I am often struck by how very black and alive the darkness used to be. Lately I have been waking in the middle of the night. Nightmares, which so rarely visit me, have been a constant in recent days. Waking to a house that is never entirely without light because of nearby streetlights, I am reminded how very dark a moonless night must have been five hundred years ago.
In a world as full of demons as of people, fraught with “quotidien violence” as Julius Ruff describes it, and constant threats of war and deadly illness, the dark was very frightening indeed. One always had to be on one’s guard, even in the moment of death, as here demons tempt the dying.
Johan Huizinga described the late medieval world beautifully:
“The contrast between silence and sound, darkness and light, like that between summer and winter, was more strongly marked than it is in our lives. The modern town hardly knows silence or darkness in their purity, nor the effect of a solitary light or a single distant cry.
“All things presenting themselves to the mind in violent contrasts and impressive forms, lent a tone of excitement and of passion to everyday life and tended to produce that perpetual oscillation between despair and distracted joy, between cruelty and pious tenderness which characterize life in the Middle Ages.”
How different this is from the homely coziness of modern lamplit rooms late in the evening. It is almost impossible to imagine living with such unlovely companions as the demons above. How bizarre this seems to us, but people found ways to deal with darkness.
My favorite medieval response to night and the fears that haunted it comes from Martin Luther:
“Almost every night when I wake up, the devil is there and wants to dispute with me. I have come to this conclusion: When the argument that the Christian is without the law and above the law doesn’t help, I instantly chase him away with a fart.”