people enjoyed two sessions of sleep each night, separated by a period of meditative wakefulness.

Unfortunately, I found Ekirch's style a bit tiresome. It felt like he was throwing diced-up primary sources at me. A typical paragraph:

General statement about nighttime that is either a) completely interesting and new, or b) tired and obvious. "Quote A," context for Quote A. Context for Quote B: "Qu
Mar 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, history
I remember the great north eastern blackout of 2003. It was an unsettling night spent in our the time located in a borderline sketchy area...looking out the window into utter blackness...hearing sirens in the distance and the occasional gunshot to the east. How we missed the simple act of flicking a switch to bring light (not to mention air conditioning! It was August.) My husband and I spent a long evening talking and keeping one ear to the door. One of the most fascinating relics of ...more
May 09, 2013 rated it it was ok
I wanted to love this book. I'd read Ekirch's theories on sleep in a number of articles, and as an insomnia sufferer, was intrigued by the idea of "broken sleep." In addition, I have a degree in Early Modern history, so I reckoned it was right up my alley. However, although it started well enough, it ended up being one of those books I have to essentially force myself to finish. In fact, I read three other books during the course of reading this one, just to give myself a break from it.
It's not
Jul 19, 2010 rated it did not like it
The author had my full attention based only his topic choice: the history of night time. Unfortunately, after choosing the topic, the author did not then go on to write a book. He wrote a very long list of incidents that his research found happened at night. Where he got his information or any context as to why this was important to people at the time isn't worked into the text. I would have loved to hear about why people thought it was important to record how many people fell into holes at nigh ...more
Nov 15, 2009 rated it really liked it
A history of night-time before electricity. Apparently, it was really dark. Kind of disappointing beginning - a little too dry and facty - but it soon picked up steam. The author really transports you back by using many, many sources - lots of journals and court records, especially. He illuminates (ha ha) so many rituals people created to deal with utter darkness, and the beliefs and mythologies attached to night-time, which was considered a separate 'season', and shows how most of that was lost ...more
B. Rule
Mar 17, 2014 rated it liked it
The topic of this book is really fascinating - a social history of nighttime in preindustrial western society. Clearly the author has gathered a huge trove of sources both primary and secondary to illuminate his target. However, I felt like the subject ended up being a little too much for him to handle. Chapters describe all of the horrors and amusements of night, the various associations, folk tales, and aphorisms associated with the darkness. Quotes evoke the fear and the freedom that were onc ...more
Apr 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
A tour through what night and darkness meant in Early Modern times, and a book that delves into contemporary letters and diaries and guidebooks to reconstruct a time when things did go bump in the night and when neighbourhoods and homes and walled towns saw themselves as little beleaguered islands every night. Ekirch is working in the tradition of the Annales microhistories of the 1970s and 1980s, and, like his French forebears, has a keen eye for local colour and half-forgotten sources. "At Day ...more
Layla Johnston
Nov 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
A fascinating and fast-paced historical look at the history of night in Europe and the New England colonies. I have never read a history text quite like it. Ekrich takes the reader from the 14 to 1500s practices of attempts to secure self and home during the night to the gas lighting revolutions of cities in the late 1700s. One Italian shipbuilding company used to let loose a pack of 10 to 12 mastiffs to roam it's property and prevent thievery at night. Arson was considered such a heinous crime ...more
Sep 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The idea of sleeping in a continuous eight-hour block is relatively recent, and people who can't manage it think they have sleep problems. However, people used to have very different sleep patterns. A fascinating read! If you have trouble sleeping, read this book before starting a medical treatment to help you sleep.
Oct 10, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history and trivia buffs
Shelves: history, read-in-2007
This is a real gem -- it was excellently written, entertaining, original and well-researched. I discovered many intriguing facts I’d never run across before, and it left me with a lot to think about.
Steve Wiggins
Mar 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
The idea of writing a history of night is brilliant. Considering that half of any human life is spent in the dark, it's amazing that nobody thought to write this book before. Ekirch's treatment of the subject is thorough, but sometimes rambling. He points out that until fairly recent times it was dangerous to be out at night. Or safe to be in at night. It's kind of frightening, actually. Little deterred desperate robbers from breaking in on sleeping people. Those who ventured out only increased ...more
Apr 05, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: medieval
Such an interesting topic, this book has. Full of information that one might never have thought of about life in the pre-industrial (or, ‘early modern,’ as the author often says) western world. It took me rather longer to finish than I expected, which I will blame on my shortened attention span after a steady diet of cozy mysteries recently. But I really enjoyed the sensation of existing for a while in that early modern world, where people locked and bolted themselves into their homes after dark ...more
Sally Sugarman
May 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating book to read. Very well documented, it tells the story of night during the premodern period. It was interesting when he referred to books I had read but a long time ago, such as Josselin’s diary and Montillau. The book covers about three centuries the fifteenth to the eighteenth. There is a final chapter on the development of street lamps and police in the late 18th and 19th centuries. There is also information about the nature of sleep and what it means to have a first sle ...more
Sep 11, 2008 rated it really liked it
This is about the way people spent night before the introduction of street lighting in the nineteenth century. Ekirch is a history professor and, according to the dust jacket, this is the product of twenty years of research. The sheer breadth of the material is incredible. He draws on diaries, court records, novels and newspapers from the time. Plus there are fascinating illustrations throughout.

