Excerpt from Brilliant by Jane Brox, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


The Evolution of Artificial Light

by Jane Brox

  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jul 2010, 368 pages
    Jul 2011, 368 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt


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chains were drawn across behind the leaves of the doors; the shutters of the flats were closed and the pots of flowers withdrawn from the windows they had adorned.”

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 laid 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.”

Excerpted from Brilliant by Jane Brox. Copyright © 2010 by Jane Brox. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Of Arms and Artists
    Of Arms and Artists
    by Paul Staiti
    In the late eighteenth-century, the United States of America was still an emerging country, ...
  • Book Jacket: So Say the Fallen
    So Say the Fallen
    by Stuart Neville
    Noir crime fiction – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett anyone? – is an American invention...
  • Book Jacket: The Mothers
    The Mothers
    by Brit Bennett
    Every now and then the publishing industry gushes about a young author destined to become the next ...
Book Discussions
Book Jacket
The Bone Tree
by Greg Iles

An epic trilogy of blood and race, family and justice.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    News of the World
    by Paulette Jiles

    Exquisitely rendered and morally complex--a brilliant work of historical fiction.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Les Parisiennes
    by Anne Sebba

    How the women of Paris lived, loved, and died under Nazi occupation.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Next
    by Stephanie Gangi

    Fast-paced, wickedly observant, and haunting in the best sense of the word.

    Read Member Reviews

Win this book!
Win The World of Poldark

Win the book & DVD

Enter to win The World of Poldark and the full first series on DVD.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

One S D N M A S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.


Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!

Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.