I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space…
………from DARKNESS, by Lord Byron
I live in California where massive fires fanned by high winds have recently been raging all over the state. There are fires burning even as I type this. Some residents have been forced to evacuate because of the flames, some tragically have lost their homes. During this period of strong winds and hot, dry weather hundreds of thousands of Californians have had their power cut off in an effort to prevent power cables from starting fires (a vain effort, it seems). The power outages have been a severe hardship for many residents and for businesses.
At our house the lack of power, light, internet was an inconvenience, but nothing remotely resembling the hardship that others suffered. We had enough warning to make preparations: phones and laptops topped up; ice purchased to keep food cold; the medievalist in the house setting out candles, and the engineer placing batteries in an assortment of flashlights.
Nevertheless, we were in the dark for a couple of nights, and it gave me the tiniest glimpse into what life was like for the average person in earlier centuries. For example, there was a reason that the main meal was prepared and eaten at mid-day or late afternoon. Try cooking with only the light from the hearth, or try chopping vegetables or washing dishes with only a single candle or rush light.
Because in the modern West we have all but banished darkness, one of the books I used in researching my historical novels was At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch.
I was trying to understand what it was like to live in a dark world. Right from the start Ekirch emphasized humanity’s fear of the dark. “Night was man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror.” Moving forward in time, though, straight into the Early Medieval Period, he suggested that not every culture might have suffered from that fear. “The Vikings appear to have relished nocturnal assaults…Rather than access to lighting, perhaps habitual exposure every winter to Scandinavian darkness steeled Norsemen to its terrors.”
Yes, it stands to reason that men who were unafraid of crossing vast expanses of water in small wooden ships would hardly be afraid of the dark!
On the other side of the equation, light, in particular firelight, was also a threat to our ancestors. In Anglo-Saxon England fire would have been a constant danger to villages of wooden, thatch-roofed houses. Cities were not immune, of course. London was a veritable tinder box. It was destroyed by fire seven times (1st, 2nd 7th, 8th, 10th, 12th, 13th centuries) before the Great London Fire of 1666. Driven by strong winds, that fire burned for five days, destroyed 13,200 homes and 87 churches, and left 100,000 people homeless.
By comparison, the Camp Fire that razed the California town of Paradise last November burned for 17 days, destroyed more than 18,000 structures and killed 85 people. It began before sunrise, in the dark.
It seems that even with all our technological advances we are at the mercy of the same hazards that threatened our forebears. Fire. Wind. Even the darkness that we have tried so hard to banish.
Dedicated with gratitude to the firefighters who risk their lives to protect the rest of us from terrible harm.
Night Sky: Tom Bayly, Wikimedia Commons
Great fire of London, painted 1670: Museum of London
Firefighter: San Bernardino County, Wikimedia Commons