The reinvention of the night (By Tim Blanning)

The reinvention of the night – By Tim Blanning


“In 1710, Richard Steele wrote in Tatler that recently he had been to visit an old friend just come up to town from the country. But the latter had already gone to bed when Steele called at 8 pm. He returned at 11 o’clock the following morning, only to be told that his friend had just sat down to dinner. “In short”, Steele commented, “I found that my old-fashioned friend religiously adhered to the example of his forefathers, and observed the same hours that had been kept in his family ever since the Conquest”. During the previous generation or so, elites across Europe had moved their clocks forward by several hours. No longer a time reserved for sleep, the night time was now the right time for all manner of recreational and representational purposes. This is what Craig Koslofsky calls “nocturnalisation”, defined as “the ongoing expansion of the legitimate social and symbolic uses of the night”, a development to which he awards the status of “a revolution in early modern Europe”.

The case is well made, supported by an impressive range of archival and printed sources, mostly French, English and German. [..]

At the heart of [t]his argument is the contrariety between day and night, light and dark. On the one hand, the sixteenth century witnessed an intensification of the association of the night with evil – “Night, thou foule mother of annoyaunce sad / Sister of heavie Death, and nourse of Woe”, as Edmund Spenser put it. In part this derived from the excited religious atmosphere. While Hans Sachs hailed Martin Luther for waking humanity from the darkness of superstition, Thomas More repaid the nocturnal insult by identifying Lutherans with the dark night of heresy. Closely linked to confessional strife was the intensification of disputes over witchcraft. The witch-hunter’s manual Malleus Maleficarum of 1486 had paid little attention to the night; a century later the night was well and truly diabolized. The Devil was now believed to be responsible for all “phantoms of the night”, especially those resulting from sorcery, so witchcraft confessions typically focused on two nocturnal acts – the diabolic pact, often consummated sexually, and the Witches’ Sabbath, also a riot of sexual licence. Peter Binsfeld, the suffragan Bishop of Trier, explained in 1589 that after his expulsion from Paradise, the Devil became dark and obscure and so performed all his foul deeds at night.

Christian disapproval of the night is as old as the New Testament. Unsurprisingly, St Paul’s epistles equate darkness with evil, as does John’s Gospel – “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness”. However, there was another albeit less obtrusive theological tradition advocating a path leading to God that was not brilliantly lit. Especially influential was Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the fifth-century Syrian thinker, who proclaimed: “I pray we could come to this darkness so far above light!”. Those words are taken from his treatise The Mystical Theology and in the early modern period, too, it was the mystics who valued darkness. To the fore were two sixteenth-century saints – Teresa of Avila (1515–82) and John of the Cross (1542–91). In his poem “Dark Night”, John praised his subject in language eerily anticipating the second act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde: “Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!”.

The only light that John of the Cross trusted was the light that burned inside himself, in his heart. It was always those who preferred personal introspection to institutional dogma who found the dark side congenial. In his “Hymn to Christ” of 1619, John Donne wrote: “Churches are best for prayer, that have least light; / To see God only, I go out of sight: / And to ’scape stormy days, I choose / An everlasting night”. Koslofsky draws on what seems to be an encyclopedic knowledge of the devotional literature of the period to demonstrate the popularity of this sort of belief. The benign image of the night also appealed to Protestants persecuted by Catholics and vice versa, for it was the time best suited for clandestine gatherings. And of course there was a biblical text at hand to lend support – John 3:1–3 – which tells of Nicodemus, who “came to Jesus by night”.

Eventually the Catholic Church caught up, introducing new nocturnal practices, such as the devotion of the Forty Hours and lay processions during Holy Week. Immensely popular, they played a prominent role in the public piety of the seventeenth century. The former commemorated the forty hours between Christ’s death and resurrection and necessarily lasted through at least one night. The public prayers and processions in darkness made “the site [of the devotion] more venerated through this clear dark obscurity”, in the paradoxical words of one advocate.

It was the secular authorities, however, who made most use of ceremonial chiaroscuro. This is very much the domain of Alewyn, who wrote that the shift from street to court and from day to night represented “the sharpest break in the history of celebrations in the West”, although Koslofsky has plenty to add on his own account. In the sixteenth century, he points out, the main media of royal representation were the jousts and tournaments held in the daytime, such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the Anglo-French spectacular of 1520. By the time of Louis XIV, all the major events – ballets de cour, operas, balls, masquerades, firework displays – took place at night (a major exception, of course, was hunting, about which Koslofsky has nothing to say). When was the “art of illumination” discovered in the Holy Roman Empire? asked a Saxon writer in 1736, and concluded that it must have been towards the end of the previous century.

The kings, courtiers – and those who sought to emulate them – adjusted their daily timetable accordingly. Unlike Steele’s friend, they rose and went to bed later and later. Henry III of France, who was assassinated in 1589, usually had his last meal at 6 pm and was tucked up in bed by 8. Louis XIV’s day began with a lever at 9 and ended (officially) at around midnight. The ladies of his court – and plenty of the men too – adapted their maquillage to take advantage of artificial lighting to draw attention to their rosy cheeks, white bosoms, jet black eyebrows and scarlet lips. As with so much else at Versailles, this was a development that served to distance the topmost elite from the rest of the population. Koslofsky speculates that it was driven by the need to find new sources of authority in a confessionally fragmented age.

