‘This book’, A Roger Ekirch declares straight away, ‘sets out to explore the history of nighttime in Western society before the advent of the Industrial Revolution.’ Night-time, he observes, ‘embodied a distinct culture with many of its own customs and rituals, very different from daily reality – a chance for men and women to express inner impulses and realize repressed desires, however innocent or sinister in nature’. I paused there to draw up a mental list of nocturnal deeds and events that would occur to many residents of London in 2005. In no particular order: sex (licit and illicit), dreams, dressing up, crime, work, fear, fantasy, drinking and eating, many of these varied by social class and money. This was the case, too, we learn here, in the period from the Middle Ages to the mid eighteenth century in the countries of Western Europe, and nowhere more so than in Britain.
It turns out that, in the times and places considered in At Day's Close, people behaved during the night pretty much the way they do now, making love, changing their clothes, dreaming, eating, drinking, working, committing crimes, and, if children, being scared of the dark.
Ekirch divides his compendium into topical