The Truth About Sleep? We’ve Known How to Get a Better Night’s Sleep for Centuries!


Last week I sat down to watch a BBC documentary that focused on a theme that I’ve been quietly obsessing about for the last few months: sleep. Or more accurately – how to get a better night’s sleep. The programme followed the genial Dr Michael Mosley as he attempted to discover the ‘truth about sleep’ in a bid to overcome his own sleep problems. As Mosley dejectedly explained to the viewer, he suffered from insomnia and was ready to become a human lab rat in order to cure himself of the condition. Mosley talked to a variety of scientists and sleep experts that confirmed how detrimental sleep loss can be for a person’s health and well-being. Not only can it lead to irritability and loss of productivity, new studies are also showing that sleep deprivation could be an underlying cause of the obesity crisis and the explosion of people suffering from type 2 diabetes.[1]


Want to find out if you’re sleep deprived? Try out the sleep onset latency test!

Equipped with this worrying information, Mosley set out on a quest to discover what he described as ‘pioneering’ methods for improving our sleep. These ‘surprising’ and ‘unusual’ cures included practicing mindfulness before bed, taking a hot bath before settling down to sleep, eating two kiwi fruits an hour before bed, and taking a supplement of dietary prebiotics. Mosley recruited a further three sleep-deprived Britons to help him test out these innovative treatments. But as Dr Mosley and his group of plucky volunteers set out to put these apparently cutting edge approaches to sleep to the test I couldn’t help but feel that all this sounded remarkably familiar. Relaxing the mind before bed; ensuring a cool body temperature before sleep; regulating what you eat in the hours leading up to bedtime. These are not new ways of thinking about how to get a better night’s sleep. For centuries similar advice has been meted out. From early modern health regimens, to household recipe books, there is a plethora of evidence that suggests that the ‘pioneering’ methods identified by Mosley have actually been in use for centuries, begging the question: is the truth about sleep that we’ve just forgotten how to do it properly?

  1. Mindfulness and Relaxing the Mind

Mindfulness may seem like a very modern technique for dealing with the stresses of modern life. The OED defines mindfulness as ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations’.[2] Whilst early modern people obviously did not use this specific therapeutic technique to help them nod off effectively, they did practice similar methods of relaxation before sleep. The medical advice of the period encouraged men and women to put aside their worldly concerns and anxieties and calm their passions at bedtime. As the sixteenth-century English physician William Bullein advised his readers in his health regimen The Government of Health, when sleep approached ‘beware of carefulnes for worldly thynges: looke not into the glasse of desperacion, with agonie and hevines of minde, hope ever for the beste’.[3] Bedtime prayer could also offer people a means by which to relax their minds before bed. By begging forgiveness for sins, asking for God’s protection, and reiterating their faith, early modern Christians relieved themselves of the day’s anxieties and prepared their bodies and souls for restful slumber. These devotional practices had a calming effect and helped alleviate the stresses of work and family life; bedtime prayer thus represented a combined source of spiritual, physical, and psychological comfort.[4] In turn these soothing effects ensured a peaceful and restorative night’s sleep.

  1. Regulating the Body’s Temperature

The theory behind having a warm bath before bed stems from the fact that sleep is brought on when our body temperature starts to decline. By having a warm bath, immediately followed by spending a couple of hours in a cooler environment, the process of cooling is stimulated, which in turn encourages the onset of sleep.[5] In Mosley’s documentary, fancy thermal imaging cameras are used to show this process in action. Yet despite the elaborate technology, the argument that being cool helps you sleep better has been made for centuries. In the early modern period, sleep was understood as a process in which the body’s extremities were cooled as the body’s heat was drawn inwards to the stomach to help digestion. A cool sleeping environment therefore naturally facilitated this process and regulated the body’s inner heat, which in turn stopped the body from over-heating and waking prematurely. The physician Andrew Boorde advised his readers therefore to lie in bed ‘not to hot nore colde, but in temporaunce’.[6] Instead of taking a warm bath to encourage this process, early modern people were advised to use thinner quilts in summer, open their windows to ventilate their bedchambers, and avoid lighting fires at night.

