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Aurore Monod Becquelin
Traduction de Matthew Cunningham
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1Why the “night”? Why, over years and years that can no longer be counted on two hands, listen to so many stories, roam so many landscapes, go back over the centuries, eagerly appeal to neurophysiologists, ethnologists, historians, geographers and others, to recount, analyse, interpret or quite simply “put it into words”?

2Our involvement with the night began with an interest in the innocent subject of sleep. Sleep is universal, indispensable and common to all living beings: and yet, questions immediately arose. Why does the sleep of infants raised in Florence or Naples reveal organisations that are not strictly identical? How are sleep patterns stabilised or disrupted in a prison, on a trawler, in the countryside or city, if one lives on the poles or on the equator, in the Middle Ages or in the 21st century? A few years after the first discoveries were made about the stages of sleep (by planting needles in the brains of cats to observe dreaming episodes, or by placing electrodes on the heads of infants to study their sleep patterns), we received questions from neurophysiologists and psychophysiologists who had noticed the fact that cultural variations caused notable differences in the structure of sleep. Ethnologists could only respond by conducting the most detailed ethnography possible of sleep and the night, in order to reveal its cultural construction. This very long journey saw us skimming through an impressive number of customs, thoughts and rituals throughout the ancient and contemporary world. In the Japanese subway, in Tanzanian mines, in medieval convents, among Indian fisherman or Amazonian land-clearers... Furthermore, another point of entry open up and demanded attention: one needed to tackle that immense forest of nights which the East and West both seem to be mercilessly cutting down with their scalpel of artificial light, in the Amazon as in China. It is a phenomenon of which we were not fully aware at the beginning of this lengthy investigation: “light pollution”. Historians and sociologists have of course given strong indications of the impact of public lighting (Verdon, 1994; Delattre, 2000; Cabantous, 2009; Koslofsky, 2011; Reculin, 2017). Artists also used their sensitivity to colours in order to “paint the night” and its lights. “Painting the night consists in capturing that which, in it, resists the desire to repeat the nocturnal obvious”, wrote Michaël Fœssel (2018: 22). It is obviously anthropology’s task to figure out what this abusive light is masking, and understand how one defines a night that is no longer dark, silent, starry, benign (or rather threatening).

3It should also be noted that comparison proves difficult despite the overabundance of materials: either one sticks with the ethnology of beliefs, behaviours and rituals that reveal thought from and about the night; or one seeks general interpretations, which either lack something or are too universal. If it is not yet time to rise to a more general level in order to compare, this issue of Ateliers is nevertheless a threshold to research that is open to other more specific, richer themes. We now have at our disposal some basic reliable technical tools like actigraph units, which measure descent into sleep and activity during a period of sleep; we also take into account a whole set of connections between beliefs and activities tied to the night; we decrypt certain traits relating to the night in a given civilisation or culture in motion, like when nocturnal peasant dances are deemed by the church to be witches’ sabbaths, the contamination of dreams by the symbols of National Socialism under the Third Reich (Beradt, 1981), or the permeation of dreams by the Shining Path’s acts of violence (Cecconi, 2012).

  • 1 Like the concept of “nocturnity”, which we borrowed from an old historical tradition, and seemed es (...)

4Institutions still seem to approach the night with caution, as if it only belonged to sightseeing tours exploring illuminated monuments and the favourite haunts of either Jack the Ripper in London or Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris, or as if it were the exclusive domain of an exhausted typology of nights illuminated by a fake day, such as Depression Night, Water Night or Math Night; Poetry Night, Owl Night or Beer Night; Puppet Night, Geography Night or Bourrée Night; Philosophy Nightor ESSEC Night; not to mention International Bat Night. What is required is rather to let ourselves be guided without imposing any framework, concepts or methods, instead inventing them as we go along1. An administrator of the urban night in Paris gave us one of the most compelling responses we have heard. To the question: “How will you develop the urban night and the permanent opening of Parisian parks and wastelands?”, he answered: “We will do nothing; the night will take care of itself with the people” (Hocquart, seminar 12/01/2018); this echoes Fœssel’s words: “Those who venture into the night are made nocturnal by it” (2018: 18).

5In its diversity and heterogeneity, this issue of Ateliers d’anthropologie endeavours to show a few examples of how those who deprive the study of the night of a specific methodology erase it by forcing it into the diurnal Procrustean bed. We offer an overview of the various cultural adjustments and necessary alternations undergone by objects and emotions that are forced to get into harmony with the night, whether that night be polar, tropical or equatorial; night everywhere or night nowhere; its negation or its protection. The night is an incompressible mystery that must generate its own analytical tools and its own categories, because “the night is a vast undertaking in disorientation” (Gallais, 2018: 33).

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Beradt, Charlotte
1981 Das Dritte Reich des Traums (Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp).

Cabantous, Alain
2009 Histoire de la nuit: xviiexviiie siècle (Paris, Fayard).

Cecconi, Arianna
I sogni vengono da fuori: Esplorazioni sulla notte nelle Ande Peruviane (Florence, ED.IT press).

Delattre, Simone
2000 Les douze heures noires: la nuit à Paris au xixe siècle (Paris, Albin Michel).

Fœssel, Michaël
2018 Inévidences nocturnes, in J.‑M. Gallais (ed.), Peindre la nuit (Metz, Centre Pompidou-Metz): 11-25.

Gallais, Jean-Marie
2018 Le vertige de la nuit, in J.‑M. Gallais (ed.), Peindre la nuit (Metz, Centre Pompidou-Metz): 27-230.

Koslofsky, Craig
Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Reculin, Sophie
2017Le règne de la nuit désormais va finir”. L’invention et la diffusion de l’éclairage public dans le royaume de France (1697-1789), PhD thesis in history, Charles de Gaulle University – Lille III.

Verdon, Jean
1994 La nuit au Moyen Âge (Paris, Perrin).

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1 Like the concept of “nocturnity”, which we borrowed from an old historical tradition, and seemed essential to us.

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Aurore Monod Becquelin, « Prelude »Ateliers d’anthropologie [En ligne], 48 | 2020, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2020, consulté le 02 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Aurore Monod Becquelin

Directrice de recherche honoraire CNRS, LESC-UMR7186 (université Paris Nanterre/CNRS)

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