In all likelihood, the nightwatch, not prostitution, is the world's oldest profession. So says A. Roger Ekirch in his intriguing...

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“At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past”
by A. Roger Ekirch
W.W. Norton, 416 pp., $25.95

In all likelihood, the nightwatch, not prostitution, is the world’s oldest profession.

So says A. Roger Ekirch in his intriguing study of the dark half of life, “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past.”

If his subjects suggest excitement — navigating fields by starlight, the custom of bundling, the dangers of fire when lighting meant burning candles or rushes — Ekirch’s scholarly approach dampens that expectation, with multiple sources invoked to make points as obvious as that people have long caroused by night, or that cover of darkness has historically occasioned petty theft.

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Night isn’t what it used to be for most humans. One of Ekirch’s most intriguing findings is that historically, Western Europeans experienced two major intervals of sleep each night, bridged by an hour or two of nonanxious wakefulness described as “something approaching an altered state of consciousness not unlike meditation.”

Contemporary people, he writes, usually experience uninterrupted sleep. The current time for falling asleep averages from 10 to 15 minutes, but 300 years ago, it was usual to remain awake for two hours after going to bed. Why the difference? Blame artificial light, Ekirch says.

Among his findings is the observation that the sensitivity of human skin peaks towards 11 p.m., as does one’s propensity to itching. He concludes that darkness represents the greatest remaining frontier for commercial expansion, quoting Thomas Edison’s dictum, “Put an undeveloped human being into an environment where there is artificial light and he will improve.”

A formidable amount of research is evident in 100 pages of end notes and 14 pages of abbreviations. An index would be more user-friendly. Ekirch is professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.