Does sleep have a history?


This is the first in a series of blog posts in which the historian, Dr Sasha Handley, reflects on what history can tell us about the meaning, practice and quality of human sleep.


When I first contacted the editor of my new book, Sleep in Early Modern England, to pitch my project, my email was met with a mixture of curiosity and surprise: ‘I didn’t realise a history of sleep was possible!’ declared my editor. His reaction is now very familiar to me – a hastily raised pair of eyebrows is the bodily gesture that I see most often when I talk about my work. I can hardly blame people for these expressions of wonder (and occasional incredulity). Sleep is, after all, a biological necessity that spans all of human history. No man, woman or child can live without sleep and so it is logical to assume that it is an entirely natural impulse that has remained the same since time immemorial. Some aspects of sleep’s practice appear remarkably consistent across time and space. Most humans appear to sleep for an average of 6-8 hours each night, usually during the hours of darkness. They also prefer to rest, where possible, in enclosed and secure settings to counter the feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness that usually accompany sleep’s approach. In the words of diarist John Evelyn, it was ‘in our Beds & sleepe’ that Christians could ‘take least care of ourselves’.



Page from an early modern household recipe book, © Wellcome Library.

Sleep is such a familiar feature of our daily lives that we rarely stop to think about how our material environments and cultural worlds might shape its nature, timing and quality. This is where historians can play a vital role in uncovering distinctive variations in attitudes towards sleep and approaches to it. Speaking as an historian who has spent many years agonising over such issues, one thing is certain: the value that people attach to a good night’s sleep has a direct effect on the time and effort that they invest into procuring it, which in turn has a very real effect on sleep-quality. In most modern western societies, we turn to our doctor, our local pharmacist, or to a healthcare professional for advice when suffering from sleep loss. This contrasts sharply with cultures of sleep-management in early modern England, which were firmly rooted in the home. A rich seam of evidence from diaries and letters, from books of healthcare and household management, from sermons, visual images, objects, and from household inventories, shows just how carefully people attended to the details of their sleeping lives to try and ensure a sound night’s sleep. Bedtimes were closely monitored to discourage sloth; bedside prayers and meditations were routinely performed to beg for God’s protection during the night, to calm the body and unburden the mind; soporific liquids and herbal preparations made of roses, lavender or chamomile were prepared to ease sleep’s onset; and sleeping environments were carefully arranged, personalized and cleansed so that people could lie down each night in familiar and stable surroundings. The nightcaps worn by Tobias and Sara in this image were typical of the kind of linen nightwear that was valued for regulating body temperature and for keeping sleepers safe from natural and supernatural dangers.


Such attention to detail may seem excessive yet it was symptomatic of a culture in which healthy sleep was cherished not only as a natural refreshment for body and mind, but also as a safeguard of spiritual health and personal reputation. The distinctive nature of early modern sleep culture thus offers an ideal pilot study for weighing the importance of culture and environment in shaping experiences of sleep and our attitudes towards it.


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