People in the Middle Ages Slept Not Once But Twice Each Night: How This Lost Practice Was Rediscovered

The impor­tance of a good night’s sleep has been fea­tured now and again here on Open Cul­ture. But were a medieval Euro­pean to vis­it our time, he’d prob­a­bly ask — among oth­er ques­tions — if we did­n’t mean a good night’s sleeps, plur­al. The evi­dence sug­gests that the peo­ple of the Mid­dle Ages slept not straight through the night but in two dis­tinct stretch­es. This prac­tice has come back to light in recent years thanks to the research of his­to­ri­an Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. “Both phas­es of sleep last­ed rough­ly the same length of time,” he writes in that book, “with indi­vid­u­als wak­ing some­time after mid­night before return­ing to rest.”

But “not every­one, of course, slept accord­ing to the same timetable. The lat­er at night that per­sons went to bed, the lat­er they stirred after their ini­tial sleep; or, if they retired past mid­night, they might not awak­en at all until dawn. Thus, in ‘The Squire’s Tale’ in The Can­ter­bury Tales, Canacee slept ‘soon after evening fell’ and sub­se­quent­ly awak­ened in the ear­ly morn­ing fol­low­ing ‘her first sleep’; in turn, her com­pan­ions, stay­ing up much lat­er, ‘lay asleep till it was ful­ly prime’ (day­light).” Proof wide­spread “bipha­sic sleep” exists not just in Chaucer, but — for those who know where to look — all over the sur­viv­ing doc­u­ments from medieval Europe.

“In France, the ini­tial sleep was the pre­mier somme,” writes’s Zaria Gorvett. “In Italy, it was pri­mo son­no. In fact, Eckirch found evi­dence of the habit in loca­tions as dis­tant as Africa, South and South­east Asia, Aus­tralia, South Amer­i­ca and the Mid­dle East”; the ear­li­est ref­er­ence he turned up comes from Home­r’s Odyssey. What­ev­er their era of his­to­ry, bipha­sic sleep­ers seem to have made good use of their inter­vals of wake­ful­ness, known in Eng­lish as “the watch.” Dur­ing it, peas­ants worked, Chris­tians prayed, and thieves thieved, “but most of all, the watch was use­ful for social­iz­ing – and for sex.” After a long day’s work, “the first sleep took the edge off their exhaus­tion and the peri­od after­wards was thought to be an excel­lent time to con­ceive copi­ous num­bers of chil­dren.”

Bipha­sic sleep and its atten­dant habits did­n’t sur­vive the 19th cen­tu­ry. The rea­sons, as Ekirch explains in the inter­view above, have to do with the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion, that great dis­rup­tion of tra­di­tions fol­lowed since time immemo­r­i­al. Along with “the increas­ing preva­lence of arti­fi­cial illu­mi­na­tion both with­in homes and out­side,” he says, “bed­times were pushed back, even though peo­ple still awak­ened at the same time in the morn­ing.” Apart from intro­duc­ing new tech­nolo­gies, the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion “also changed peo­ples’ atti­tudes toward work,” mak­ing human­i­ty “increas­ing­ly time-con­scious: pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, effi­cien­cy were the hall­marks of the 19th cen­tu­ry.” We con­tin­ue to set store by them today, though we also han­dle the dis­rup­tion of sleep in our own, dis­tinc­tive­ly 21st-cen­tu­ry ways. Would any­one care to explain to our medieval time-trav­el­er the prac­tice of mid­night Twit­ter-scrolling?

via BBC/Medieval­ists

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Sleep Can Become Your “Super­pow­er:” Sci­en­tist Matt Walk­er Explains Why Sleep Helps You Learn More and Live Longer

Sleep or Die: Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Matthew Walk­er Explains How Sleep Can Restore or Imper­il Our Health

How a Good Night’s Sleep — and a Bad Night’s Sleep — Can Enhance Your Cre­ativ­i­ty

Buck­min­ster Fuller’s Dymax­ion Sleep Plan: He Slept Two Hours a Day for Two Years & Felt “Vig­or­ous” and “Alert”

The Pow­er of Pow­er Naps: Sal­vador Dali Teach­es You How Micro-Naps Can Give You Cre­ative Inspi­ra­tion

What Did Peo­ple Eat in Medieval Times? A Video Series and New Cook­book Explain

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (6)
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  • Daniel Vitkus says:

    When the arti­cle refers to indus­tri­al “effi­cien­cy,” that real­ly means the arrival of cap­i­tal­ism, which not only changed sleep–it changed the pop­u­lar way of under­stand­ing time and how time can be mea­sured, policed, or “spent.” It’s wrong to ignore the role of cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion and the prof­it motive. It’s the cen­tral cause for the end of dou­ble sleep.

  • name required says:

    the sec­ond sleep was thought to be an excel­lent time to con­ceive copius amo­nunts of chil­dren? no not all of us. dont gen­er­al­ize all men with sex not all of us like sex, Col­in. noth­ing mag­i­cal peo­ple who drink water get up for pee­ing so no mag­ic here with 2 part sleep

  • Rose says:

    Many peo­ple still rise to say mid­night prayers. I did for sev­er­al years. A com­plete REM cycles is gen­er­al­ly 4 hours, so you can actu­al­ly feel more rest­ed after 4 hours than 6 hours of sleep. If we rise up in the mid­dle of a rem cycle it is not very good for our health.

  • Arthur says:

    I have been sleep­ing like that for years did not know that

  • Arber says:

    Some peo­ple still do it (psy­cho­log­i­cal inher­i­tance)

  • Rodney says:

    I will be hap­py if I can get 1 phase of restive sleep per night. When you wake up in the morn­ing and you feel as if you’ve had no sleep at all, it’s a dis­as­ter.

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