03.09.03, Verdon, Night in the Middle Ages

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Albrecht Classen

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.003


Verdon, Jean. Holoch, George, trans.. Night in the Middle Ages. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002. Pp. ix, 235. ISBN: 0-268-03656-x.

Reviewed by:
Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

If a book has been copyrighted twice, then translated from French into English four years later, we may well expect it to be of a high scholarly value, and/or that it is a well-written book appealing to a wider audience. Jean Verdon, who is a professor emeritus of literature and humanities at the Université de Limoges, here presents an interesting study of how 'night' was perceived in the Middle Ages. The topic strongly suggests an approach informed by histoire de mentalite, as 'night' represents much more in cultural and historical terms than simply the change from daylight to darkness. Light, an all-pervasive feature of modern culture, was not an automatic given in the Middle Ages. To have light at night represented advanced cultural development and financial wealth. Peasants, for instance, or regular workers, went to bed after the sun had set, and rose again at the crack of dawn. Today, electricity has changed all that, and nightlife is just as important as day life in many respects. When electricity fails, however, modern life quickly comes to a standstill. Man's instinctual fear of sudden darkness indicates the cultural significance of night at all times, and history can actually be written by focusing on human responses to night and darkness. These basic observations make Night in the Middle Ages an interesting study.

Verdon has divided his book into three parts, the first dealing with night as a convenient cover for criminals of all colors, for warfare, and for sexuality, the second dealing with nightlife, and the third with the religious experiences at night. Relying on an approach based on the history of mentality--though there are no discussions of the theoretical groundwork--Verdon at first studies medieval concepts of the night, such as superstitions, fear of ghosts, witches and witches' sabbath, and werewolves. Surprisingly, he does not consider Marie de France's lai Bisclavret as a fictional illustration of a werewolf, and overall consults only fairly few literary examples. In the subsequent chapter, the author turns to the various attempts in the Middle Ages to chase away darkness by means of artificial lights (candles, windows, fires), to fight against its threatening features by means of laws, night guards, and penalties against various types of violence typically committed at night, and to represent night in artistic terms. He hardly mentions life in the monastic convent and the great significance of candles for the various night vigils, and does not discuss means to measure time also at night.

In the next chapter, the author considers questions pertaining to the field of manual labor, such as who was allowed to work late into the night; then he turns to nightly entertainment: bonfires, festivities, taverns, gambling, and the wedding night. Here he addresses questions of where people were sleeping at night, what kinds of beds they had, what types of night clothing they used, and how they slept, especially when they suffered from nightmares.

Finally, in the last section, Verdon investigates several early-medieval cases of mystical visions, but pays only little attention to the experiences of late-medieval mystics. He also briefly discusses prayers, miracles, night vigils, and then comes to an abrupt conclusion by offering a rather strange comparison between medieval and modern attitudes toward night. Strange insofar as he argues that modern people have lost "the need . . . for sublimation" and so do no longer find their way toward spiritual transcendence (218). Because night represented, according to Verdon, at least during the Middle Ages, a time of mystery, divine light then still shone on people, whereas today that would no longer be the case--a most dubious corollary.

The most pleasant feature of this certainly well-written, instructive, and also entertaining book proves to be Verdon's thorough knowledge of historical sources, as he illuminates all his arguments with specific references to individual cases. Deplorably, however, there is not one footnote, and many times even the bibliography does not inform us what sources, editions, or translations were consulted here (e.g., Albertus Magnus, the anonymous Three Virgins). Even when Verdon quotes specific passages, there are no page references. Most statements about the role of human activities at night are of such general nature that they seem to be almost meaningless. Whenever Verdon ventures to reach general conclusions, they prove to be highly questionable ("Women and night are linked together," 45). To claim that medieval people enjoyed the wonders of the night, based on two insignificant literary examples that do not even address this issue as clearly as Verdon assumes, represents a gross misreading of medieval culture at large. His observation that bonfires were commonly lit to provide entertainment for the common people, can hardly be confirmed on a larger scale (123; see the problem with paying for the bonfires). Who would question (and even make an issue out of it) that the "bed was the most important piece of furniture in the room where people slept" (150)? The author raises, of course, many interesting questions. How many hours did people sleep on the average, compared with today? Did the entire family sleep together in one bed? However, he answers these questions in such rapid manner, relying on examples from very different periods, that the end result proves to be rather unsatisfactory.

However, it is a worthy attempt to find out how night was perceived in the Middle Ages, and to study what people did during nighttime. But Verdon has no theoretical framework, no concrete timeline, and does not concentrate on any specific period or country. Most irritating, however, is his entire disregard for the traditional scholarly apparatus, which makes it extremely difficult to verify any of his claims. Not surprisingly, these often seem to be rather obvious or, worse, the result of Verdon's own preconceived notions. On the other hand, Verdon refers to many interesting examples of nightmares, somnambulism, and sleep disorder, customs surrounding wedding nights, the use of night clothes, rape, and nocturnal emissions. Some of these are well documented; most, however, are only quickly touched upon. Indeed, 'night' in the Middle Ages deserves to be studied from many different perspectives, some of which Verdon deals with. His book provides good inspiration, but it does not always meet some of the basic scholarly expectations. It is certainly not enough to provide asterisks in the bibliography for those books that were utilized most, but perhaps this book addresses more the general reader and less the scholarly community.

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Albrecht Classen

University of Arizona