Understanding​ ​​Our ​Unconscious:​ ​Five Facts About Sleep ​b​y Sasha Handley

Sleep—or the lack of it—is important to everyone. Yet its history has barely been told. Sasha Handley, author of Sleep in Early Modern England, documents a major evolution in our conscious understanding of the unconscious as she explores how the early modern world revolutionised sleep and its relation to body, mind, soul, and society.

Lodging at M'Queen's

Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Sasha shares her top five facts about sleep:

  1. Sleep has a history

Sleep is a biological necessity that spans all of human history. No man, woman or child can live without sleep and so it is logical to assume that it is a natural impulse that has remained the same since the beginning of time. The different material and cultural worlds in which our ancestors lived however had a dramatic effect on the way that they understood and valued sleep and how they approached its daily practice. For early modern people, sleeping soundly was believed to hold the key to physical health and longevity, to emotional wellbeing, personal reputation and to a person’s spiritual fate after death.

  1. One sleep or two?

Most adult humans sleep for around six to eight hours each night – the same was true for our early modern ancestors. The pattern in which they took this sleep was however radically different from modern-day habits. Many people adopted a pattern of ‘segmented’ sleep, which is to say that they slept in two separate cycles during the night that they called their ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep’. Each cycle was separated by one or two hours of waking during which people might finish the day’s laundry, read a book, pray, chat, have sex, or even brew beer! These habits were partly driven by nature’s rhythms and by the availability of natural light at a time when candles and lamps were not readily available to everybody or carefully rationed to save money. This pattern did not however suit everybody, and just like today, people’s sleep cycles varied widely according to their status, occupation, gender, age, religious beliefs, personality, and where they lived.

  1. Sleep tight…

This well-known phrase explains how early modern beds were made up. People slept on bedsteads made of wood and their bases were often strung with a system of strong ropes or cords, which could be tightened up at night to give tension to the mattress(es) that sat on top of them. By telling someone to ‘sleep tight’, you are wishing them a comfortable night’s rest.

…don’t let the bedbugs bite

Early modern people fought constant battles against bedbugs, which loved to set up home in their wooden bedsteads. Controlling bug infestations during the hot summer months was especially challenging. At this time of year, garlands of twigs, herbs and flowers were placed at the bed’s head and their floral scent attracted flies and gnats away from the sleeper’s body. Those who lived in marshy or fenny areas sometimes burned a piece of fern near the bed or even hung pieces of cow dung at its foot to keep bedbugs at bay!

The Nightmare

Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

  1. Sleep, death and the devil

The night held many dangers aside from bedbugs. The Bible and popular classical works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses taught that sleep was a time of acute vulnerability, when human souls might be corrupted by the Devil or when life itself might be extinguished. Bedtime prayers were designed to ward off these dangers by begging for God’s protection during the night when people could not defend themselves. They also helped people to prepare their souls for the afterlife, just as they did on their deathbeds, in case they didn’t wake the next morning.

  1. Sleep posture

Since healthy sleep was so important for body, mind and soul, it’s no surprise that lots of healthcare rules clustered around the bedside. Chief among them was adopting the right posture in bed. Most healthcare guides, or ‘regimens’ advised people to sleep with their heads slightly raised on a pillow or bolster. The gentle slope that this created between the head and stomach was believed to speed digestion and to prevent food being regurgitated during the night. It was just as important for sleepers to rest first on the right side of their bodies, before turning onto the left side during the second half of the night. Resting first on the right, which was believed to be hotter than the left side of the body, allowed food to descend more easily to the pit of the stomach, where it was heated and broken down during the initial stage of digestion. Turning onto the cooler left side after a few hours, perhaps during the ‘second sleep’, released the vapours that had accumulated on the right and spread the heat evenly through the body. These habits may well be the root of the modern phrase ‘to get out of bed on the wrong side’. Even more dangerous than sleeping on the wrong side of the body, was sleeping flat on the back, which was believed to flood the brain with too much fluid, trigger nightmares, invite the visit of an evil spirit known as the ‘incubus’ who sat on your chest and stopped you breathing, or even to herald the sleeper’s early death!


Sleep in Early Modern EnglandSasha Handley is senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of Manchester. Her previous book is Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England.

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