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Excerpted from Part 1; Chapter 2: “Time of Dark Streets” from Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light  by © Jane Brox (courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 2010). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Light—so precious within—was even rarer on the streets of the cities, towns, and villages of the past, for before the seventeenth century street lighting was almost non-existent everywhere in the world. A fourth-century inhabitant of the Syrian city of Antioch claimed: “The light of the sun is succeeded by other lights.  The night with us differs from the day only in the appearance of the light.” And geographer Yi-Fu Tuan notes that in China, “Hang-chou boasted a vigorous night life along the crowded Imperial way before the Mongols invaded the Sung capital in A.D.1276.” But other Chinese cities were dark except during the New Year and on the Emperor’s birthday, when torches lined the roads and the skies flared with fireworks. Renaissance Florence had no streetlights, nor did Imperial Rome, of which Jérôme Carcopino writes: “No oil lamps lighted [the streets], no candles were affixed to the walls; no lanterns were hung over the lintel of the doors, save on festive occasions when Rome was resplendent with exceptional illumination to demonstrate her collective joy, as when Cicero rid her of the Catilinarian plague.  In normal times night fell over the city like the shadow of a great danger… Everyone fled to his home, shut himself in, and barricaded the entrance. The shops fell silent, safety chains were drawn across behind the leaves of the doors; the shutters of the flats were closed and the pots of flowers withdrawn from the windows they had adorned.”


cover art

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

Jane Brox

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; US: Jul 2010)

In Europe during the Middle Ages, the close of day was unmistakably announced with the clanking and groaning of bells: bells were always ringing from ramparts and cathedral towers, from the belfries of convents, monasteries, and country churches—to warn of invasions, fires, and thunderstorms; to announce the celebration of marriage and the arrival of royalty; the impending death of a parishioner, and, after death, to solicit prayers for the departed soul. Their sounding shaped time into holy hours—matins, lauds, prime—and marked the ordinary – the start of work, the opening of markets, the respite of noon. Come dusk the vespers bells rang, calling for the holy office of the lights when the candles and torches of the churches were lit. Vespers, meaning evening star, the word itself dying on a silky whisper: hour for prayers of thanksgiving, and for prayers to the Virgin—the Ave Maria – since people believed the Annunciation took place in evening. 


Soon after, the curfew bell tolled, often more than a hundred times. In the early Middle Ages it sounded just after dusk; in later centuries, especially in winter, it rang several hours after sunset, but always it held an unwavering meaning: in a time before street lighting or organized police forces, the only way to maintain order was to strictly control the comings and goings of citizens, so at curfew all the day’s labor stopped. Blacksmiths lay down their bellows, goldsmiths ceased beating out metal. In the markets trading halted, and the cries of butchers and fishwives subsided. The sounds of clinking harnesses, creaking wagons, and the plodding tread of oxen decayed into silence as almost everyone – per order of the authorities—returned to their dwellings, locked their doors, and shuttered their windows.


If inhabitants of fortified cities and towns found themselves beyond the gates at the sound of curfew, they made true haste since officials, to prevent intruders from entering under the cover of dark, locked the perimeter gates. Anyone caught beyond them risked being fined or shut out for the night. Such a practice persisted in some places even into the eighteenth century: “About half a league from the city [of Geneva],” Jean-Jacques Rousseau attests, “I hear the retreat sounding; I hurry up; I hear the drum being beaten, so I run at full speed: I get there all out of breath, and perspiring; my heart is beating; from far away, I see the soldiers from their lookouts; I run, I scream with a choked voice. It was too late.” 


Not only were gates closed: in order to prevent vandals from running freely through the streets, officials laid chains across the roads “as if it were in tyme of warr.” The city of Nuremberg, notes Roger Ekirch, “maintained more than four hundred sets [of chains]. Unwound each evening from large drums, they were strung at waist height, sometimes in two or three bands, from one side of a street to the other… [and] Paris officials in 1405 set all the city’s farriers to forging chains to cordon off not just streets but also the Seine.”  In some cities residents, once home, were required to give their keys over to the authorities: “At night all houses… are to be locked and the keyes deposited with a magistrate,” a Paris decree of 1380 charged. “Nobody may then enter or leave a house unless he can give the magistrate a good reason for doing so.” Cooking fires, often the only interior light many could afford, were ordered extinguished soon after the evening meal since, of the innumerable night fears in the huddled wooden-and-thatch world of the Middle Ages, among the certain and known was that of conflagration. Curfew: from the old French, couvrefeu, meaning “cover fire.” 


Yet even with such strict regulations, and in spite of all the tolling bells and clanking chains, the close of day was not always an iron hour. The absolute enforcement of curfew would have been impossible, since the night watch was often all that stood between order and disorder in the dark, and watchmen weren’t at their posts voluntarily. In many European cities and large towns, all households were required to contribute a man between the age of eighteen and sixty to the watch, and neither widows nor clergy were excepted from the ordinance—they had to sponsor an eligible man from another household. Unpaid, unarmed (save for a trumpet and banner), and having worked all day as laborers, goldsmiths, or clothmakers, the standing watch kept lookout for fire or invasion at the towers and gates, having climbed to their posts on ladders, “whose feet in many towns were protected by a locked barrier. Thus, the watchers… would not be tempted – or more precisely – would not be able to abandon their post under cover of darkness. Installed in sentry boxes, suffering in winter from cold and bad weather, they waited more or less patiently for night to pass.” A rear watch spent the night patrolling the streets listening for trouble, questioning anyone found abroad in the dark. They had the additional duty of checking on the standing watch so as to ascertain one or more of them hadn’t dozed off or returned home.


All watchmen had the authority to arrest and imprison those out in the night without just cause, though they might be a little lax in the first few hours after curfew, especially in times and places that were relatively free from strife. The taverns, although ordered closed, might have stayed open so workmen could stop in for a drink or two before returning home. In small towns and villages people visited other households to talk by the light of the hearth. Bakers worked their ovens so as to have bread ready for the break of day. And the night had its own tradesmen who were about then—rag pickers, manure and night soil collectors—with their furtive scrapings and footsteps. But as night deepened the streets mostly belonged to vandals, footpads, and thieves, and anyone abroad in the later hours except those with a legitimate purpose—midwives, priests, or doctors called out to emergencies—would have been regarded as a “nightwalker” and subject to interrogation.


Since the watch—and any travelers abroad—would have had no stationary street lighting to help them, what little light shone on the streets at night was portable. The torches and lanterns carried by the watch not only illuminated their way; they made them visible to others and recognizable as enforcers of order. Since any travelers without lights would have had an advantage – they could see the watch but could not be seen – anyone on the streets after dark was also required to carry a lamp or torch. Leicester, England: “no man [may] walke after IX of the belle be streken in the nyght withoute lyght or without cause resonable in payne of impresonment.” The city of Lyon: “Let no one be so bold or daring to go about at night after the great seral of Saint Nizar without carrying lights, on pain of being put in prison and of paying sixty sous of Tours each time he is found to have done so.”


The wealthy—whom watch could distinguish from a distance by their dress—always traveled with servants to hold their lanterns, and with guards to defend them. They were also excepted from nightime restrictions that others were subject to: in many cities night travelers were forbidden to wear hoods or cloaks, and they could not carry weapons or gather in groups of more than three or four.


Jane Brox is the author of Clearing Land, Five Thousand Days Like This One, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Here and Nowhere Else, which received the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award. She lives in Maine.




©  Jane Brox


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