The night in the era of candles and torches imposed limits on daily life but at the same time opened the door to a whole range of imagery and special symbolism. Violence has always been part of the nocturnal landscape, and robbers, nightwalkers, rôdeurs de nuit or andatores di notte show how unsafe the roads were at night. In the cities, fear of assaults in one’s own home made the houses have iron doors and bars on the windows.
Medieval documents frequently mention the time of the crime, and curiously all refer to the suspicious hour or the propitious hour for bad deeds, that is, the moment after the nightly curfew. But the night life was not only fear and violence; there was also fun. Public lighting contributed greatly to nightlife: around 1700 it already existed in many European cities.
As for sleep, it was actually a segmented sleep: most experienced two sleep intervals. They also worked at night, and there is a record of a baker who, together with his assistants, worked from 8 in the afternoon to 7 in the morning. By contrast, other work was prohibited at night.
In the countryside, nightlife had a different rhythm. Most agricultural tasks were carried out during the day, but in the planting and harvest seasons, the work extended until late at night. Also, on nights with a full moon, farmers could work longer hours thanks to natural light. There were also other jobs in the fields that were done at night, such as guarding the crops against wild animals or thieves.
In short, nightlife in pre-industrial times was marked by insecurity and violence, but also by fun and work. The dream was divided into two segments, and they worked and socialized at night. Public lighting improved safety in cities and allowed for greater night-time activity. Yet night remained a lesser-known and less-explored part of the human experience, and the limits imposed by lack of light were a constant reminder of our own fragility and dependence on technology.