The past is an unlit country

At the height of the recent storms, early one evening, our electricity went off, leaving us in the dark and cold for three hours. This was enough time to panic about finding suitable torches, candles, and (thanks to my mother’s foresight and her memories of a post-war childhood and a 1970s winter of discontent) a hurricane lamp. Enough time to light them all (where do lighters, matches, and batteries hide in the dark?) and to realise that landlines don’t work in power-cuts and mobile phones choose that precisely that moment to run out of charge or credit. What then? Can’t work, play, or read. My son struck lucky with a charged iPad on which he played games. Well, what would any self-respecting historian do but attempt a micro-historical re-enactment of the dark and its insights into life in the past?[1]

night

 

 

 

First off, yes, there is no doubt that candlelight is beautiful and mesmerising. You only have to see Amanda Vickery’s reconstruction of a Regency ball, or the Tudor Farm at Christmas, or Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 Jane Eyre to see its charm. Yet candles were costly and unlikely to be used in large quantities for ordinary people on ordinary days. So surely many people’s experience of darkness was much more intense than these gorgeous evocations; didn’t many of them travel the night-time with only small flickers of light to accompany them? People do seem to have pottered about in the night time. Most obviously, perhaps, children slept in rooms with their carers –no doubt to facilitate feeding them, comforting them, or talking to them in the dark hours without having to wander far.

What about that much longer ‘night’ itself? My encounter with the ‘early’ advent of darkness reminded me of Roger Ekirch’s ground-breaking findings in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, a marvellous history of night-time activities and patterns of behaviour. His findings on changing patterns of sleep were so startling they even made the press. Essentially he proposes that in the pre-industrial world sleep was broken up into two blocks of about four hours. So when you don’t get your full eight hours sleep, don’t be surprised or worried – you are probably following your ‘natural’ sleeping pattern. Ekirch argues that industrialisation, efficiency and clock-watching eradicated this segmented form of sleep (leaving many of us as ‘insomniacs’). For more on sleep see the project Sleep Cultures.

Those of us lucky enough to read accounts of everyday lives in the past find much illumination in Ekirch’s findings about the dark. I begin to wonder how far the dark was shaped by class and gender. Men were perhaps least hampered by darkness when travelling abroad, although it remained a dangerous time for everyone in the night as fears of robbery and banditry reveal. Certainly servants and women seem to have patrolled darkened rooms and corridors more frequently at home. I recall the accounts in matrimonial litigation of times when household members saw and heard what they weren’t intended to see or hear. Indeed being kept in the dark was no distant metaphor where secrets were concerned in the pre-electric age. Servants on their duties or in precious ‘spare’ time often discovered the adulterous affairs of their employers.

It wasn’t only servants who took advantage of the dark evenings. In January 1788 the vicar of Alnham in Northumberland left home for a couple of days. The young husbandman and plasterer who were doing building work on his house were suspicious about his wife Eleanor. They went to the highest part of the Smiths’ garden and looked in through the kitchen chamber which held the press-bed in which the couple slept. They saw Eleanor reading by the firelight and chatting with the person in the bed. She undressed to her shift and go into bed. The dark and the distance stopped the men’s spying, so unable to find a ladder they got a hand barrow and stood it up at the window. Each climbed in turn onto the barrow (a health and safety nightmare there, surely) and peeped in to see Eleanor lying in bed with a fellow husbandman.

In fact, servants and lower classes have been snootily written-off by historians for their propensity to pop-up with incriminating evidence about their masters and mistresses. Yet when I look again at their testimony and accounts, in the context of their darkened environments, I notice with fresh eyes their use of all their senses as they made their rounds. Hearing sighs and shuffles, encountering by touch surprisingly closed doors, and discern odd goings on in the dimmest of dim lights. Rather than household members in the contempt in which some historians have held them, I admire their quiet use of a darkened house to assert their own control over its occupants.