  1. Eating Foods Rich in Prebiotics and Serotonin

Of all the techniques trialled in the documentary, it was Dr Mosley’s use of a prebiotic supplement that looked most space-aged to me. Pouring a sachet of suspiciously non-descript white powder into his cup of tea, Mosley seemed convinced that it wouldn’t work. But like the other experiments undertaken in the programme, the use of prebiotics to combat poor sleep also seems to have a long and rich historical pedigree. Whilst Mosley used a concentrated powdered form of dietary prebiotics they can also be found in an array of foods that many of us consume regularly, such as onions, garlic, leeks, artichokes, and asparagus. In the early modern period onions in particular were considered an ingredient that helped provoke sleep. William Bullein explained to his readers that onions were known to ‘make thin the blood, and bring sleepe’. [7] This belief was corroborated by many other physicians. Writing in the early sixteenth century, Thomas Elyot claimed that onions ‘beynge eaten in great abundance with meate’ ‘cause one to  sleape soundely’.[8] The reason that prebiotic foods could potentially help us sleep better is down to the fact that they are believed to buffer the physiological impacts of stress. Stress and anxiety can lead to a reduction of healthy gut bacteria that helps the body regulate temperature. When this healthy bacteria is reduced, then, the onset of sleep can become inhibited. By eating foods rich in prebiotics  – which serve as food for this healthy gut bacteria – you could potentially reduce the impact of stressful events on your sleep.[9] Similar processes are at work with foods that have high levels of serotonin, such as kiwis (as seen in the documentary), tomatoes, and various types of nuts and seeds.[10] Serotonin boosting almonds, in particular, were used as a common cure for sleep loss in the early modern period.[11]




In the early modern period getting a good night’s sleep was considered crucial to both bodily health and spiritual well-being. People went to great lengths to make sure they slept well, developing a range of seemingly effective techniques that ensured this. Whilst knowing about the scientific and neurological basis of these potential sleep cures is undoubtedly important, a reliance on science alone will not solve the sleep crisis currently gripping our own society. If we want to improve our own sleep, we need to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors and place much more value on sleep and recognise how integral it is to our health and happiness.



[1] Jean-Phillipe Chaput, ‘Is Sleep Deprivation a Contributor to Obesity?’, World Obesity Federation, last accessed 16th May, 2017,

[2] ‘Mindfulness’, Oxford English Dictionary Online, last accessed 16th May, 2017,

[3] William Bullein, A Comfortable Regiment (London, 1562), sig. E3v.

[4] Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016) 88-89.

[5] Abigail Abrams, ‘How Showering at Night Helps You Sleep’, Time Magazine, last accessed 16th May, 2017,

[6] Andrew Boorde, A Compendyous Regyment or a Dyetary of Healthe (London, 1547), sig. C1v.

[7] William Bullein, The Government of Health (London, 1595), fol. 44.

[8] Thomas Elyot, The Castel of Helth (London, 1539), fols. 26-27.

[9] Lisa Marshall, ‘Dietary Prebiotics Improve Stress’, University of Colorado, last accessed 17th May, 2017,

[10] Ryan Hurd, ‘How Does Serotonin Affect Sleep?’, Live Strong, last accessed 17th May, 2017,

[11] Elyot, Castel of Helth, fol. 25.

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.

Volunteers from Carter House Day Centre preparing our soporific seed trays!

What was sleep for?

To understand why early modern people believed that plants could aid their slumber we must first understand what they thought the function of sleep was. By the end of the period two theories coexisted, one that linked sleep to the process of digestion, the other to the brain and nervous system’s vitality. Within both of these theories, the regulation of body heat was central to the onset of good quality, restful sleep. Should the body overheat during the night, either in the stomach or in the brain, sleep would be interrupted and the body prematurely awoken. Without the requisite amount of sleep, food would remain undigested, the nerves would become disorderly, and the body’s spiritual and physical health would be thrown into disarray. Medical understandings of sleep’s function thus ensured the popularity of plants and herbs that appeared to cool the body thereby ensuring peaceful slumber and restoring disrupted sleep.[1]

Cooling Soporifics

In humoral conceptions of bodily health, individual bodies were believed to have specific elemental make-ups, so too were different foods. A person’s ‘complexion’ or humoral temperament was shaped by their own particular balance of humours. These humours – blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile – had different elemental qualities. Blood was believed to be hot and moist, phlegm cold and moist, black bile cold and dry, and yellow bile hot and dry. Those of a sanguine complexion, for example, were believed to possess an excess of blood, meaning that their bodies were naturally hot and moist. For melancholics, the temperature and humidity of their bodies was the opposite. Their abundance of black bile left their bodies naturally cold and dry. In a similar fashion, different foods were categorised by their individual elemental composition; pepper was hot and dry, whilst fish was cold and moist.[2] In order to maintain your natural complexion, physicians of the era encouraged people to consume foods that possessed a similar quality to their own complexion. According to the English physician Thomas Elyot, an individual’s complexion is ‘conserved in his state, by that which is lyke therto in fourme and degree’. Following this logic, Elyot advised that ‘to them whose naturall complexion is moyste, ought to be gyven meates that be moyste in vertue or power’ whilst those whose complexion is dry ‘ought to be gyven meates drye in vertue or power’.[3]

