Tuesday, March 29, 2011

At Day's Close: Night in Times Past

By A. Roger Ekirch

This book takes a look at how people lived in the days before the invention of modern lighting. How did they spend their evenings, once it got too dark to work? How did they spend their nights?
Turns out they spent their nights a lot like we do. Most people didn't go to bed and get up with the sun. They were out and about, visiting, working, getting up to no good. They just had to do it in a lot darker conditions than most folks nowadays.
For some, nighttime was the only time when the conventions and restrictions of their daytime lives were lifted. At night, you could do in darkness what you feared to be seen in the light. Sexual adventures, gambling, drinking, general rowdiness, and crime all thrived under cover of darkness. Crime especially seemed to know no bounds after nightfall. Housebreaking, robberies, muggings, hijackings, prostitution all benefited from cover of darkness.
Yet, even though life was riskier after dark, people still got out and about, visiting, working, socializing, even travelling in the darkness. In many ways, it all sounds familiar, if a lot harder and more dangerous given the lack of light.
As he brings his book to a close, the author describes something that he says has changed a lot because of modern lighting and that is our actual sleep habits. According to the author, people used to practice what they called first sleep and second sleep. First sleep lasts about fours hours or so at which point the sleeper awakes and stays awake for up to an hour or two and then goes back to sleep until morning. This interval between sleeps was a time for thinking over the day or for contemplation, for prayer, for quiet conversation with a bedmate or even for sex. The author feels our modern lives are the poorer for losing this quiet awake time in the middle of the night. I personally think he is wrong about that. I don't think most people sleep straight through the night. They would probably like to but don't. I know I don't. It is a rare thing for me not to wake up after about four hours sleep. I get up, let the dog out, use the toilet, get a drink of water, get the dog back in and head back to bed. True, I don't spend any time thinking about the day or contemplating my existence; I just want to get back to sleep. Maybe what has changed is not that people have stopped waking up in the middle of the night, but that our expectation is that our sleep should be uninterrupted and so we are less accepting of being awake then.

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