As Halloween approaches, here at histories of sleep we’re thinking about things that go bump in the night – specifically in the early modern period!
What caused early modern people to fear the onset of sleep? And why did they go to great lengths to protect themselves from the negative forces that might infiltrate their slumber? How did they protect themselves? To answer these questions it is first important to remember that sleep was not, and indeed still isn’t, merely a biological necessity. The way that early modern people understood sleep was very much prescribed and shaped by the culture that they inhabited. Close associations between sleep and death, between night-time and diabolical phenomenon, and between material objects and spiritual protection all contributed to early modern understandings of the nature of sleep and the fears and anxieties surrounding its approach. As A. Roger Ekirch has argued, night-time in this period ‘embodied a distinct culture, with many of its own customs and rituals’.
Sleep and Death
In early modern culture there was a strong association between sleep and death, with this association having its roots in both classical literature and in scripture. In Greek mythology, for example, the gods of sleep (Hypnos) and of death (Thanatos) are represented as twin brothers. In Hesiod’s epic poem Theogony, a text that details the origins of the Greek gods, the fearful affiliation of sleep and death is obvious:
Sleep and Death, dreadful gods. Never does
radiant Helios look upon them with his rays
as he goes up into Ouranos or comes down from Ouranos.
Of them, the one goes and dwells in the earth and sea’s
broad back quietly and graciously for men,
but the other’s heart is of iron, and his heart is of pitiless
bronze in his chest. He holds any of men whom he first
seizes. He is hated even by the immortal gods.
The acute vulnerability of the sleeping state, and its connection to death, is also attested to time and again in scripture. In the Old Testament the king of Israel, Ish-bosheth is murdered in his own bed, and Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army, meets a similar fate when he is given a milky drink to put him to sleep and then murdered by having a tent peg driven through his head by Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. Death is also likened to sleep in the book of Daniel, which describes the dead as ‘those who sleep in the dust of the earth’.
These close links coloured early modern attitudes towards sleep and they shaped people’s approach to its onset. Bedtime prayer and spiritual devotions were often filled with pleas for God to provide Christians with safe passage through the night. Pondering death and asking for God’s forgiveness and protection at bedtime was a habit that church ministers encouraged as it was thought to bring Christians closer to God and to prepare their souls for the afterlife. For example, one anonymous Christian writer cautioned his readers that ‘when we are in bed, and just going to resign ourselves to sleep…it will be highly proper to think seriously of the end of all living; and to renew those actings of faith and repentance, which we should judge necessary, if we were to awake no more in this world’.
The elision of sleep and death in early modern culture also shaped interactions with material objects. The linen sheets that encased the bodies of the dead were often taken from the deceased’s bed and plaited mattresses that may have been used previously on the bedstead during childbirth were also used for laying out the dead at home. One funerary monument that explicitly depicts this link between the materiality of sleep and death is the tomb of the Haddon Makepeace family in Heworth, Gateshead. The tomb was made by local mason Joseph Haddon in memory of his three children who all died over the course of six years. The tomb depicts the children lying next to one another in a four-poster bed, sleeping peacefully in safety and comfort. As Sasha Handley has argued, the ‘survival of these kinds of objects and monuments reveals the intimate connections between the physical and spiritual states of sleep and death within early modern culture’.
No doubt due to the somewhat uncomfortable association of sleep with death, the night-time and more specifically the sleeping state was believed to be the site of a number of perils and dangers. As the Elizabethan pamphleteer and playwright Thomas Nashe explained in The Terrors of the Night (1594), ‘the Night is the Divells Blacke booke, wherein hee recordeth all our transgressions’; ‘touching the terrors of the night, they are as many as our sinnes’. Whilst during the day, safety and protection could be found in numbers, at night early modern people were alone and forced to fend for themselves. During the long, dark night, then, ‘threats to body and soul multiplied’.
The biggest threat came from the Devil himself. It was believed that Satan favoured the darkness of the night as he had rejected God’s light and embraced darkness, both literally and metaphorically. It was during the night, then, that people were most vulnerable to diabolical attacks. The Devil, along with his demonic minions, could perform malicious and devastating acts during the night that ranged from demonic possession to inflicting sleepers’ slumber with frightful nightmares. Demons were also thought to trouble people in their sleep by afflicting them with diseases of both body and soul. One specific example of this type of night-time fear was the popular belief that the Devil, aided by his faithful witch servants, would steal or deform men’s penises during the night, robbing them of their fertility and, by extension, their masculinity.