Ekirch's research is mostly from Britain, though the picture seems similar all over Europe. The most
Aug 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
A really awesome, and unique, history book: the whole focus of this book is on how in previous times, prior to electric light, our forefathers coped with darkness. As you'd expect, most of this introspection by a professsor of history focuses on fears of ghosts, robbers, people falling down open cellardoors, and encounters with hookers. You really can't go wrong with stories of that tenor, and with an author who is a strong writer as well as a quality historian and seeker of facts, these tales a ...more
Sep 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Thoroughly enjoyed this meticulously researched book, which delves into the way people lived through the night in pre-industrial times (the book's main focus is early modern into colonial times with some references to earlier time periods). Ekirch's writing is well-informed and entertaining. Using literature, news from the day, diaries, and journals, he traces the habits of people as they prepared for the onslaught of night, as well as the development and beginnings of our modern day night time ...more
Irene B.
Mar 13, 2012 rated it liked it
Recommended to Irene by: by someone who knows I sleep in two parts
This book was suggested to me because I like to sleep in two nocturnal segments, waking between to read. As it turns out, this was the way most people in the Western world slept before the advent of electrical lighting. They did not "get their eight hours" as we worry about today. It's an interesting book, but a bit tedious. The author continuously quotes from journals, poems and other first sources (too often Samuel Pepys), but does very little analysis. So if you are looking for something spec ...more
Tom Johnson
interesting but tedious - endless anecdotes that illuminate the night time travails endured by our ancestors - an excellent device to impress on the reader of all the anxieties that created the night terrors - no way one could read this book without realizing just how much easier and comfortable life is today. Isolation, crime, fire, daemons, cold, stench, fleas/lice/bedbugs are for most of us unknown vexations. The problem of home invasion was a very real concern for our unelectrified ancestors ...more
Lee (Rocky)
This book explains the ways in which people's relationship to night time has changed over the centuries. I enjoyed exploring all of the dangers of night before artificial light, though the author went on about some of them well beyond the point of getting it. The last part about dreams and segmented sleep was also interesting. Throughout the book I was struck by the ways in which people in old times were simultaneously clever and also incredibly stupid (much like people today I guess).
Aug 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I really try to throw the occasional NF book into my reading lineup. And even though it can take a good long while, it's usually worth it; such is the case here. A fascinating glimpse into the habits, rituals, fears, and general nighttime goings-on of folks between the Middle Ages and the 19th Century. Detailed and engrossing.
Nov 16, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
This is a great book about an aspect of history nobody ever discusses: what people did from dusk til dawn in an age before electricity. The book is meaty, with big bites of legend, folklore, fact, and social history.
Brenda Clough
Oct 31, 2014 rated it really liked it
An extremely thorough discussion of what night meant, to the minds of preindustrial people. It is almost too long, but well worth dipping into.
Feb 18, 2009 rated it it was ok
This book was poorly written but the content was interesting. It's a quick read.
Nov 26, 2009 rated it really liked it
"Rather than falling, night to the watchful eye rises." "The darkness of night appears palpable. Evening does not arrive it thickens."
Henry McLaughlin
Apr 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
An interesting history of how we use the night has changed over the centuries. Focuses primarily on Europe and North America.
Very helpful resource.
Kenghis Khan
Jul 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most fascinating, and weird, books I've read in awhile. So much you didn't know about our human past, what we lost with the invention of the light bulb... Crazy.
May 09, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017, history
Gorgeous descriptions but can get tedious in places--

I love the juicy, forgotten details Ekirch so lovingly portrays using an astonishing variety of sources. I mean the variety of candles and night charms (like a candle made from an amputated finger of a stillborn infant?), the kinds of soporifics people used to take, the various sounds they used to hear at night, the kinds of beds they used, and most fascinating of all, what they did at night.

But it's A LOT of details. A mountain of details. An
Feb 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction
A very gently amusing read, filled almost entirely with interesting quotations from contemporary sources, relating to their experiences of nighttime and man's nocturnal activities in the years before the rise of artificial light. Ekirch evidently has a large and diverse collection to work from, and he uses a light touch to arrange the material into a coherent structure and explain it, cleanly and unpretentiously bridging the gap between interesting experiences related to particular topics.

It is
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“In 1737, a Connecticut husband—perchance while snoring—received from his wife a shovel of hot embers in his gaping mouth,” 1 likes
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