Monday, July 16, 2012

What Happened during the Night? Sorcery, Sewing, Sex, and More?

According to the latest research, nighttime in pre-industrial society was not just the haunt of criminals, astrologers, desperate commoners, or “things that go bump.” This essay was, in fact, inspired by a discussion in one of my Groups on the LinkIn forum. Thoughts there arose about time keeping, sundown and sunrise, and how all that impacted people’s behavior. That brought to mind the results of one of the most thorough studies of pre-industrial nighttime behavior, which are described in the book by A. Roger Ekirch, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.

One of his key findings had to do with what he calls “segmented sleep.” People slept differently when simple flames (fireplace, candle, or smoky lamp) were their only sources of artificial light. Depending upon the season, they generally went to bed no later than nine or ten o’clock. After roughly four hours of “first sleep,” they awoke. After an hour or two of wakefulness, they dropped into another four hours of “second sleep.” Ekirch focused mostly on accounts from Western Europe, with some emphasis on the British Isles ... and on the years before about 1750.

However, the professor also cites results obtained by modern sleep researcher Dr. Thomas Wehr. Wehr found that test subjects deprived of artificial light for several weeks reverted to a pattern of segmented sleep. Overall, Ekirch makes a strong case that awakening in the middle of the night was the norm in pre-industrial societies. That gives it some relevance to Americans pioneers living in the countryside away from cities, and on the Western frontier.

Ekirch found references to “first sleep” in translations of the Homeric epics, recorded almost three millennia ago. He also cites Plutarch’s Lives (written in roughly 50-80 AD). Although he did not give specific instances, I easily found several. In the “Life of Marcus Brutus” (he of Julius Caesar and the “Ides of March” infamy), Plutarch writes, “... after his first sleep, which he let himself take after his supper, he spent all the rest of the night in settling his most urgent affairs.”

People had good reason to fear the night -- criminals attacks, of course, plus accidents of many kinds, and “the unknown.” Even so, during those normal periods of wakefulness, they did not sink into paralysis. They studied the sky (for astronomical knowledge or “portents”), played games, went to a tavern or restaurant (whatever their equivalent), or visited their neighbors. According to Ekirch’s research, groups would gather with a shared light source (each contributing to the cost), to tell stories and/or engage in communal tasks such as sewing, mending, and so on.

It is significant, I think, that almost without exception, pagan religions had a deity to personify the Moon. We generally think of those deities as goddesses, but that’s largely our Greco-Roman bias. The early Greeks worshiped the moon goddess Selene, whose attributes are indistinguishable from those of the Roman goddess Luna. The Greco-Roman pantheon also included female deities for the dawn (Eos in Greek terminology, Aurora to the Romans). However, worldwide, societies seem about evenly split as to whether their moon deities were male or female.

Early stargazers went outside at night to do more than just bow down to their deities. They discovered that knowledge of those objects in the sky could warn them about momentous events: when the Nile River would rise, impending lunar eclipses, when to plant crops, and more. From there, they made a very natural progression: If we can predict an eclipse by studying celestial objects, surely we can foretell what might happen to a specific individual. Even as they do today, early astrologers -- most of whom sincerely believed in their art -- worded their prophecies with careful ambiguity.

When you understand the very real dangers, and the fears (rational and irrational) that preyed upon the ordinary people, you have to marvel at their determination. First of all, they faced the crucial problem of just getting around. Even with bright moonlight, night shadows play tricks on your vision. The feeble lanterns of the time would have only ruined your night vision, without casting enough light to walk confidently. According to a Smithsonian article, “People began as children to memorize their local terrain -- ditches, fences, cisterns, bogs.”

Naturally, night travelers could not avoid mishaps -- often injurious and sometimes fatal -- under these circumstances. They would stumble over newly-present obstacles, fall into forgotten pits, or walk off a rude bridge. Also, as Ekirch noted, “Accidents were especially common when alcohol was involved.”

Given those totally realistic fears, many people did stay home. They might then perform many mundane activities: relieve themselves, make sure the banked fire is okay, check the livestock, and perhaps have a smoke. Women might do some wash, prepare ingredients for the next day’s meals, and do some further mending.

Of course, those gaps during the night played a role in sex and procreation. Recall that most people in pre-industrial societies spent their days in brutally difficult physical labor -- men and women alike. They surely slept “like logs” during their periods of “first sleep.” Sex would have been the last thing on their minds. But ... refreshed by four hours of solid rest, that would surely change.

The medieval church knew all about segmented sleep -- they designed their nighttime prayer services to fit them. We tend to see monastic prayer sessions deep in the night as a sacrifice, an imposition on what we moderns consider “normal.” That was not at all the case. They were designed to fill those normal hours of wakefulness, and, not incidentally, steer the monks and nuns minds away from “sinful thoughts.”

Similarly, the night watches aboard early ships -- especially warships -- seem not quite so onerous when considered under these observations about sleep patterns in the absence of artificial light.

Of course, all that changed as artificial light -- gas lamps and then electric lights -- became more common.

It’s a shame that we have no comparable documentation on these matters from the frontier, or from Native American societies. Still, given the results from Wehr’s sleep research, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the same sort of nighttime activity patterns might have held there.

It is somewhat encouraging that Dr. Ekirch’s research is gaining more and more recognition, as in this recent article in the BBC News Magazine.
References: A. Roger Ekirch, At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, W. W. Norton & Company (June 2005).
Michael Jordan, Encyclopedia of Gods, Facts on File, Inc. (1993).
Joyce and Richard Wolkomir, “When Bandogs Howle & spirits Walk,” Smithsonian Magazine (January 2001).

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