Because of this strong connection between the qualities of food and the maintenance of humoral balance in the early modern period, the list of ingredients that were considered to have a cooling effect was extensive. It included, but was not restricted to, chamomile, cucumbers, poppy, lettuce, and eringo roots (sea holly), all of which were used to aid sleep. Other ingredients that were believed to dissipate excess heat in the brain and stomach, and therefore treat sleep loss, included aniseed, rose, violet, lavender, lily, parsley, saffron, dandelions, and onions. As well as their cooling properties, many of these ingredients were also prized for their calming effect on the mind. The somniferous scents of rose, violet, and poppies helped calm an anxious mind, which was a common cause of sleep loss. Some of these ingredients could be cultivated in kitchen gardens, like ours at Little Moreton Hall, whilst others could be easily purchased from groceries and apothecaries.[4]

Concocting a Remedy

A variety of remedies were concocted using these cooling and calming ingredients in the early modern period. Many appear in recipe books of the era as cooling liquids, syrups, and possets. Essex clergyman Ralph Josselin, for example, used both ‘carduus posset’ – a hot drink steeped with Carduus thistle – and a ‘sirrup of roses’ to help him sleep better.[5] These syrups, distillations, and conserves could be drunk or externally applied to the body, most commonly on the head, neck, and temples. Other remedies were slightly wackier. In a recipe from a book belonging to the family of the philosopher Robert Boyle, a concoction of aniseed and rose water was recommended to treat sleep loss. Rather than consuming the mixture, or applying it to the temples, the recipe advised to place the ingredients in a string bag which should then be tied to the upper lip. The logic was that the ingredients in the bag would give ‘a cold smell and procureth sleep’ as the fumes entered the nostrils and infused through the brain during the night.[6] Another sleep remedy from the early eighteenth century seemed equally uncomfortable, and potentially malodorous. It advised the sufferer of poor sleep to comb up their hair ‘with vinager and nutmeg’ before bed.[7] How this would help you get to sleep was seemingly left to the imagination of those willing to give it a try! Once our early modern sleep plants have matured at Little Moreton Hall, we will be trying some of these sleep remedies out for ourselves. We will, of course, let you know how effective (or possibly ineffective!) they are!

Whilst some of these concoctions may seem strange to us today, many of the ingredients used by our forebears to treat sleep loss are still considered to have considerable soporific effects. Just take a look at many of the remedies you can buy today, from balms, oils, and bath soaks that contain lavender and rose, to pillow sprays that contain calming aromas of chamomile and bergamot. So the next time you settle down to a cup of chamomile tea before bed, remember that this sleep remedy is already hundreds of years old!

Volunteers from Cheshire East Council planting an array of sleepy herbs and shrubs.



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Want to learn more about early modern remedies and maybe try some out for yourself? Check back soon to see our compilation of early modern sleep recipes and visit us at Little Moreton Hall to find out more about early modern soporifics!


[1] Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016), 20-38.

[2] Ken Albala, Food in Early Modern Europe (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003), 215-216.

[3] Thomas Elyot, The Castel of Helth (London, 1539), fols. 17-18.

[4] Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 63-67.

[5] ‘Ralph Josselin’s Diary’, cited in Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England, 64.

[6] ‘Boyle Family Recipe Book’ (c. 1675-1610), Wellcome Trust MS 1340, fols. 17, 122, 132.

[7] ‘A Book of Phisick’ (1710), Wellcome Trust MS 1320, p. 107.

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,

[2] Jenny Kleeman, ‘Sleep Problems Mounting in Children’, BBC News Website, last accessed 8 March 2017,

[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,

[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,, 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,

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

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.


Diaries, letters, household accounts and receipt books document the exhaustive efforts that people made to secure clean, safe and airy sleeping environments. Nowhere else in the home was so heavily governed by rules of hygiene and cleansing regimes, which ranged from the beating and turning of mattresses to sprinkling rose petals on the bed’s sheets. Persistent battles were fought against bed-bugs, which regularly infested old wooden bedsteads. Hannah Glasse’s Servant’s Directory, or House-Keeper’s Companion (1760) included no less than eight receipts for keeping bedsteads free from flies, fleas, bed bugs, gnats and silkworms. The hot summer months posed particular difficulties for controlling bug infestations. At this time of year Glasse advised servants and householders to place a garland of ‘Ash-boughs and Flowers’ at the bed’s head, which formed ‘a pretty Ornament’ and whose floral scent attracted flies and gnats away from the sleeper’s body. Those who lived in marshy or fenny areas might burn a piece of fern in the chamber or hang pieces of cow dung at the foot of the bedstead to keep bugs at bay. Country-dwellers were directed to bathe their hands and face in a mixture of wormwood, rue and water before retiring to bed. These parts of the body, which lay unprotected by bed-sheets and bedclothes, required additional protection.