Those who had committed an offence against God, or who had failed to repent their sins before bed, were particularly vulnerable to diabolical attacks during the night. A well-known example of this kind of encounter features in the popular ballad ‘Young Bateman’s ghost, or a godly warning to all maidens’. In it God punishes a young woman for breaking her vow to marry her first love, who she forsakes in order to marry a richer man. The rejected lover, Bateman, hangs himself on the day of her wedding and his restless ghost, aided by the Devil, later carries away his beloved as she sleeps with her new husband.
As well as diabolical forces, ghosts, fairies, and a whole host of other supernatural creatures were also believed to haunt people during the night. Children were judged particularly vulnerable to nocturnal attacks by fairies, especially if they were unbaptised and yet to receive God’s protection and purification. The fear was that due to this vulnerable state, children would be whisked away by fairies and replaced with changeling children – that is fairy children. It was believed that fairies took human children during the night for a number of reasons – to act as servants, or simply as an act of malice and mischief. As Regina Buccola and Susan Schoon Eberly have argued, it is possible that beliefs surrounding changelings evolved as a way of explaining the various malformations and disorders that afflicted infants and young children. Indeed, some people even suggested that the future King Charles I was a changeling child. Changeling children were often held to be particularly peevish and bad tempered, traits that were also often applied to Charles!
In response to these night-time perils and dangers, early modern people went to great lengths to protect themselves. One of the best ways to do this was to repent sins before bedtime and ask for God’s protection during the night. People also sanctified their bedchamber with amulets and protective objects. Coral in particular was valued for its protective qualities, and this association rested on the transformative capacity of this organic material. Coral’s ability to live both underwater and on land complimented its use as a spiritual talisman during sleep as, just like sleep, it was able to traverse different environments and states of being. The demand for coral boomed in the early modern period and it was believed to be especially effective at protecting the young from ghosts, demons, and nightmares. More visceral material objects were often used to protect children from fairy abduction, however, from hanging wolves’ teeth around a child’s neck, to suspending carving knives and scissors over the cradles of vulnerable infants.
As well as using amulets and talismans during the night, early modern people also sought to protect their bedchambers more generally in a bid to keep demons, ghosts and witches at bay. One way they did this was by practising ‘candle magic’. This involved using candles to make distinctive burn marks around particularly vulnerable locations within the bedchamber. These candle marks can often be found on or above bedsteads or around voids in the room such as windows and fireplaces. These marks would provide the sleeper with bodily and spiritual protection during the night. Although candle magic was essentially a form of natural magic, it was often combined with Christian symbols through the drawing of crosses and gridirons. Through a combination of devotional practices, folkloric tradition, and natural magic, early modern people ensured their night-time protection and safe journey to morning.
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To find out more about early modern night-time fears and protective methods visit Little Moreton Hall during the October half term!
 Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime (London: Phoenix, 2005), xxv.
 Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016), 81.
 Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 82.
 Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 82.
 Cited in Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 83.
 Ibid., 83-86.
 Ibid., 86.
 Tomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night or, A Discourse of Apparitions (London, 1594), sig. B1r.
 Ekirch, At Day’s Close, 9.
 Ibid., 15-16.
 Charlotte-Rose Miller, ‘Requiem for a Bad Dream: Fear of the Night, the Devil and the Nightmare in Early Modern England’, The History of Emotions Blog, last accessed 22 August, 2017, https://emotionsblog.history.qmul.ac.uk/2017/06/requiem-for-a-bad-dream-fear-of-the-night-the-devil-and-the-nightmare-in-early-modern-england/.
 Ekirch, At Day’s Close, 16.
 Ekirch, At Day’s Close, 16; Lyndal Roper, Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, Religion and Sexuality in Early Modern Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 138.
 Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 96-97.
 Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 99; Regina Buccola, Fairies, Fractious Women, and the Old Faith: Fairy Lore in Early Modern British Drama and Culture (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2006), 50.
 Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (New York: Pantheon, 1976), 71.
 Buccola, Fairies, 50-51.
 Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 98.
 Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 98; Buccola, Fairies, 51.
 Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 100.