At day’s close : night in times past, by A. Roger Ekirch, looks like one of those ‘social histories.’ You know, like those books on the history of coffee, salt, or cotton, where some narrow topic is followed through the ages, and you learn some interesting trivia and perhaps how ‘everything that happened depended on the price of salt’ or whatever. I don’t read those sorts of books very much. Occasionally I’ll read a book like Greek fire, poisoned arrows, and scorpion bombs by Adrienne Mayor, or Stiff by Mary Roach, because the subject matter is intriguing. I find it pretty hard to read an entire book on a very narrow topic. So At day’s close, being a very detailed and staggeringly thoroughly researched monograph on the night, was not really a likely candidate for me. What brought it to my attention was the book Dreamland I reviewed earlier. The author of that book mentioned that At day’s close represented decades of meticulous research by a history professor, and had uncovered some things about sleep that sleep researchers were rediscovering in their labs. He also mentioned that much of the book described the anxieties and dangers the nighttime presented to pre-industrial societies, and that got my attention.
It is mostly focused on the 1500s-1700s, but includes some medieval and 19th century stuff too; it is almost entirely focused on Europe. There about seventy pages of endnotes, but they are all just bibliographic references so there is no need to keep flipping back and forth (a pet peeve of mine). How meticulous is his research? He cites everything from diaries and letters, sermons and ballads, to scholarly studies. He off-handedly mentions Joseph Hall’s satirical novel Mundus alter et idem (The discovery of a new world) and it’s “Leigerdumaynians” who are nocturnal and consist entirely of thieves, usurers and knaves. I don’t think you’ll find anything about Leigerdumaynia in Wikipedia. This is one omnivorous researcher.
Anyway the book is divided into thematic chapters — natural and supernatural dangers of the night, crime and policing at night, illumination, socializing at night among various classes, and so on. This makes it a great book for browsing but also a very comprehensive treatise.
Useful for D&D? You bet! The sections on illumination discuss the various kinds of candle, torch, and lantern, and the link-boys and “moon-men“ one might hire to bear them, as well as regulations about the use of lights at night in cities. The section on the night watch covers the make-up, legal and social status, and armament of nightwatchmen, and their activities. The whole book is filled with anecdotes and episodes that could inspire a ton of encounters. (Full disclosure: I looted this book to write a short article that I hope will be included in Burgs and Bailiffs!)
So, whether you’re interested in history or prospecting for DMing inspiration, this is well worth seeking out. Whether or not you send your PCs to Leigerdumaynia.