Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe by Craig Koslofsky. Cambridge University Press, 2011. 448pp.
By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
(Psalm 42:8 ESV)
In the early days of my conversion, I picked up a fairly ascetic practice: I set my alarm for the middle of the night, crept through the front door, and walked around my neighbourhood with a Bible and a flashlight, reading the book of Exodus aloud. It was exhilarating—here I was, wandering with the Israelites through the night, God’s luminous cloud leading His people through the dark wilderness.
And in those dark hours, I also felt a sense of God’s presence, a seventeen-year-old girl who was only beginning to understand what her conversion meant and promised.
My personal experience of the nighttime’s mystical possibilities speaks to a much broader understanding of the night’s spiritual legacy. From the Scriptures to the Reformers, from the Church Fathers to contemporary scholars, the nighttime has held considerable power over our imaginations, our spiritual practices, and our divisions between public and private life. Craig Koslofsky, in his book Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe, claims that the European concept of night, in its maturation between the medieval and the modern era, holds a key to understanding the ethos of early modern Europe. In his cultural analysis, Koslofsky not only examines the power an image can hold over various dimensions of human life, but thinks more specifically about the night’s spiritual overtones as they are shaped by culture, historical place, and practice.
Our purpose, in examining Koslofsky and the threads he brings us to pursue, is to ask Macbeth’s question: What is the night? What definitions of the night, and of time, have held sway over us, and how does that affect both our daily living and our habits of mind? What is a proper way to read the nighttime, both as metaphor and as people who spend half their time in the nighttime hours? And how do the devotional habits of 17th century Europeans make us consider the nighttime’s spiritual legacy for our own lives?
It is safe to say that the nighttime can be a source of both terror and unknowable danger. In my city of Grand Rapids, you do not walk down certain streets at night; in my household as a child, the night was a space for family disagreements, for fights and shouts and 911 calls. And for the people of medieval Europe, it was assumed that the night belonged to the devil, to witches and spirits and demons. The principalities of darkness worked in the nighttime, and it is widely thought that the image of night only carried connotations of hell and satanic ritual.
But Koslofsky, in his study of diaries and paintings and other artifacts, notices a different trend. As early modern Europe transitioned away from the medieval period, people’s understanding of the nighttime changed dramatically: the nighttime began to be its own space, one more defined by social commitment, leisure, and religious devotion. Koslofsky is right to point out that religious devotion in the nighttime is not a purely modern European development—that it stems farther back than his study will allow—but his analysis of how modern Europeans appropriated the nighttime hours can help us, as postmodern people, examine our own uses of time, particularly in the open space of the night.
Part of what brings me to consider the nighttime is one of my professions; as a college professor, I am struck by the way that my students see the nighttime as one of the only times they can study. “The best time I can get work done,” one student reported to me, “is between three and six in the morning. After I’m done working, I’ll go back to sleep for an hour or two. Which makes me a little weird.”
Koslofsky would say that my student, rather than being “weird,” is more in line with the practical sleeping habits of those 17th century Europeans, whose concept of a “good night’s sleep” involved a period of wakefulness: “The division of the night into a ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleepâ€¦provided time for prayer, reflection, conversation, intimacy, or activities ranging from housework to petty theft.”
While I certainly do not recommend the latter activity for my students, it does seem like this “first and second sleep” provided a needed space not only to complete the tasks of the day, but also to pursue both relationship and reflection. In practical terms, it defined the nighttime as a space all its own, with its own kind of productivity, one that was just as much about the person as it was about the task accomplished. In those nighttime hours, people visited neighbors, made love, told stories, and prepared their homes for guests. It was a domestic space, filled with activities that cultivated family and communal life.
As someone who has never been a morning or night person—but who cherishes a long night of sleep—I wonder what this way of seeing the night hour could do for our senses of Sabbath and hospitality. So many of us see the hours of our days and nights as blank spaces to fill with tasks and appointments. As another student recently told me, “I am always thinking about the next thing I have to do. My mind is in a constant state of flux. Whenever I have the chance to just sit, my mind races around the tasks that I have yet to do.”
I am like this student: I struggle to pay attention to simple tasks, to stay organized, to get it all done. My anxiety is often the result of overextension, which is my pride: I believe that I can get it all done, and if I do not get it done, so what? I am overworked as it is, and my sleep—my well being—is more important than the late night conversation a friend wishes I would share with her. My idea of rest is uninterrupted sleep, and my practice of hospitality is more often two-faced than genuine, more centered on my own sense of accomplishment and self than on the care of another. It might be that first and second sleeps are not a practical application for our contemporary life. But understanding time in this way, and seeing the night as a rich, fruitful space all its own, could help us examine the ways we practice rest and creating space for others.
Early modern Europe shared many of our current cultural maladies: wrestling with the growth of population and technology, fractured by war and religious quarrel, the people of the 17th century understood how time itself felt scarce and stretched too thin. They, too, saw the nighttime as a space to commandeer, to use for their own purposes: Koslofsky notes that the rise of consumption made it necessary that farmers harvest at all hours of the night, that furnace workers and beer brewers tend their tasks during the night, that housewives and their servants continued their work after the sun set. The nighttime became a commodity to tend and use, and the dangers of that work ethic resonate with our own tendencies to overwork, to ignore a rhythm, and to see time as an expendable good.