We found it pleasant to be able to go, after midnight, to the far end of the Faubourg Saint-Germain

More directly – and convincingly – authoritarian was the campaign to “colonize” the night by reclaiming it from the previously dominant marginal groups. The most effective instrument was street-lighting, introduced to Paris in 1667, Lille also in 1667, Amsterdam in 1669, Hamburg in 1673, Turin in 1675, Berlin in 1682, Copenhagen in 1683, and London, where private companies were contracted to provide the service, between 1684 and 1694. This had little to do with technological progress, for until the nineteenth century only candles and oil lamps were available. Most advanced was the oil lamp developed in the 1660s by Jan van der Heyden, which used a current of air drawn into the protective glass-paned lantern to prevent the accretion of soot, and made Amsterdam the best-lit city in Europe. In one of the many well-chosen illustrations in the book, a nocturnal street scene from Leipzig in 1702 shows a row of van der Heyden lanterns allowing mixed couples to promenade, friends to recognize and greet each other, and even one solitary individual to read a newspaper.

At the end of the street is the reassuring sight of a nightwatchman, now able to see and protect the respectable citizens. They were the great beneficiaries of the great illumination; the victims were those to whom the streets had belonged when darkness ruled – students, the young in general, servants, vagrants, prostitutes and drinkers. All those, in other words, who had prompted Milton to write: “when night darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons of Belial, flown with insolence and wine”. It was not a victory the authorities won easily (if indeed they ever did). The previous occupants responded with a Kristallnacht of lantern breaking, for which draconian penalties were inflicted – the galleys in France; amputation of a hand in Vienna (where twelve nightwatchmen were murdered between 1649 and 1720).

Yet gradually European towns and cities became safer places when the sun went down, and this security promoted forms of social activity beyond whoring, brawling, gambling and drinking. As Koslofsky very reasonably argues, almost all the work on the public sphere has concentrated on locations and institutional forms, and has neglected time. Coffee houses were open all day, of course, but it was at night that they came into their own. As the London pamphlet Character of Coffee and Coffee-House claimed in 1661, “they borrow of the night”. Most served alcohol and many were frequented by prostitutes, but in general they served as respectable meeting places for the upper and middle classes. Moreover, as well as promoting a critical body of public opinion, they could also on occasion be the focus of more concerted political agitation. It was at the Turk’s Head coffee house in New Palace Yard at Westminster that James Harrington’s Rota Club met nightly in 1659–60 to discuss the future of the Commonwealth. Charles II tried to close coffee houses in 1675 for being “the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons”, a verdict echoed by the patrician town council of Frankfurt am Main in 1703 when taking action against their own political opponents.

If educated urban men certainly benefited from this colonization of the night, it is much less clear how women fared. On the one hand, greater security encouraged them to go out at night. In 1673, Madame de Sévigné described an evening spent chatting with her friends until midnight at the home of Mme de Coulanges, after which she escorted one of the party home, even though this involved a journey across Paris. She wrote that “We found it pleasant to be able to go, after midnight, to the far end of the Faubourg Saint-Germain”, adding that the new street lighting had made this possible: “we returned merrily, thanks to the lanterns, safe from thieves”. In John Vanbrugh’s unfinished play A Journey to London (written in the early 1720s), Lord Loverule grumbles that his wife, Lady Arabella, was in the habit of staying out until the small hours despite knowing that he liked to retire at 11. She replies tartly that: “my two o’clock speaks life, activity, spirit, and vigour; your eleven has a dull, drowsy, stupid, good-for-nothing sound with it. It savours much of a mechanic, who must get to bed betimes that he may rise early to open his shop, faugh!”. Her husband’s further observation that early to bed and early to rise is healthy attracts the crushing rejoinder “beasts do it”.

If these examples might seem to point towards emancipation, they refer only to aristocratic ladies with the means, the carriages and the self-confidence to roam about cities after dark. For the great majority, the new sites of nocturnal activity – the clubs, coffee houses, Masonic lodges and the like – were almost invariably “men only”. Only in Paris, where coffee houses boasted a distinctly aristocratic decor, could women expect a welcome. Elsewhere in Europe, the exclusion of women prompts Koslofsky to endorse Joan Landes’s verdict that “the bourgeois public is essentially, not just contingently, masculinist”. It was the lot of women to be relegated to the “private core of the nuclear family’s interior space”, as Habermas has put it.

It was different in the countryside. Only where the witch-hunters had been especially busy was colonization achieved, and then only temporarily. It had always been the educated who had demonized folk beliefs, while the common people had made no automatic association between the night and evil or temptation. Particularly resistant, for example, in many parts of northern Europe was the “spinning bee”, a nocturnal gathering of women to exchange gossip, stories, refreshment and – crucially – light and heat, as they spun wool or flax, knitted or sewed. It could also be a site of courtship, as young men could be admitted to add spice to these gatherings. Indeed, an illustration from Nuremberg depicts a regular orgy under way, including a priest “taking care of the cook”. Repeated attempts to put a stop to spinning bees and other nocturnal activities got nowhere. As Koslofsky argues, the nocturnalization promoted by state power and a deepening public consumer culture was much less effective in the countryside, because what he also calls “a powerful combination of discipline and distinction” was much less in evidence than in the towns.

The same could be said of the dark forces of the night. Street lighting had made life more difficult for criminals, but also for those who believed in ghosts, devils and things that go bump. Addressing an imaginary atheist in a sermon in 1629, John Donne invited him to look ahead just a few hours until midnight: “wake then; and then dark and alone, Hear God and ask thee then, remember that I asked thee now, Is there a God? and if thou darest, say No”. A hundred years later, there were plenty of Europeans prepared to say “No”. In 1729, the Paris police expressed grave anxiety about the spread of irreligion through late-night café discussions of the existence or non-existence of God.”

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