Early Modern Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep


To round off Sleep Awareness Week we are thinking about what we in the 21st century can learn from early modern approaches to sleep.

Recently sleep, or more accurately the lack of sleep, has been making headlines. From LinkedIn explaining the importance of a good night’s sleep for your career, to BBC Panorama investigating the chronic sleep deprivation of British children, to the launch of apps that promise to improve your sleep by reducing blue light emissions from your mobile devices, sleep management is now a hot topic. Why? Well as statistics show, the United Kingdom is one of the most sleep-deprived nations in Europe. According to research firm, Rand Europe, who used data from around 62,000 people, sleep loss costs the British economy around £40bn a year through lost productivity. Even more worryingly, British workers who sleep less than six hours a night are 13% more likely to die earlier than those getting between seven and nine hours.[1] The picture looks equally bleak for the UK’s toddlers and teenagers. NHS data that has been analysed by BBC Panorama shows that hospital attendances for children under the age of 14 suffering from sleep disorders has tripled in the last decade, whilst the number of prescriptions for melatonin, the chemical that helps you feel sleepy, have also increased dramatically.[2] According to the Children’s Sleep Charity, sleep problems are costing the NHS unnecessary millions in needless GP and paediatrician appointments and prescriptions. The charity suggests that the solution to the nation’s sleep problems lies not in medication, but in an overhaul of our bedtime routines.[3]

In order to improve our sleep, then, a change in attitude is needed. We must value good sleep and recognise its importance to our long-term health and well-being. But where to start? By looking at the sleep practices of our early modern ancestors, a period that has been branded by some as a ‘golden age’ of sleep quality, can we improve our own attitude towards sleep management? For the men, women, and children of the early modern period (ca.1450-1750) sleep was considered fundamental to both bodily and spiritual health. Great pains were taken to ensure a good night’s sleep, from concocting soporific medicines, to creating safe and comfortable spaces for sleep. Here are just some tips from the early modern period on how to secure a good night’s sleep!

  1. Ensure a supply of fresh, clean air to your bedroom.

For early modern people the temperature and quality of the air you breathed during the night was key to healthy, restorative sleep. The principle purpose of sleep was believed to be to aid digestion. It was during sleep that food was heated, broken down, and purified in the stomach (for more on sleep and digestion see Sasha’s post on Sleep, Health and History). As the heat of the body was drawn to the stomach to begin the process of digestion, the body’s extremities were cooled. A cool sleeping environment was thus a natural support to this process, regulating the body’s inner heat and humours, which in turn stopped the body from over-heating and waking prematurely.[4]

As well as stimulating and regulating the body’s internal temperature, the flow of fresh air into the bed chamber also helped purify early modern sleeping environments. The perceived dangers of ‘miasma’ – a term used to describe putrid vapours emitted from organic matter – highlighted the importance of fresh, clean air during sleep. As the prominent eighteenth-century Scottish physician, James Makittrick Adair, suggested ‘the admission of cold air into bed-chambers is of use in preserving health….for if foul air weakens and destroys the springs of life, pure air must necessarily support and invigorate them’. The easiest way to ensure a supply of fresh, clean, and cool air was to open windows and doors, to avoid enclosing yourself in beds with thick, heavy curtains, and to use flowers and herbs to sweeten the air of the bed chamber.[5]

This kind of advice in many ways squares with what today’s sleep experts advise. According to Dr Christopher Winter, medical director at Charlottesville Neurology & Sleep Medicine, getting your bedroom to the correct temperature is key to a good night’s sleep. This is because our bodies follow a natural pattern of temperature throughout the day, with sleep being brought on when our body’s temperature starts to decline. Most scientific studies agree that a temperature between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal for good quality sleep.[6]

  1. Use home remedies to help you sleep.
Coffee Pot (c. 1681-1682), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

We all know that in order to sleep well certain foods and drinks should be avoided before bed. As modern-day advice suggests this is particularly true for sugary and caffeinated foods and drinks. Commentators in the early modern period also recognised that the consumption of caffeine could lead to sleep loss. According to Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, a self-styled French pharmacist, both tea and coffee hindered sleep but were useful for those ‘that would study by Night’.[7] 

