The forgotten medieval habit of ‘two sleeps’

By | January 11, 2022

Zaria Gorvett writes:

In the 17th Century, a night of sleep went something like this.

From as early as 21:00 to 23:00, those fortunate enough to afford them would begin flopping onto mattresses stuffed with straw or rags – alternatively it might have contained feathers, if they were wealthy – ready to sleep for a couple of hours. (At the bottom of the social ladder, people would have to make do with nestling down on a scattering of heather or, worse, a bare earth floor – possibly even without a blanket.)

At the time, most people slept communally, and often found themselves snuggled up with a cosy assortment of bedbugs, fleas, lice, family members, friends, servants and – if they were travelling – total strangers.

To minimise any awkwardness, sleep involved a number of strict social conventions, such as avoiding physical contact or too much fidgeting, and there were designated sleeping positions. For example, female children would typically lie at one side of the bed, with the oldest nearest the wall, followed by the mother and father, then male children – again arranged by age – then non-family members.

A couple of hours later, people would begin rousing from this initial slumber. The night-time wakefulness usually lasted from around 11:00 to about 01:00, depending on what time they went to bed. It was not generally caused by noise or other disturbances in the night – and neither was it initiated by any kind of alarm (these were only invented in 1787, by an American man who – somewhat ironically – needed to wake up on time to sell clocks). Instead, the waking happened entirely naturally, just as it does in the morning.

The period of wakefulness that followed was known as “the watch” – and it was a surprisingly useful window in which to get things done. “[The records] describe how people did just about anything and everything after they awakened from their first sleep,” says [the historian Roger] Ekirch. [Continue reading…]