Safety and protection was also sought from the bed’s textiles. Linen was by far the most popular material for bed-sheets in seventeenth and eighteenth-century England and it varied widely in its quality, cost and availability. Whilst some were able to manufacture their own sheets by growing and spinning flax, others could purchase high-quality linen such as ‘Holland’, which was named after its place of origin. Linen sheets were prized for their cool and crisp sensations, which were believed to regulate the heat of the body’s internal organs, to absorb the its nocturnal excretions and to close its pores against dangerous pollutants in the night air. These qualities complemented the healthcare principles of the six non-naturals that governed people’s attitudes towards sleep and they also helped to foster strong attachments between individuals and their bedding materials. It was a common practice for people to take their own bed-sheets with them when they travelled. This reduced the risk of having to sleep beneath unclean sheets but it also promoted familiar scents and sensations at bedtime, which helped to offset the feelings of vulnerability that were associated with sleeping in an alien environment.


Young Bateman’s ghost, or, a godly warning to all maidens (London, 1760) courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University



For some people, the physical and psychological protection offered by bed-sheets went far beyond the natural world and offered a tangible defence against diabolical attack. When John Wesley’s family home in Epworth, Lincolnshire, was invaded by the malevolent spirit known as ‘Old Jeffrey’ in the winter of 1716-17, his sister Molly dived beneath her bed-covers for protection when she heard the latch of her chamber door rattling at bedtime. Molly’s sisters Suky and Emily also buried themselves under their bed-sheets when they heard Old Jeffrey’s familiar knock after their father Samuel had shut them in for the night. Since sleep was widely understood as a process of transition between the natural and supernatural realms, it seemed logical to some that bed-sheets might protect them from natural and diabolical threats. The power invested in these materials was likely strengthened by the broader uses of textiles like linen, which were used to make clerical vestments and to wrap dead bodies before burial.


Efforts to control sleep’s material environments took many different forms but they collectively underline the feelings of vulnerability and danger that sleep generated. The cleansing rituals associated with bedtime and the careful choice of bedding textiles were tokens of household decency but they were also judged effective methods of safeguarding body and soul during the night.

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.


In early modern England (the focus of my current research), the widespread practice of bi-phasic, or ‘segmented’ sleep, has captured most media attention to date. This refers to the habit of sleeping in two separate cycles during the night, rather than in one consolidated sleep-cycle, which people called their ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep’ (Ekirch, 2001). On 31 January 2016, the psychologist Richard Wiseman, even encouraged readers of The Guardian to ‘consider segmented sleep’ if they were having trouble dropping off at night. Whilst segmented sleep has been singled out for special notice, it is worth noting that early modern sleeping habits of many different kinds formed the bedrock of a rich, holistic culture of preventative healthcare that was designed to safeguard the long-term health of body and mind.


We all know the delightful moods and sensations that sound sleep can bring, and we miss them when we are sleep-deprived, or forced out of bed too soon to go to work, comfort a crying baby, or dash to the airport to catch an early morning flight. The grumpiness associated with the phrase ‘getting up on the wrong side of the bed’ neatly conveys the negative effects that too little, or poor-quality sleep, can have on our bodies, minds and moods. Today, we have a sophisticated set of medical explanations to pinpoint exactly why we feel out of sorts – irritable, hungry and lacking in energy – when we don’t get enough sleep. These feelings and sensations were just as familiar however to people in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who had their own set of bodily gestures and expressions to describe them.


‘Getting up on the wrong side of the bed’ was in fact a well known early modern phrase and its etymology opens a window onto the influential body of healthcare knowledge known as the ‘six non-natural things’, which was central to the way that people thought about sleep and how they practiced it. The main ambition of this system of healthcare, which was based on the medical wisdom of the ancient world, was to preserve human health in harmony with the natural environment. The body’s four humours (blood, choler, melancholy and phlegm) were kept in balance by paying careful attention to the six non-natural things – a set of environmental and dietary rules that related to fresh air, food and drink, sleeping and waking, motion and rest, excretion and retention, and the passions of the soul. A healthy and long life depended on the individual’s careful management of all six categories. Regular habits of sleeping and waking kept the humours in check and prevented their corruption, which warded off disease. In 1539, Sir Thomas Elyot, the lawyer, humanist scholar and ambassador to King Henry VIII, spoke for many when he stated that perfect sleep made ‘the body fatter, the mynde more quiete and clere’ and ‘the humours temperate’. Elyot offered this advice to a large audience of readers in his best-selling healthcare guide The Castel of Helth and his words were echoed in different forms well into the eighteenth century.