Sleep loss, however, could also be cured by consuming certain foods and drinks. In the early modern period a range of medicinal products were believed to aid sleep, from the harmless and seemingly effective (lettuce!) to the down-right dangerous (powerful opiates such as laudanum). Some of the most common homemade remedies from the period included ingredients that are still used today for their soporific qualities, from chamomile and lavender, to milk and almonds.[8] In a recipe from around 1710, for example, it was suggested that a good way to provoke sleep involved taking red rose leaves, milk and a slice of nutmeg, sewing it into a bit of cloth which was then applied ‘to each temple’ before bed.[9]

  1. Create the right environment.
Early Modern Bedstead (c.1520-1540), © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Creating a safe, comfortable environment for sleep was also believed to be intimately tied to good sleep quality in the early modern period. The personalising of sleeping environments was one way of procuring the right kinds of ‘sleep emotions’ such as safety, comfort, and security. Essential to generating these positive feelings were the material goods of early modern bedchambers like the bed itself. For the men and women of the early modern period, acquiring a good bedstead was central to acquiring good sleep. Feelings of safety, status, and contentment could all be achieved through the possession of a familiar bedstead.[10] Crucial to this sense of security and comfort were the bedsheets that accompanied a bedstead. It was, in particular, the use of linen sheets that conferred feelings of cleanliness, comfort, and wholesomeness to their users. Linen sheets, in shades of white and cream, were associated with purity and cleanliness in early modern culture and were believed to protect the body from bedbugs, disease or even diabolical forces. Similar feelings were also conjured by bed clothes. Just as with bedsheets, clean, fresh textiles such as linen and cotton were the preferred fabrics for night garments.[11] Aside from a clean and comfortable bed and bed clothes, sleeping environments were also made more familiar and secure through personalisation. For example, family prints and paintings were concentrated around early modern bedsteads, invoking feelings of belonging and a calm, and relaxed state of mind.[12] As Sasha Handley has suggested, ‘laying down to sleep in a secure, enclosed and familiar bedstead was an ideal to which almost everyone aspired’.[13] 

Recent studies have also shown that sleeping in familiar and secure environments is crucial for a good night’s sleep. The so-called ‘first night effect’ has long been a phenomenon known to sleep researchers. This is the idea that people tend to sleep badly in an unfamiliar environment. Scientists now believe that this is due to one half of the brain being on ‘night watch’, sleeping only lightly in case the new environment turns out to be unsafe.[14]

  1. Understand what good sleep does for you.

In the early modern period a good night’s sleep held the key to bodily health and spiritual fulfilment.[15] Because of this sleep was awarded a privileged position within early modern culture and early modern households.

If we in the 21st century are to learn any lessons on sleep management from the past it should be this: sleep quality is intrinsically tied to the importance placed on sleep in society. Until we in the modern world recognise the benefits of a good night’s sleep, not only in terms of physical health and mental well-being, but also in terms of economic output and academic and/or professional success, the rise of sleep-related disorders, and general sleep deprivation will continue unabated. We should seek to protect and optimise our precious sleeping hours, rather than see them eroded by late-night pursuits and the glare of blue light.

So be more like the people of the early modern period. Open up your windows, partake in a soporific drink, encase yourself in clean, fresh sheets, get to bed early, and have a good night’s sleep!


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For a more detailed discussion of some of the themes and ideas explored in this post check out Sasha’s new book, Sleep in Early Modern England and keep your eyes peeled for further additions to our blog!


[1] Katie Hope, ‘Sleep deprivation ‘costs UK £40bn a year’’, BBC News Website, last accessed 8 March, 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-38151180.

[2] Jenny Kleeman, ‘Sleep Problems Mounting in Children’, BBC News Website, last accessed 8 March 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-39140836.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (Yale: Yale University Press, 2016), 40-41.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Dr Christopher Winter, ‘Choosing the Best Temperature for Sleep’, the Huffington Post, last accessed 16 March 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-christopher-winter/best-temperature-for-sleep_b_3705049.html.

[7] Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, The Manner of Making of Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate as it is Used in Most Parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, trans. J. Chamberlayne (London, 1685), 19 and 49.

[8] Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 64.

[9] Unknown, ‘A Book of Phisick’ (ca. 1710), the Wellcome Library, last accessed 16 March 2017, http://wellcomelibrary.org/, 107.

[10] Ibid., 121.

[11] Ibid., 49-57.

[12] Ibid. 140.

[13] Ibid., 147.

[14] Ian Johnston, ‘The Reason Why You Can’t Sleep When Staying Away from Home Explained by Scientists’, the Independent, last accessed 16 March 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/why-cant-sleep-staying-away-from-home-new-place-reason-explained-science-a6994916.html.

[15] Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 211.

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