And So To Bed

Lancelot and Guinevere

I recently read Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home and one bit of information in it made me sit up and pay attention because of its dramatic possibilities. She said that people used to experience what was known as the first sleep and the second sleep during the night, punctuated by one or two hours of wakefulness. This suggested all kinds of things to me, but also raised some questions. Further research was required.

It turns out that this was a fairly well-known phenomenon and was recorded in diaries and court papers. Each sleep would last about four hours and could be preceded and succeeded by an indefinite time of wakefulness. The intensity of the waking period in the middle could vary. For some it would be a period of dozing: of not being quite awake, but not fully asleep. For some it was a period of contemplation or prayer. Some chatted to one another and some ate. Others, and I find this quite bizarre, got up and went to visit their neighbours. A common and unsurprising activity was sex. In some periods couples were encouraged to have sex between the two sleeps, because they would be fresher than they would have been when they first went to bed after the working day and it would be more enjoyable and therefore more fruitful. There was a medieval belief that women could only conceive if they enjoyed the sexual act.

People would go to bed just after dusk. Lighting was expensive and there was no reason to stay up after dark. No work could be done in the fields and anything that could be done in the house required a light. This is where my first question arises. Some of the activities mentioned above would have needed light, unless you imagine people leaving their houses to go and sit with their neighbours in darkness. Why didn’t they just stay up later and do those things by candlelight anyway? A possible answer was that they just knew that sleep was better when it was made up of two short chunks of time.

Once in bed they might doze for a bit and then sleep for three or four hours. Then they would wake up, do whatever they did for a couple of hours, doze a bit more, then sleep until dawn. This is where my second question arises. Did they all wake up at the same time? If not, how could you know your neighbours would be awake when you visited them?

 Chaucer mentions this pattern in The Squire’s Tale. The men have drunk themselves into a stupor after a late night party, but Canacee has gone to bed at dusk. She “slepte hire firste sleep, and thanne awook”. Having woken, she wants to go for a walk with the women of the house while the men are still asleep. Admittedly, her governess does say that this is an unusual thing to do, but that might be because Canacee has no intention of going back to bed.

To me, the idea of a split sleep works well in winter when the longest night is almost seventeen hours long in northern Europe, but what happened at midsummer when there were fewer than seven hours of darkness? Did they still have a first and second sleep? Did they have to have a nap during the daytime?

Since the story in which I thought this could be used takes place at the end of winter, I don’t need to worry too much about these questions and can usefully have the lovers meet during the gap between the two sleeps, while those charged with guarding the heroine are continuing to doze, but I shall continue to search for the answers to the questions.

An experiment in the 1990s showed that, left to their own devices, people will fall back into the old pattern of sleep if they experience fourteen hours of darkness each day. The subjects reported that when they were awake they felt more awake than they had before the experiment.

Not surprisingly, the idea for this post came to me while I was lying away in bed.


The modern experiment that I’m aware of was carried out by Thomas Wehr, but there have been others.

The collator of diary and court material is Roger Ekirch


Filed under Uncategorized

11 responses to “And So To Bed

  1. I really enjoy Lucy Worsley’s TV histories, so found this interesting. The climate at that time must have also played a part. Oddly enough it is a similar pattern to that I had when I lived in Spain. Where I worked they had good air conditioning so there was no siesta. By the time I got home, made snacks for everyone, my and done a bit of housework, I was tired and had to have an exhaustive nap on the bed around 6 or half six (dusk falls at this time). Not only did my family do this, but it is quite common in Andalusia if you don’t have a siesta (due to the heat) at around 3pm. We would re-wake at about 20.30 then get up watch TV then cook. Spanish, even children, tend to eat dinner around 11pm or even midnight, before going to bed again, then getting up to start work at 8pm.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s such a sensible pattern, isn’t it? I’d love to try it when I retire, but I suspect you can only do it if everyone else is doing it or if you have no set times when you have to be doing things in the evening.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s true. Even when you retire you still have a sense of “The weekend” because everyone else does. However if I can’t sleep I get up and clean or blog or something instead of tossing and turning, then go back to bed and lie in.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I did read about this somewhere, but can’t for the life,of me remember where. I’m sure sleep patterns have a lot to do with the climate. It would be interesting to compare Spain with, let’s say, Finland…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m intrigued by the “first sleep” concept, too. It comes into William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, where the narrator says “…it hapned on a night (which I think was the twenty eight of December) after that M. Ferrers was come from the Court, and in bed: there fel a controversie between Maister Streamer (who with Maister Willot had already slept their first sleep) and mee that was newly come unto bed, the effect wherof was whether Birds and beasts had reason…”

    The gentlemen seem to have had different sleeping habits. Mr Ferrers was in bed, and sharing with the narrator, who’s just got in. Mr Streamer and Mr Willot were sharing a pallet on the floor of Mr Ferrer’s bedchamber, and they’d already had their first sleep. However, it seems that only the narrator and Mr Streamer were fully awake, because a little later the narrator mentions that the other two were now awake and listening to the conversation. Mr Streamer then tells his tale of talking cats.

    I wonder if (among those who could afford reasonable lighting) the “larks” went to bed early and slept for a while, then woke for a chat when the still-lively “owls” came to bed?

    By the nineteenth century, the standard cozy setting for the telling of such supernatural tales had become a gentleman’s study on a winter’s evening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are so many questions, aren’t there? For the people who wrote about it there was no need to explain, because everyone knew what they meant. It’s only fairly recently that people have started to study sleep and I’m sure there are interesting discoveries to be made.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: How Many to a Bed! | A Writer's Perspective

  5. I quite like the idea of two sleeps.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Making the Bed | A Writer's Perspective

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