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