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]





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)

The least likely account of 18th century adultery?

Until recently I have tended to blog about marital cruelty, so kind readers of my blog will perhaps think that doing research into marriage is very depressing and sad. Well, some of it is, for sources on domestic violence are awful to read.

But I also study adultery, and to be honest some of those separation cases are just laugh-out-loud hilarious. So for a little light relief, here is a brief retelling of the separation of Elizabeth and George Surtees.

Gillray card playing

Wikimedia Commons: Gillray 1796

George was a gentleman who sued his wife for separation on the grounds of adultery in 1745 before Durham Consistory Court. He claimed that after being married for four years Elizabeth committed adultery with John Thompson. Practically all of the case turned on the evidence of George’s 28 year old servant, Margaret Crow, who testified to seeing Elizabeth and John in the act of adultery three times.

Margaret’s testimony was very detailed, ranging from John’s bare backside, and Elizabeth’s naked thighs, to describing the beds: a yellow bed in the marital chamber, and a blue Russell bed in the chamber hung with blue paper. On one occasion, she said, John was visiting Elizabeth so she made coffee to take to them in the yellow bed chamber. Margaret says that she later returned to the room to take away the coffee things. The door was open and so she looked in and saw John

with a Coffee Cup in his Left Hand and his Privy Member in his Right Hand, and naked (and erect to this Deponent’s apprehension) and in that Position and his Breeches down went to the yellow Bed

upon which Elizabeth lay. And you can imagine the rest.

When I read this, I giggled, naturally, but also was struck by the oddness of the scene. It was not like the other adultery cases, nor like criminal conversation suits where the lover was sued by the husband for financial damages. I kept asking myself, would an unfaithful wife keep leaving her chamber door open to have sex with her lover? Once by accident perhaps, but not several times when the maid kept walking by! Would a man really have his coffee cup in one hand and his member in the other?

I was not surprised to find that Elizabeth defended her case, which dragged on in Durham’s court until she appealed the case to York in 1748 claiming that Margaret Crow was a ‘Common Lyar’. I haven’t yet tracked down whether Elizabeth’s appeal was successful. It is unlikely to have been as most husbands in these situations got their separation.

I did look up George Surtees’ will, however, He made his will in March 1757 and it was proved the following year in 1758 when he died. He left all his estate to his son Anthony who was 17 and thus still a minor. Anthony’s guardian was not his mother Elizabeth but George’s relation Cuthbert Surtees.

What jumped out as I was reading his will was that George also left a thatch house to Margaret Crow, his servant, free for her to live in for the rest of her life, plus £10 per annum. Was this, I still wonder, for services rendered?

Beds, marital sex, and adultery

In our last post Angela and I talked about the different functions of the early modern bed and how it literally shifted its uses from the marital bed to the child-bed, to the sick-bed, to the death-bed as family needs dictated. In my post on the different nature of the understandings and experience of privacy in the past, I pointed out that people often shared rooms at night. As the ubiquity of the truckle bed indicates, children and servants frequently shared the chambers in which spouses slept and it was not uncommon for visitors to be put up for the night too (read Sasha Handley’s great work on sleeping for insights into this).[1] So in this post we talk about the marital bed and its uses and meanings in relation to marital affection and marital sex.

Jan Steen bed with curtains

Jan Steen, The Morning Toilet, 1663 (Wikimedia Commons)

Married couples shared a bed, which was seen as the prime site for the sustenance and negotiation of marital relations. After all, conjugal affection and sex were seen as building a harmonious relationship. So how was this achieved in a small or busy household with shared rooms? We think that the bed hangings and curtains were crucial because they acted as a boundary or a ‘threshold.’ In other words, opening or closing the curtains on a tester bed, or indeed the doors on a bed that was built into the house, marked a transition between different types of spaces. It made the space of the bed part of the room or closed off from the room. You can see this above in the Jan Steen painting where one of the curtains is partially closed. The drawn curtain therefore indicated that the bed-space was closed to view – ‘locked’; whereas the open curtain (or absent curtain) allowed an open view – and therefore a different use. This was meaningful enough for early modern people to be used in the theatre for dramatic ends with the curtains of the stage bed signifying ‘secrecy, surprise, revelation, and dramatic irony’.[2]

This notion of the marital bed as the site for legitimate sexual relations was so strong that it shaped people’s language and actions. As the paramount site for beneficial ‘good’ sex, ‘bad’ sex – in other words adultery – was a betrayal of the marital bed. Indeed ‘forsaking the marital bed’ was used as a metaphor for a failed marriage in separation cases. The main bed of the household was so fundamentally associated with marital relations that any other kind of sex in it seems to have been taboo.

Interestingly, cases of adultery that came before the courts reveal that adultery was rarely described as occurring in the marital bed. I recorded where witnesses or defendants claimed that it occurred and the most common places were on chairs, on floors, against doors, and out of doors. The engraving below of a couple using a chair for their dalliance is an example from the Trials for Adultery published in the late eighteenth century. Thus the most common sites of infidelity were the boundaries of legitimate spaces – or ‘liminal’ spaces as scholars call them. Essentially, this means that adultery was rarely committed in the marital bed. You might point out that the marital bed was too overlooked for any suspicious activities. But adultery often occurred in the family home, when husbands were away, so this can’t be the only cause of the reluctance to use this site! Indeed, when beds were cited in adultery trials, they were multi-use, household-neutral beds e.g. lodgings, inns, and not those that were emotionally or physically bound to the household.

Mrs Draper 1771

The bed was also a primary space in which emotional as well as physical bonds between spouses were cultivated, strengthened and maintained. Diaries show that spouses used the bed as a space for sociability, because its enclosure allowed couples to talk away from view. Given that the marital bed facilitated spouses’ discussions, it is not surprising that popular culture saw the bed as the place for wives’ nagging. This was encapsulated in the notion of the ‘curtain lecture’. Pamphlets such as Curtain Lectures: Or, Matrimonial Misery displayed (2s 6d, or 3s in calf) were published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, portraying wives nagging husbands. This common motif lasted well into the nineteenth century as the Victorian image below indicates. Husbands adopted the same conventions in court. In 1766 Charles Allison claimed that ‘after he had got into Bed … [his wife] still continuing to Provoke him with her opprobrious language he did cause and oblige her to get up and go down Stairs’ or to the maid’s bed. He also locked other rooms and pocketed the key to keep his wife out of them. These actions signified a reduction of his wife’s status – moving her out of the marital bed to a servant’s in lesser accommodation.


As these examples indicate, since beds were where married couples talked, it is no wonder bed were also where tensions led to quarrels and in some cases, sadly, violence, which will be discussed in the next bed-post.

[1] More more on sleeping and dreams see: and

[2] Sasha Roberts, ‘”Let me the curtains draw”: the dramatic and symbolic properties of the bed in Shakespearean tragedy’ in J G Harris and N Korda, Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama, Cambridge, 2002.