Craig Koslofsky probes with dexterous imagination a long-overlooked historical development—the transformation in nighttime activities and attitudes toward the night in 17th- and 18th-century Europe—and rightly pronounces it a cultural “revolution.” In the Middle Ages, night was associated with menace, and darkness was nearly unbroken from the setting to the rising of the sun. But starting in the 17th century, thanks in part to more domestic lighting, new street lighting, and the new stimulative beverages—coffee, tea, and chocolate—European aristocracies, royal courts, and towns pushed back what Koslofsky, a historian at the University of Illinois, nicely calls “a primordial feature of daily life” and developed a rich social, cultural, and political nightlife.
Between the 1500s and the late 1700s, the English elite shifted its meal and sleep times by a stretch of seven hours. In the 1500s, the ritualized entertainments at the French court (jousts and tournaments) were held in daylight; by the 1700s, the major events (ballets de cour, operas, balls, masquerades, fireworks displays) were held at night. In the 1500s, Parisian night was defined by curfew and silence; by the 1690s, many Parisian cafés stayed open until dawn. Bedtime in the 1700s for “persons of quality”—a significant minority of the educated and well-off—was three or four in the morning. This change fundamentally altered the rhythm of everyday life and engendered a new pattern of sleeping. The traditional night had (surprisingly) been divided into two periods of slumber, but now it gave way to a single, compressed period of sleep. Going late to bed also transformed the European mentality.