Early Modern Soporifics

A couple of weeks ago, with the help of our friends and colleagues at Carter House Day Centre and Cheshire East council, we completed the initial planting of our early modern sleep bed at Little Moreton Hall. The sleep bed was carefully designed by the service users at Carter House Day Centre. As well as being instrumental in the conception and installation of the sleep bed, they will also be producing their own mini replica of the garden back at Carter House. From lavender and roses, to poppies and violets, we planted an array of herbs, flowers, and shrubs that early modern people believed aided sleep. But what was it about these plants that convinced the people of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries that they would help their pursuit of a sound night’s sleep? In this post we explore some of the ideas behind these soporific ingredients and the ways in which they were used to treat early modern sleep loss. Continue reading “Early Modern Soporifics”

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] Continue reading “Early Modern Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep”

Cow’s dung, ash-boughs and rose petals, or how to sleep safely in early modern England.


In my last post ‘Sleep, Health and History’ I described the importance of healthy sleep to the long-term health of body and mind within early modern medical culture. Sleep was an essential restorative of health but it was also a time of vulnerability and danger where natural and supernatural threats had to be countered. These understandings were the key drivers of sleeping habits and of the cleansing regimes that centred on and around the bed. The bedstead’s wooden frame, its layers of mattresses, bolsters and textiles usually accounted for one-third of the average household’s assets. This high economic value was matched by the practical and symbolic importance of sleep’s apparatus within the home. The bed’s material and emotional significance in relation to household formation, love and marriage has been explored by Joanne Bailey and Angela McShane, but its make-up and management also reveal the unrivalled importance of these materials as guardians of sound sleep. Continue reading “Cow’s dung, ash-boughs and rose petals, or how to sleep safely in early modern England.”

Sleep, Health and History


In my last post, ‘Does sleep have a history?’, I set out some of the lessons that history can offer about how sleeping habits and sleep-quality are shaped by the societies, cultures and environments in which we live. Sleep’s importance to physical and mental health has been recognised by most individuals and societies throughout history but there are important variations in how this essential period of rest was believed to affect body and mind, and consequently, in the time and resources that have been dedicated to the pursuit of peaceful slumber. Changing ideas about sleep’s purpose and its relationship to human health are thus central to its daily experience. Continue reading “Sleep, Health and History”

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’. Continue reading “Does sleep have a history?”

How We Used to Sleep

‘How we used to sleep’ was a collaborative project between the University of Manchester and The National Trust’s Little Moreton Hall – funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project ran throughout 2017 and offered a unique insight into sleep’s fascinating and complex history. To find out more about the project check out our blog!

Background Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.