Are lovers of the dark evil people

In the realm of darkness

A. Roger Ekirch tells the story of darkness

Reviewed by Birgit Schönberger

The sky at night (AP archive)

What did people do in the evening and at night before the invention of electric light? "Slept, ate and farted," claimed the English poet Thomas Middleton. But in the cover of darkness there was also stealing, murder, partying and kissing. The realm of the night had its own laws. In his book "In der Nacht der Nacht", the American historian A. Roger Ekirch tells the story of the legendary and dangerous darkness before the industrial revolution.

Before the invention of electric light, the night was legendary and dangerous. In most people's minds, it broke out like an illness. It was believed that at sunset, poisonous, sickening vapors descended from the sky, clogging pores and damaging internal organs. The time until dawn was the realm of goblins, demons and witches. To protect them from them, horse skulls and wolf heads were attached to house walls. Darkness has been compared to hell.

But it wasn't just evil spirits that posed danger. Anyone who was out and about at night risked falling into ditches or cellars in the pitch black, sinking into the moor or falling over heaps of rubbish and piles of wood on the street. Thieves let their victims stumble over taut ropes in narrow streets. Road robbers were booming in all European cities, arsonists and fraudsters ran at top form at night.

For his history of darkness, which focuses on Western and Central Europe, the historian A. Roger Ekirch has evaluated diaries, letters, travel reports, court files, guides, folk songs and newspapers from the 18th century for 20 years. His meticulous work has paid off. He analyzes the myths and fairy tales that made the night seem threatening and evil. And it tells vividly and vividly how workers, maids, bourgeois women and farmers used the time of darkness as a counter-program to the world of daylight.

His strength is that he not only strings together exciting, bizarre and scary stories that read like short thrillers. He also makes interesting theses. At night, he claims, the social order was turned upside down. Members of the ruling class could afford to forego certain etiquettes and let themselves go. The lower class strutted confidently through the streets at night with torn clothes, which would have been impossible in daylight. Differences in class blurred with the onset of dusk. The night promised relief from the stress of the day.

The book is clearly structured. Part one tells of the deadly dangers of darkness, part two of the laws that the church and state have passed to protect against darkness. In many cities from Copenhagen to Padua, armed guards pulled up the drawbridges at dusk, locked the city gates and stretched massive iron chains across the streets to deter night-goers. In the third part, Ekirch describes the night as a shelter for intimate contacts across all shifts. The fourth part deals with evening rituals and sleep rhythms. Sleeping through the night was a foreign word before the industrial revolution. It was common to get up in the middle of the night, smoke, eat, or even visit neighbors.

In places, however, the author tends to have redundancies. A little more tightness and the waiver of one or the other individual story would have done the presentation good. But that doesn't detract from reading pleasure. "In the Hour of the Night" is a differentiated, scientifically founded study, peppered with diary clippings, newspaper articles, leaflets, poems and quotations from novels. A well-written tome not only for lovers of historical representations, but for everyone who wants to know what people were up to at night before the industrial revolution and where our culture of the night comes from.

A. Roger Ekirch: In the hour of the night. A story of darkness
Translated from the English by Arnd Kösling
Gustav Lübbe-Verlag Bergisch Gladbach
495 pages, 24.90 euros