Mary Collier certainly saw the dark and its labours as profoundly gendered, in her 1739 poem defending women’s employment against the slurs of Stephen Duck in his The Thresher’s Labours. Resentful descriptions of the dark litter her poem.  After women’s long labours in the field for example, she tells her reader:

We must make haste, for when we Home are come,
Alas ! we find our Work but just begun ;
So many Things for our Attendance call,
Had we ten Hands, we could employ them all.
Our Children put to Bed, with greatest Care
We all Things for your coming Home prepare :
You sup, and go to Bed without delay,
And rest yourselves till the ensuing Day ;

She emphasises the never-ending nature of women’s labours by the repeated references to the dark. On days of washing and charring for others, Mary continues, women’s paid labours also necessitated them working through the night. After an interminable day washing for a mistress:

NOW Night comes on, from whence you have Relief,
But that, alas ! does but increase our Grief ;
With heavy Hearts we often view the Sun,
Fearing he’ll set before our Work is done ;
For either in the Morning, or at Night,
We piece the Summer’s Day with Candle-light.
Tho’ we all Day with Care our Work attend,
Such is our Fate, we know not when ‘twill end :

Look at all those allusions to time passing and night as burdening women still further. Again, after cleaning pewter, or making ale for the employer:

Once more our Mistress sends to let us know
She wants our Help, because the Beer runs low :
Then in much haste for Brewing we prepare,
The Vessels clean, and scald with greatest Care ;
Often at Midnight, from our Bed we rise
At other Times, ev’n that will not suffice ;
Our Work at Ev’ning oft we do begin,
And ‘ere we’ve done, the Night comes on again.
Water we pump, the Copper we must fill,
Or tend the Fire ; for if we e’er stand ſtill,
Like you, when threshing, we a Watch must keep,
Our Wort Boils over if we dare to sleep

It is SO striking that the natural rhythms of day and night, light and dark, shape Mary’s view of women’s work.

Finally, my unlit hours reminded me of people’s encounters in the dark which unsettled and frightened them, and made them think of ghosts, banshees and devils. Catherine Ettrick junior, for example, told the clerk of Durham Consistory Court in the 1760s that when her mother left the marital bedchamber (to escape her husband’s violence), the servants thought they’d seen a ghost. Her brother had his very own banshee when he grew up. Thomas Bewick, for instance, recounts in his memoir how he was scared of the dark when he was growing up in the 1760s.[2]

Among the worst [of his ‘prejudices], was that of a belief in ghosts, boggles, apparitions, &c. These wrought powerfully upon the fears of the great bulk of the people at that time, and, with many, these fears are not rooted out even at this day. The stories so circumstantially told respecting these phantoms and supernatural things, I listened to with the dread they inspired, and it took many an effort, and I suffered much, before it could be removed. What helped me greatly to conquer fears of that kind was my … father … would not allow me to plead fear as any excuse, when he had to send me an errand at night ; and, perhaps, my being frequently alone in the dark might have the effect of enabling me greatly to rise superior to such weakness.

Nevertheless Thomas went on to recall his horrors when as a teenager he set off home in the dark across the fell, after playing cards with his friends. Suddenly:

to my utter amazement, I saw the devil ! It was a clear moonlight night ; I could not be mistaken his horns his great white, goggle eyes, and teeth, and tail his whole person stood fairly before me ! As I gazed, I thought the hair lifted the hat on my head. He stood, and I stood, for some time ; and, I believe, if he had then come up to me, I must have dropped down. … I slipped off my clogs, made a start in a bending direction, and at full speed ran home. He pursued me nearly to the door, but I beat him in the race. I had always understood that any person who had seen a ghost, or evil spirit, would faint on coming into a house with a fire in it. I feared this, but I fainted none ! and when my father asked me what was the matter, I told him I had seen the devil. He, perhaps without thinking, gave me a slap on the head.

That slap on the head amuses me – a father lashing out instinctively at the fright his son got. Don’t worry, his father then went on to find out who it was that had impersonated the devil, tracked him down in Corbridge and gave him a sound beating for terrifying his son!

No wonder, as Sasha Handley, that excellent historian of ghosts, darkness and sleep, reminds us, people sought bedfellows to make the dark less isolating and frightening, to make it more amenable and companionable by sharing the ill-perceived shadows, the too quiet moments which no doubt they filled with chat, as well as snores.

This sociability began to appeal to me as I sat on the bed surrounded by candles and torches and a radio with batteries that I rediscovered, and listened to my son tell me about his day at school once he decided to chat rather than play Modern Combat. Then the lights came back on and my re-enactment was complete. By God I was pleased! Respect to our forbearers.

 

 


[1] Seriously, for an eye-opening account of historical reconstruction and its value, have a look at Pamela Smith’s ‘Making Things. Techniques and books in early modern Europe’ in Paula Findlen (ed), Early Modern Things. Objects and their Histories 1500-1800 (2013)

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