Things that Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark (Part One of an Occasional Series)

Photo by flickr.com/photos/timo_w2s/

As modern people we don’t always appreciate it, but the world has changed for us only very, very recently. There was a world not so long ago where milk was seasonal and streetlights didn’t exist.

In this milkless era two-thirds of Britain was covered in thick forest that swallowed up the light, meaning that on a cloudy or moonless night those forests would be filled with invisible ditches, riverbanks and pitfalls. The 17th Century diary of a Reverend Heywood in Yorkshire records of how a man walked out of his house only to vanish without trace. Another Yorkshireman, Arthur Jessop, lost his way and fell into a stone pit. In Aberdeenshire a fifteen year old girl died in 1739 because she lost her way on the path and fell down a freshly dug grave. One elderly Suffock farmer even boasted that he’d been going around at night without injuring himself, although he had once fallen off his horse and gone down a steep riverbank.

Even the cities were pretty bad: until the early 18th Century there was no obligation for the city authorities to provide any sort of artificial light, and paving was a ragtag mix of the cheapest stone that various householders could get their hands on (since the house owner was directly responsible for paving the section outside his house, and your average slumlord wasn’t going to fork out on much.) This meant rain, darkness and garbage created a slick coating of grease and faeces the put hundreds of soon-to-be-dead people into the river Thames over the years.

And that wasn’t all: in 1725, a drunk was stumbling home through the City of London (called The Great Wen by some people, since it was essentially a filthy, diseased sore on the face of the country.) Being drunk, his floot slipped on the aforementioned slick of grease, fat and poop, sliding smoothly into a well outside his house. He lay there, injured but alive, shouting for help, but none came. Eventually he died of his injuries.

How could this happen? In 1725 London’s population was well over half a million. It eclipsed Norwich, Britain’s next-largest city. Why hadn’t anyone come to answer his calls for help?

Easy, because they were scared he was a demon.

Strange Noises

The nighttime was almost regarded as a sort of fluid, an unpleasant etheric substance that gradually filled the air as the day closed. People living in Medieval and Renaissance times would have been surrounded by stories and theology that declared the darkness itself as an unpleasant force, not just an absence of light:

An Anglo-Saxon book about St. Margaret, the Passio Margaretae has a demon telling her: ”Our lives are not on the earth, but we travel with the winds.” The 11th Century Monk Byrhtferth said “All the Air is full of hellish devils.” So they knew the air was full of demons? What’s that got to do with darkness?

“On that account, the devil was condemned into this darkness, that is, into this air, as though into a prison” [Eph 2.2].

And…

“Truly, if God did not spare the sinning angels, but thrusting them into the prisons of gloomy hell, delivered those to be punished to be kept until judgement…” [2 Peter 2.4]

Oh, and…

“And Angels who did not keep to their own domain, but abandoned their proper home, he has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgement of the great day.”-Jude6.

Way to go, Bible.

And, just in case anyone hearing a noise at night hadn’t already shat themselves, we have this wonderful image courtesy of Jacques de Fournier, the Bishop of Palmiers in the 14th Century:

“People who move their arms and hands from their sides when they walk about do much harm… [for] by moving their arms about in such a way, they knock many souls of the dead to the ground.”

So yeah: the night air is made of ghosts and demons, and you’re an asshole walking along, shoving them around and generally riling everyone up.

Is it that surprising that people thought things were going to get a bit Night of the Demon whenever the heard unexpected noises in the night?

And they did hear some strange things at night: according to author Roger Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close deafening bangs and strange music broke the silence. A Wakefield man reported “A great Noyse of musicke and dancinge about him,” which was followed by deep groaning and the ringing of strange bells.

Of course, I’m not entirely sure he wasn’t just living above some kind of nightclub.

On the other hand Ekirch also writes about a woman at Ealand whose servants heard “A great and terrible knocking and varriety of music.”

So yeah, imagine the knocking scene from the 1964 movie, The Haunting, only you’re on your own, in the middle of the countryside, in a shack made of wood. I might spent the night hiding under my straw bed too.

4 Comments

Filed under English Folklore, Medieval Monsters, Religion and the Occult, Strange History, Whole Article

4 responses to “Things that Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark (Part One of an Occasional Series)

  1. firekrank

    The drunk in the well story made me think of the story of Kitty Genovese and the phenomenon of bystander apathy: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/03/10/a-call-for-help. It’s like a really early version of this. (Alternatively, and I think this New Yorker piece makes it very clear, we’re still afraid of the dark now and if we can’t see clearly what’s happening outside our door, we tend to ignore it).

    Like

    • This article is really interesting… From what it says, about people trying to help Genovase vs the majority who didn’t get involved… It makes me wonder, maybe someone DID try to help the drunk in the well and it has been lost to history.

      I definitely agree we’re still afraid of the dark, though. All out fears and self interests seem bigger at night. A Roger Ekirch has some cool stuff to say about it.

      Like

    • This article is really interesting… From what it says, about people trying to help Genovase vs the majority who didn’t get involved… It makes me wonder, maybe someone DID try to help the drunk in the well and it has been lost to history.

      I definitely agree we’re still afraid of the dark, though. All out fears and self interests seem bigger at night. A Roger Ekirch has some cool stuff to say about it.

      Like

  2. Pingback: Things That Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark 2: Strange Lights | Jon Kaneko-James

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