Into the early modern period, the word bug referred to a phantom in the dark; a 1535 translation of the Bible made for Henry VIII came to be known as the Bug Bible for its rendering of Psalm 91:5 as “Thou shalt not nede to be afrayed of eny bugges by night.” The word was changed to terrors in later editions, but the original sense still colors the common bedtime warning against letting bedbugs bite.
“Darkness has come upon me,” a hymn in the Rig Veda laments. “O Dawn, banish it like a debt.” The morning light is here asked, suggested translator Wendy Doniger, to act as a collection agency—to “make good what darkness had incurred or ‘exact’ the darkness from night as one would exact money.”
Emily and Charlotte Brontë, insomniacs both, would walk together in circles around the dining room table until they were tired enough to sleep. When Emily died and Charlotte suffered alone, her insomnia worsened; she added to her route, often wandering down neighborhood streets and into the cemetery until daybreak.
A special committee of the U.S. House of Representatives asked Lewis W. Leeds, a ventilation engineer and prominent critic of the popular belief that night air is inherently harmful to humans, to assess air quality inside the Capitol in 1868. The resulting report concluded that the House Chamber “is really the foulest place in the whole building,” with vents “so choked up with tobacco spittal and sweepings of the floor as to render the air rising from them very disagreeable.”
Annoyed by a prohibition against nocturnal work in late medieval France—enacted because candles provided insufficient light for quality performance—employers complained to Louis XI that workers occupied themselves from “four or five o’clock until the next day with various games and dissipations, and hardly want to apply themselves to do well.” In the winter of 1467, they received permission to extend working hours to ten pm.
“When the white man landed on the moon, my father cried,” a young Oklahoma Indian told psychologist Robert Coles in the 1970s. “He was sure Indians were crying up there, and trying to hide, and hoping that soon they’d go back to their earth, the white men.” The boy also spoke to his aunt. “The moon is yours to look at and talk to,” she told him, “so don’t worry.”
In September 1776, fearing illness from night air, John Adams asked Benjamin Franklin to close the window of their room in a New Jersey inn. “I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds,” Franklin responded, launching into “a harangue upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration” in favor of leaving windows open. “I was so much amused,” Adams wrote in his journal, “that I soon fell asleep and left him and his philosophy together.”
When a boat of carousing European sailors on the Bosporus awoke the sleeping Sultan Selim III one night in 1790, the Ottoman leader issued an emergency order to his administration against night revelers: “Warn all ambassadors and Europeans never to perform this shameless act again. I will mercilessly kill whoever does it.”
In August 2018 data scientist David Bamman examined how authors recently interviewed in the New York Times’ By the Book column answered the question “What’s on your nightstand?” Women mentioned male and female authors almost equally; men mentioned male authors more than 79 percent of the time. “Don’t read in bed,” advised Fran Lebowitz. “It’s too stimulating. Watch TV instead. It’s boring.”
The practice of yobai, “night crawling,” was common in rural communities in medieval Japan, and continued into the twentieth century. A young man would visit a young woman’s house after dark, disguising his features with a cloth to avoid embarrassment should his advances be rejected. These premarital liaisons could become formal if a child were conceived.
In 2005 the British Cheese Board attempted to dispel the idea that eating cheese before bed causes nightmares. No evidence of this “evil myth” was reported among two hundred volunteers, though eating Stilton was found to lead to “crazy” dreams, while eating cheddar often led to dreams of celebrities. “We hope that people will think positively about eating cheese before bed,” said the board secretary.
A longtime practice of European peasants was to bring cows and sheep inside for the night. If one could ignore “the nastiness of their excrements,” a late seventeenth-century visitor to Ireland opined, “the sweetness of their breath” and “the pleasing noise they made in ruminating or chewing the cud” might lull a person to sleep. A visitor to the Hebrides noted, however, that while urine was regularly collected and discarded, the dung was removed only once a year.