I’m currently reading A. Roger Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime. The author uses a vast number of quotes and facts and figures from throughout the past thousand years or so to describe “a social history of the nighttime in the pre-Industrial era.”
Some of Ekirch’s revelations aren’t exactly shocking – that crimes were far more frequent under cover of darkness, and that we have long been afraid of things that go bump in the night (or screech, or clunk or…). But it’s the very tangible nature of these fears that brings them home.
We’re programmed to fear the same things we feared 500 or a thousand years ago. Thieves lurking in shadows, or wild animals roaming around us. Undulations in unlit terrain as traps waiting to snare us. And the natural rhythm we generally settle into, performing our daily duties in hours of daylight, before retreating to the safety of our homes for the hours of darkness.
The book is a kind of spiritual cousin to Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, one of my absolute favourite history books. Mortimer’s writing is a bit more entertaining and at times tongue-in-cheek, but Ekirch’s book remains thoroughly readable as it makes such good use of primary source material.
In fact, the tone of Ekirch’s book is often a little surprising. Some passages deal with crimes such as burglary or theft at knifepoint. These crimes are, of course, hideous and terrifying, but they can be read with a pinch of salt when lacking the grisly details. On the other hand, his lengthy description of thief’s candles, superstitious items created from human flesh, or the fingers of the dead – or worse – are quite startlingly grim:
The most notorious charm, the “thief’s candle,” found ready acceptance in most parts of Europe. The candle was fashioned from either an amputated finger or the fat of a human corpse, leading to the frequent mutilation of executed criminals. Favoured, too, were fingers severed from the remains of stillborn infants. Because they had not been baptised, their magical properties were considered more powerful. To enhance the candle’s potency, the hands of dead criminals, known as Hands of Glory, were sometimes employed as candlesticks.
Wow. That’s a passage that’s going to stay with me. I’m only a short way into this fascinating book. Naturally, it’s a great thing to read at bedtime(!).
It’s good timing, then, that an interesting local history blog flagged up yesterday two sets of newspaper cuttings describing crimes in the 18th century in and around what is now Milton Keynes. In his book, Ekirch describes highway robbery, being careful not to make light of what were often terrible crimes. Indeed, the Wolverton Past blog makes similar vivid references to such crimes:
Northampton Mercury October 1st 1774
On Thursday last, about six in the Morning, was found in the High Road between Shenly and Stony Stratford by two Men going to Work, the Body of one James Wills, a poor industrious Man, most barbarously murdered. He belongs to Woolverton, near Stony Stratford, and had been to a Statute held near Fenny Stratford selling Nuts and Cakes. His head was so terribly beat and bruised by a Slate of a Stake Rail, that on moving him his Brains dropp’d out. He has left a Wife and seven children. Diligent Search is making after the Murderers.
Gosh. Don’t have nightmares.