The History of Sleep

Relaying the discoveries of Roger Ekirch (author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past) and Craig Koslofsky (author of Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe), Stephanie Hegarty writes a long and fascinating article about how in past eras people who lived with long, dark nights tended to sleep in two segments rather than in one ~8 hour chunk, as is considered standard and psychologically imperative today. She describes how people spent the period between their first and second sleep:

During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

And these hours weren’t entirely solitary – people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.

Koslofsky explains how different the night was before street lights:

“Associations with night before the 17th Century were not good,” he says. The night was a place populated by people of disrepute – criminals, prostitutes and drunks.

“Even the wealthy, who could afford candlelight, had better things to spend their money on. There was no prestige or social value associated with staying up all night.”

That changed in the wake of the Reformation and the counter-Reformation. Protestants and Catholics became accustomed to holding secret services at night, during periods of persecution. If earlier the night had belonged to reprobates, now respectable people became accustomed to exploiting the hours of darkness.

This trend migrated to the social sphere too, but only for those who could afford to live by candlelight. With the advent of street lighting, however, socialising at night began to filter down through the classes.

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