Who’s Afraid of the Dark?
Historian traces the revolution of the night.
Benjamin Franklin once wrote a letter in the Journal de Paris about staying up with friends until “three or four hours after midnight,” thanks to his new Argand oil-lamp. In his 1784 letter, he went on to joke that he had become so accustomed to sleeping until noon every day that he was surprised to discover the sun rose between six and eight in the morning.
While Franklin’s night-owl habits may describe your average teenager today, they represent a revolution in behavior that began in the mid-1600s and had taken root by Franklin’s time, says University of Illinois history professor Craig Koslofsky. Prior to the era of improved lighting, both indoors and out, most people went to bed with sunset and rose at sunrise, sometimes earlier.
Koslofsky has tracked the dramatic changes in attitudes on the night, demonstrating how people in early modern Europe slowly became “nocturnalized.” They tamed the night, making it safer for respectable citizens, rather than just a time for evil spirits, thieves, tavern-goers, rabble-rousing youth, and prostitutes.
In 1667, Paris (the City of Light) became the first city to introduce street lighting, says Koslofsky, author of Evening’s Empire, which Atlantic magazine chose as one of the best 15 books reviewed in the magazine or published in 2012. Parisians installed large, fat candles in glass lanterns and suspended them over the city’s streets. There was no system for relighting the candles, so they burned for a couple of hours and then the city plunged back into darkness.
Amsterdam, the third European city to install public street lighting, had a much more sophisticated system, in which oil lanterns were mounted on poles that had holes to draw in air and feed combustion. The Dutch used a special type of oil that didn’t freeze in the winter, and the airflow even kept soot off of the glass. It was sophisticated—and expensive.
The first street lamps, particularly the simple Parisian system, used technology that had been available for hundreds of years. So why did street lighting not arrive until the mid- to late 1600s? Koslofsky believes it has to do with changing attitudes toward the night and darkness—a change that preceded the advent of public street lights.
“The night was closely associated with danger, both natural and supernatural,” he says. “But in the 17th century, Europeans were beginning to see opportunities to expand their authority throughout the world.”
Just as explorers colonized far-flung countries, Europeans saw an opportunity to “colonize” the night by using public lighting to allow people to move into a world of darkness once considered too forbidding. This change in attitude toward the night was evident throughout the culture, including the church and royal courts.
The church had always emphasized the conflict between light and dark, seeing darkness as a symbol of evil; but during the Reformation in the 16th century, Christians began to see a more positive side to the night. Christians saw the dark hours as a time of refuge, as Protestants in Catholic countries and Catholics in Protestant countries were forced to worship at night to avoid persecution. Nicodemus, the Biblical figure who visited Jesus at night, became a more revered person.
According to Koslofsky, “The nocturnal side of Christianity developed, as mystics talked about darkness as a pathway to God”—an idea explored by St. John of the Cross in his poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.”
In palaces, royalty began to flaunt their power over darkness by staging opulent displays of lighting, including fireworks, he adds. Royal celebrations in the past had taken place mostly at day, but King Louis XIV of France led the move toward nocturnalization, showing that he had the power and resources to light up Paris, turning night into day.
Ironically, as King Louis XIV helped to light up his cities, his actions inadvertently spawned a subversive coffeehouse movement. Men began to meet at coffeehouses at night to discuss politics, philosophy, and religion, and they began to challenge authorities such as the monarchy. As the public sphere expanded into the night, he says, some governments tried to suppress the coffeehouse movement—often unsuccessfully.
Changes also occurred in the theater. During Shakespeare’s day in the early 1600s, theaters were open-air to let in the sunlight and plays were performed by day. The only way audiences even knew it was night was through dialogue. But with the rise of the Baroque Theater, playhouses became enclosed, allowing directors to use light for dramatic effect. Light and darkness became something you could manipulate—a resource you could use.
“We go from seeing darkness as something dangerous and best to be avoided to something that could be used selectively,” Koslofsky says. People domesticated the darkness for their use, much the same way they had domesticated dogs.
“The wrong dog can still be pretty scary,” he adds, just as darkness can still frighten people today. “But when the night becomes a threat today,” he says, “we have Take Back the Night marches, or we confront our fears by going to horror movies where things go bump in the night. We can only do that because we’ve domesticated the real source of fear.”
By Doug Peterson