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?”