“When Bandogs Howle and Spirits Walk”

Studying the nighttime hours across the centuries, says historian Roger Ekirch, sheds light on preindustrial society

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Roger Ekirch, a historian at Virginia Tech, has unearthed the complexities underlying a subject that has absorbed him for 16 years—the study of the preindustrial night. His purpose has been to elucidate the profundity of that human experience. In previous centuries, he explains, people called night a different "season." Night was as separate from day as a northern winter is from summer.

To find out about that long-ago night (the period he studies extends from about 1500 into the 1830s), Ekirch has conducted an extraordinarily exhaustive campaign of historical sleuthing. His research has included combing old newspapers and more than 400 diaries, reading travel accounts, memoirs and letters, studying poems, plays and novels, examining artwork, perusing coroners' reports and legal depositions, analyzing texts from proverbs to folktales, and pondering research in medicine, psychology and anthropology.

His investigations have led him to a wide range of surprising insights. During those centuries when people relied on sources such as torches, hearth fires and candles for illumination, night assumed a different character in the human imagination. The hours of fear descended every night, when one could easily lose one's life by falling into ditches, ponds or rivers, or being thrown by horses unfamiliar with dark paths. Demons, witches and night hags, it was widely believed, held sway in those hours. Ruffians and robbers could wreak their havoc. Yet this was, too, the appointed time for revelry.

It was the advent of new technology that introduced the experience of night as we know it. "Thomas Edison," reports Ekirch, "hammered the last nail in the old night's coffin." Today, he says, our darkness is neither so impenetrable nor so spooky.

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