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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Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Eric Riley

    Two thoughts – the first is that the data appears to be somewhat limited in scope, and second that no evidence is provided that segmented sleep is a “…part of normal human physiology.”. (Though that might be in the book – but it sounds like a pretty bold claim).

    Humans are pretty plastic creatures – we can adjust our sleep patterns (and eating habits and sexual habits) in some pretty incredible ways. While 14 hours of darkness may lead to that particular sleep pattern (European winter), what about in the summer? How about in more equatorial areas where you might not have that 14 hours of darkness? What if you weren’t of the upper class (the one’s doing the writing) and had to (literally) slave at hard labor for 12 hours a day? Or longer? Again – this might all be answered in the book, but the article doesn’t do much more than post the claim with only cherry-picked examples.

  • Trickster Goddess

    Eric: From the article’s sidebar:

    The Tiv tribe in Nigeria employ the terms “first sleep” and “second sleep” to refer to specific periods of the night


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