All human beings have needs that they cannot postpone. Among the most elementary is sleep. To sleep a certain number of hours daily is absolutely necessary. Although the way we sleep nowadays is different from the way it was done in other times. For example, how people used to sleep in the Middle Ages.
Historian Roger Ekirch researched how they slept in the Middle Ages
The discovery about the different sleeping habits in the past was discovered by historian Roger Ekirch. He was investigating the night life and some crimes committed in London during the Middle Ages. He used the National Archives of the United Kingdom for his research. For his understanding of one particular criminal case, he reviewed the records between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution.
While reading statements from the case he was trying to investigate, something caught his attention. The witness in the case referred to the “first dream,” terms the historian had never seen in 17th century documents. The witness mentioned the first dream, as if there was a second dream afterwards.
Biphasic sleep was a common practice
Ekirch, on the basis of that statement decided to investigate this aspect further. It was found that this custom was mentioned in many other documents. In them they referred to the custom of sleeping in two phases or biphasic sleep, as it was called.
It was then that he turned to the records on the Internet. Where he discovered that this type of sleep was more widespread than he thought. This type of dream was named in The Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1400 or in Beware The Cat of 1561.
When Ekirch expanded his search, he found that biphasic sleep was not a priority of England. He found references to this sleep mode in Africa, South America, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. Ekirch then drafted what he researched.
The custom was to throw mattresses, which depending on the social scale could be made of heather, straw or feathers, and to sleep 21 to 23 hours. In the Middle Ages, people used to sleep in community, even sharing a bed with a stranger. Fleas, lice and other vermin were shared with relatives, friends, servants or complete strangers.
First dream and second dream
That was the so-called first sleep. Then began what they called the nocturnal vigil, which was usually between 23:00 and one o’clock in the morning. People would naturally wake up from the first sleep to practice different habits.
Then, as expected, they would lie down to sleep the second sleep, which was the main sleep. The pause between the first and second sleep was used in different ways. Some to chat, others to eat, pray, take medicine or have sex.
Roger Ekirch’s research suggests that the current habit of sleeping through the night took hold after the Industrial Revolution. In the past, people slept very differently. It’s a very interesting and surprising topic, but did you already know that?