Night in the Middle Ages
reviewed by Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
Sometime between midnight and eight o’clock last Christmas morning, a foot of heavy snow fell on my family’s house in rural northeastern Pennsylvania. The roads were impassable because of a treacherous combination the snow had formed with ice, and we ended up spending the day together rather than in customary visits to our extended family. At around dinner time, somewhere not far from our house, the weight of this “hoarfrost like ashes” snapped a power line or two or three, leaving us and tens of thousands of others without electricity for between 12 and 20 hours.
When dusk came, it came in a hurry, and candles made a quick appearance in aid of our efforts to prolong the remaining light. But without television, computers, a telephone, or even hot running water, there were no distractions or diversions from the reality of our being “off the grid” as we welcomed the Christ Child into our midst. I read compline early that night, and the recurring motifs of darkness and light in the prayers of the service had a meaning they hadn’t had for me before. I had received a strange meteorological gift for Christmas: a taste of real darkness through which to apprehend the Real Light.
That real darkness is not the sole occasional privilege of Pennsylvania Power and Light Corporation customers—rather, it has been the daily lot of most of humanity for most of history. That real darkness is the interesting subject of Jean Verdon’s Night in the Middle Ages.
Verdon, a professor emeritus of literature at the Université de Limoges, takes his readers through every conceivable aspect of night in medieval European life: its dangers, its denizens, and (surprising, perhaps, for us) the importance of its existence to the prayer of the Church.
There are, to be sure, congruities between the “medieval nocturnal landscape” and ours, despite the intervening advent of artificial light. Today as then, for example, at dusk “prostitutes are strolling in search of clients, while thieves watch out for the bourgeois hurrying home in hope of stealing a purse.” And young children of today continue to voice a fear of the dark that their ancestors would have harbored well into their grownup years.
But it is the differences that strike one most when the book is read from a post-Edisonian standpoint. In a world illumined by sun, moon, and candle alone, “the population deeply appreciated the magnificence of vestments . . . and the polychromatic brightness of the stained glass windows” accompanying Christian worship. Buildings, and not just churches, took shape out of consideration for the maximal amount of light they could receive during the course of the day. Curfews were an established fact of life even during peacetime under municipal law. (In France, bakers and surgeons received explicit exemptions from the night-time prohibition on their work. Priorities are priorities, light or no light).
Humbling and fascinating are Verdon’s surveys of medieval attempts at artificial illumination through candles, lamps, and mirrors—as is the realization that the massive theological works of Augustine, Chrysostom, Aquinas, and Luther were produced in a world that knew deep darkness, and generally refrained from labor while it held sway.
With a true historian’s skill, Verdon surveys medieval nightclothes (not yet “pyjamas”), beds, tavern-going habits, bonfires, and numerous other nocturnal diversions, including dreams, insomnia, and prayer. He never descends to pedantry, though, and the book’s pace is just right. Verdon also strikes a good balance between, say, speculation on the influence of the Rule of St. Benedict on medieval sleeping patterns and concrete facts about modes of illumination.
The book’s treatment of the importance of night for prayer, however, is likely to hold the most interest for readers of Touchstone. In this, perhaps less has changed than in other spheres of modern life. “I believe, my very dear daughter,” writes a fifteenth-century Franciscan, “that the most profitable hour for you and for all of us is midnight . . . once digestion has been accomplished and the work of the world put to rest, when the neighbors will not see you, when no one will look at you, except God.” Bedtime prayers for children remain a reality even in mildly observant Christian households. And among those praying the Daily Office, vespers and compline still greet the setting of the sun, and offer us solemn prayer for deliverance from the perils of the night our forefathers knew. “Night was the domain of Satan and also the high point of monastic prayer” for the medieval man.
For the Christian reader, Night in the Middle Ages will likely provoke many questions: Why, for example, does a First-World population among whom artificial light prevails have more difficulty than did past generations in seeking and seeing “the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world?” Why, for all their tinkering with “gendered” language and hierarchical concepts in Christian worship, have modern liturgists largely seen fit to retain the traditional categories of Light and Darkness for absolute Good and Evil? The answers to these questions are well outside the scope of this review, but readers will be grateful to the author for his grist in the mill of our thoughts about this and related matters.
The most fitting closing is Verdon’s own:
Richard J. Mammana, Jr., is a member of the Church of the Resurrection, Manhattan, and the Living Church Foundation. He is the founder and coordinator of Project Canterbury, the largest online Anglican resource, which provides out-of-print theological texts free of charge. He lives in Marshalls Creek, Pennsylvania.
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“Medieval Nights” first appeared in the May 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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