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

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The Evolution of Artificial Light

by Jane Brox

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  • First Published:
    Jul 2010, 368 pages
    Jul 2011, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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Print Excerpt

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.”

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.

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