‘The Nightmare’ (London, 1827) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


As well as supporting overall good health, a sound night’s sleep also had a more specific function in supporting the process of digestion, which shaped a range of distinctive sleep-related activities. Chief among them was ensuring that people adopted the correct sleep posture at bedtime. Most healthcare guides (also known as regimens of health) advised people to sleep ‘well bolstered up’, or with their heads slightly raised with the aid of a pillow or bolster (Thomas Cogan, Haven of Health). The gentle slope that this created between the head and stomach was believed to speed the process of digestion and to prevent food being regurgitated during the night. It was just as important for sleepers to rest first on their right side of their bodies, before turning onto their left side during the second half of the night. Resting first on the right, which was judged to be hotter than the left side of the body, allowed food to descend more easily to the pit of the stomach, where it was heated during the initial stage of digestion. Turning onto the cooler left side of the body after a few hours released the stomach vapours that had accumulated on the right and spread the heat more evenly through the body. References to sleep posture were rarely worthy of note in personal diaries or letters but English folk beliefs suggest that there was a widespread perception of a right and a wrong way to lie in bed, and to rise from it. Rising on the right side of the bed was considered by some to be an unlucky omen for the day ahead. In an astrological text of 1652, the Church of England clergyman John Gaule judged it folly ‘to bode good or bad luck, fortune [or] successe, from the rising up on the right, or left side’. Despite Gaule’s objections, this seems to have been a familiar saying, firmly rooted in healthcare advice literature. Since physicians encouraged sleepers to spend the second part of the night on their left side, rising on the right may suggest that body and mind were disordered by a failure to heed this advice. Even more dangerous than sleeping on the wrong side of the body, was sleeping flat on the back, which was believed to flood the base of the brain with excessive moisture, trigger nightmares, invite the visit of an evil spirit known as the ‘incubus’, or even to herald the sleeper’s early death. Early modern people took great care to moderate their bedtimes, and manage their sleeping environments, and they may well have been similarly diligent about their sleep-posture to increase their chances of sleeping well and securing their wellbeing. These intricate daily habits reveal the high value that was attached to sound sleep, which was encouraged by the long-term preventative culture of healthcare that characterised this period.

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.


How We Used to Sleep


Welcome to ‘How we used to sleep’ – 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 will run throughout 2017 and will offer a unique insight into sleep’s fascinating and complex history.

The project stems from Dr Sasha Handley’s research on sleep in the early modern period, an era that has been dubbed a ‘golden age’ of sleep quality. Sasha’s recently published book, Sleep in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2016), explores how perceptions and practices of sleep were transformed in this period and how sleep’s cultural value, in times past and present, is intimately tied to sleep quality.[1]

Little Moreton Hall

Through a variety of activities at Little Moreton Hall, from the creation of an early modern sleep garden, to the recreation of an early modern bedchamber, ‘How we used to sleep’ will reveal how early modern people regulated their sleep by keeping strict bedtimes, performing nightly rituals such as bedtime prayer; how they created safe and secure locations for sleep; how they dealt with sleep loss, and why they believed that a good night’s sleep held the key to long-term physical, emotional and spiritual health. To complement the activities taking place at Little Moreton Hall, we will also be regularly updating our blog with a variety of posts that will explore early modern sleep in practice. Find out about the medical implications of poor sleep, the connections between sleep and supernatural power, the rise of sociability and its impact on bedtimes, and much, much more!

Aside from recreating the cultural and material world of early modern sleeping practices in the iconic Tudor surroundings of Little Moreton Hall, the project will also reflect on what we in the 21st century can learn from historical approaches to sleep’s management and sleep’s relationship to health and well-being. The project aims to raise awareness of how changing perceptions of sleep’s importance, can have a powerful effect on its daily practice. This focus should be particularly valuable today since we are seemingly in the grip of a sleep deprivation ‘crisis’. By exploring sleep’s rich history at Little Moreton Hall, ‘How we used to sleep’ aims to recalibrate the balance between sleep’s biological drivers, which lie at the heart of modern medical and scientific analyses, and its cultural and environmental dimensions. As we shall see over the coming year, the ways in which people think about sleep, and how they manage it, has a critical effect on sleep quality, an idea that is as true today as it was for the men, women, and children of the early modern period.

[1] Sasha Handley, Sleep in Early Modern England (Yale: Yale University Press, 2016).