And yet, even in the rise of capitalism, in the growth of labor (and the use of the nighttime to harvest crops and sweep streets), early modern Europe understood the value of leisure, time set apart for rest and fellowship. “Even the urban day laborers, artisans, and farmhands with the most physically demanding work looked to the evening and the night for their free time.” That free time was filled with a variety of activities: cards, dancing, ale-houses, music, readings, and conversation about both daily life and new ideas. The fact that both “church and state authorities recognized, at least in principle, the need for leisure time” gave many Europeans time to relax, not just in the privacy of their own homes, but in the centers of public life. And because the day was filled with work, the evening was often filled with this purposeful kind of leisure.
This is why I encourage my students to take their late-night studies to Grand Rapids’s coffee shops, to spend their Friday nights at local bookstores and lectures at local universities. The early rise of the late-night coffeehouse and tavern, as Koslofsky affirms, provided a quality public space for intellectual pursuit and conversation. When we think of “civic duty,” we imagine polls and polemics. What would it look like if we truly practiced a holistic sense of civic duty, if we took seriously the act of cultivating public conversation in real places? The public spaces of social media are one good place for public conversation, but so are our local restaurants, our coffeehouses and porches, our churches and town halls. Our evenings are often spaces to recuperate from the work of the day, to bathe the kids and grade the papers and wait for the appropriate hour to sleep. But what if, in the small ways we are able, we spent our evening time more fruitfully, pursuing a leisure that edifies?
If the nighttime is meant to be an active pursuit of shared life, we need to re-imagine what the nighttime could mean for us in the particulars of how and where we live. For my friend Alissa, it means finishing her MFA readings in a local Manhattan pub; for my in-laws, it means joining the Port Huron bowling league. Even in the face of great class divisions, of poverty and restriction, 17th century Europeans were able to cultivate a powerful kind of public life, one that would not only warm the heart of Garrison Keillor, but that can encourage us towards a richer, deeper engagement with the world around us.
If our typically insular ways of engaging the nighttime reveal anything about our cultural habits, it is our spiritual poverty, of which our inattention and distraction, our frantic anxiety, are symptoms. The practices of religious devotion that Koslofsky uncovers are also symptomatic of a larger problem in the European church—the days of the Reformation, while foundational for many, were filled with persecution and division. In the various streams of the Protestant church, people sought the cover of night as a protection from the authorities: Mennonites and Anabaptists, in particular, held candlelit church services in the forests of Germany, and Reformed Protestants often held services for the Lord’s Supper at midnight, the upper rooms of private houses crowded with those who, like Nicodemus, sought the Lord at night.
The image of Nicodemus, whose visit to Jesus is told in John 3, became a poignant example to many Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Anabaptist and Mennonite communities identified many Scriptural texts that emphasized nighttime worship: Jacob and the Angel; the evening meal of Passover; Paul’s all-night preaching session in the book of Acts, and the numerous accounts that Acts names of late night confessions, baptisms, and celebration of the sacraments. Koslofsky points to a particular Anabaptist preacher whose appropriation of the nighttime solidifies the power of night for Christians: “One cannot find God,” the preacher wrote, “except in the wilderness and in the darkness.”
For early modern Europe, the nighttime was a space to seek both God and neighbour. And one of the most famous accounts of a man who sought the Lord at night is St. John of the Cross, whose Dark Night of the Soul is a foundational text for Western Christianity. A Carmelite monk, St. John saw the night as an existential crisis of the soul, a time where religious devotion feels dry and disconnected, and where the faithful person wonders: Has God abandoned me? Does God exist?
I have heard many people refer to specific instances of suffering—the grief at losing a loved one, for example—as someone’s “dark night of the soul.” But St. John’s appropriation of the night has more in common with Kathleen Norris’ description of acedia than the concept of lament. The dark night of the soul is not the suffering of Job, but rather a spiritual malaise that is more interior, less rooted in a specific cause of suffering: it is a darkness that is purgative, bent on ridding the faithful one of pretense and “sensual” appetites, in order to pursue God. As St. John puts it, “God leads into the dark night those whom He desires to purify from all these imperfections so that He may bring them farther onward.”
For Reformed folks, the idea of purgation might feel noxious or even heretical. Why deny the senses if all of creation is good? Why should the journey to God center on a spirituality that seems to equate union with God with an escape from the world? If encountering the nighttime brings us into intentional community, is it counterproductive to suggest this “dark night of the soul”?
Koslofsky offers a helpful counterpoint. Citing the ancient tradition of vespers, compline, and matins (as practiced by the Benedictines), Koslofsky notices that the Christian practice of wakefulness, as it pertains to prayer, “was foremost a physical act of self-denial.” My experience with Exodus, while very simple, echoes this kind of act—by actively denying sleep and braving the cold, I was profoundly moved to pray. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, who fast more strictly than the Protestant church, understand that denying the body is an affirmation of the incarnation: our practices of fasting and prayer have the potential to not only show us our weakness but to illuminate our experiences of God’s grace and mercy, deepening our devotion to the one who sought Nicodemus in the nighttime, who took on flesh to both bear sin and restore relationship, union, with His people.
In the church my fiancé and I attend, Great Vespers is held every Saturday, a service of prayer that not only proclaims the Lord’s blessing of the night before Sunday services, but reminds us that, to God, the night and the day are both His creation; that the sun sets in obedience to him; that, in his wisdom, he entered our darkness and left behind an empty tomb. In Great Vespers, we sing: Now we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening.
The light of evening is Christ, who with the Father and the Son both enlightens the world and, in the words of Denys the Aeropagite, is “the divine darkness” whose beauty and radiance outshines all temporal light, who declares both the day and the night to be good, and who promises to, in Revelation’s heavenly city, be our eternal light, surpassing what we have seen and known.
And while we wait, let us attend, redeeming the time given to us. Even in the night.