The Power of Light
The longer days and day light evenings of summer have arrived; time lent at the end of the working day with hours made accessible by warmth and light. People smile more, and outside tables at pubs, restaurants and cafes overflow. Light is positive and is life affirming. In darkness we need light, and throughout history our power to light up the night has reshaped our lives.
In the hours of darkness the Medieval Great Hall became a communal bedroom for all; the priority was safety in numbers with the scary medieval darkness firmly locked out. The Tudors were also terrified of the night; its fall synonymous with shutting in time as the Master of the house made all secure before retiring to bed. The Tudors saw danger in the night air: thieves, murderers, witches, evil spirits and devilry.
It is hard to imagine an unlit night; even in the absence of street lighting pollution still re-colours the night sky. Only once did I perhaps experience a brief taste of this fear felt by our predecessors. It was many years ago on the Isle of Skye when I had set out late one evening for the local pub which stood no more than fifty metres down the road. The impact of the darkness was immediate and suffocating; my blindness was complete. Panic overwhelmed me and each footstep, quite literally into the unknown, struggled to stay on the road. My relief as the welcoming light from the pub window emerged from the dark was overwhelming. A one off experience for me; for those in the past for whom it was far more it is not hard to understand how such impenetrable and overpowering darkness stirred sheer terror.
The arrival of street lighting across Europe in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century (London 1684-94) did much to allay this fear of the darkness. One resident of Leipzig was delighted with the arrival of street lighting in 1701-02:
“-not only are we spared the private lanterns which everyone must otherwise use when going out at night, but also many sins against the fifth, sixth and seventh commandment are better prevented and avoided”-He is referring to murder, adultery and theft.
Lighting the cities was both expensive and labour intensive. To service 1800 street lights in Amsterdam from August 1681 to August 1682 required 17 caretakers, 119 lamp lighters, as well as numerous inspectors, horse guards, lantern carriers, oil measurers, general servants and assistants.
The arrival of street lighting created extra leisure at a time and in places that darkness had previously denied. The concept of nocturnal sociability was born; with coffee houses, theatres, opera, pleasure gardens, clubs and associations filling this newly available time. In 1710 The Tatler recognised the significance:
The night was much longer formerly in this island than it is at present. By the night I mean that portion of Time which Nature has thrown into Darkness, and which the Wisdom of Mankind had formerly dedicated to Rest and Silence. This used to begin at eight o clock in the evening, and to conclude at six in the Morning. The curfew, or eight o clock Bell, was the signal throughout the Nation for putting out their candles and going to bed.
The ability to light the streets liberated and grew minds as political evening chatter led to calls for reform and representation, and literacy grew as people read on into the night when once they would have slept. Street lighting made possible better governance of towns and cities allowing rapid urbanisation as the demands of industrialisation took hold.
Despite our ability to light up the world and make darkness irrelevant we still welcome the extra hours of daylight that summer brings so make the most of it. When you despair as the autumnal days grow shorter maybe you will be reminded of the Tudor fear of unearthly night time intruders, the delight of city residents as street lighting changed their lives and be thankful that to ensure your safety from the darkness you are not bedding down on hay and rushes with all and sundry in a medieval Great Hall.