I’ve never really believed this and not sure why

Well after the Industrial Revolution, many people in Britain still swore by the health benefits of a ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep’.

For centuries, according to a sleep historian, they would use the time when they woke up at night to do household chores, visit friends – or make love to their spouse.
Sleeping through the night is by comparison a ‘modern invention’, according to Professor Roger Ekirch of Virginia Polytechnic and State University.
Speaking yesterday at the Royal Society of Medicine, he said: ‘Middle of the night insomnia was a rare problem before the late 1800s. As early as in the 16th century it was utterly normal, unworthy of comment.’
Bedtime was historically around 10pm, after which, he added: ‘Most individuals awakened shortly past midnight to an hour or so of consciousness, in which they meditated, they conversed and made love – not necessarily in that order.

I have a feeling that this is like that 80 days holiday for medieval peasants thing, a confusion between holiday and holy day there.

What makes me suspicious of the two sleep story is the cost of light. OK, so you don’t need the candle on for a shag but you do to do chores etc. And candles were expensive.

We also, at least so far as I know, don’t see such behaviour in people living at that same standard of living today, the $3 to $5 a day peeps out there.

But just because I don’t quite believe it doesn’t mean it’s not true. What would bolster my disbelief would be working out what is it that is being confused here, as with holy and holi days.

33 comments on “I’ve never really believed this and not sure why

  1. I can believe that insomnia was not a big deal because they were not whiny little cry babies like modern populations. If your main health threats are cholera, the plague and being hacked to pieces by a passing random soldier on a horse, you are not going to whine about some lost sleep.

    But I can also believe that when people slept six families to a room they did quite enjoy waking up in the middle of the night for a quiet shag. Better than doing it with the children watching.

  2. That matches my sleep patterns (not that I am a paragon of good health but I am an old fashioned sort of chap).

    However, I would suspect that the poor would be so shagged out after 12-14 hours labouring in the fields that they’d sleep right through.

    I can believe the middle classes which existed even then, less physically taxed during the day might have odder sleep patterns, and also be in a position to use oil lamps or candles

  3. Could try working from the other direction. What would require people to be getting up in the middle of the night?
    Not saying I can think of much. But I can think of a reason why you wouldn’t.
    Try living in a house, in winter, where the only form of heating’s a wood fire. Producing heat takes work. A lot of it. Don’t forget this includes going cutting the wood, logging & transporting. Managing your woodpile. So the temperature of your house is related to how much effort you put into it. You’ll try to keep that to the minimum of your requirements.
    An awake period in the middle of the night could increase your daily wood consumption by 20%. Not something you’d wish to do unless there was some over riding necessity.

  4. Reminds me if when I rented rooms to students. Two American girls would come back from college and immediately hit the sack. Get up four hours later, shower, tart up and out clubbing. Back between three and four hit the sack. Up four hours later and off to college. Rinse repeat. They kept it up the entire year. Resilience of the young, eh?

  5. “Bedtime was historically around 10pm”

    I’m calling BS on this one. I remember reading a similar article about this on BBC last year, and there it states that bedtime was shortly after dusk – light & heat being expensive as previously pointed out.

  6. To riff off BiS’s point, who wants to get out of bed in the middle of the night when your house is freezing cold?!

  7. bloke in spain – “Could try working from the other direction. What would require people to be getting up in the middle of the night?”

    Lions? Presumably we evolved worried about what might eat us. It would not hurt to have some adult males more or less awake for more or less the whole night. In shifts.

    “Not saying I can think of much. But I can think of a reason why you wouldn’t. Try living in a house, in winter, where the only form of heating’s a wood fire.”

    Yes but we did not evolve in houses. Nor did we evolve in places that had been logged heavily. We did evolve with fire. At one stage our ancestors probably needed to keep the fire going all night or they would have to wait for the next lightning strike. So if our ancestors evolved in the great outdoors with no walls and no roof, they might well need to stay up all night keeping the fire going or they would freeze. Or be eaten.

  8. bedtime around 10 pm, getting up around 6am, with a couple of hours of awake time? 6 hours sleep being typical?

    Err, no.

  9. Ekirich is clearly a wheel with the pigs. He is all over the MSM with his theories.

    His book seemingly cites 500 reference to this 2 sleeps derived from diaries and court papers. Which pre-Industrial Revolution means the well-off or very well off.

    Tenuous “evidence” for a massive generalisation. It sounds like Marxian “how-much-nicer-everything-was-before-capitalism” bullshit.

  10. Out in the provinces in the Philippines it’s quite usual for people to go to bed not long after dusk and then wake up dead early, like 4 am or something and go to the market. Want to make the most out of daylight hours. Wife calls it ‘province time’ and reverts to that when back home. Still is one sleep through the night, just at a different time to what we’re used to.

  11. SMFS: is that why men evolved enlarged prostates? To ensure someone was always up at night? Or is that taking the piss?

  12. Ljh – “is that why men evolved enlarged prostates? To ensure someone was always up at night? Or is that taking the piss?”

    I suspect that is God’s or Nature’s way of saying when you’re too old to breed you need to die. Who wants to bet the biggest preventative for prostate problems is regular sex?

  13. Dongguan John
    Same in my village. People are out in the fields as the sun comes up so they are eating breakfast at five, up just after four. My wife studiously ignores it though, fancying herself a big city sophisticate and not some primitive baan ock person.

  14. I have a suspicion that it was very much the educated, well-fed and well-housed who did this, the kind of people who generally did indoor jobs with no heavy lifting. I can’t imagine the average peasant being that able to read or that interested in meditation in the middle of the night. Monks, maybe.

  15. Another village anecdote, I’ve spent time in Burmese villages and it was asleep not long after dark, and activity starts again at 4-5am.

    Not buying the idea there was widespread activity during darkness without the aid of modern lighting.

  16. I’ve heard that this was because amongst the working classes, the children and the parents used to sleep in the same bed, so they used to wake up in the middle of the night for a shag so as not to disturb the little ‘uns. No idea how true that is.

  17. “after 12-14 hours labouring in the fields”: at harvest time, maybe. Not in the rest of the year because for much of the time there wasn’t enough light for 14 hours of slog, and anyway much farming involved shortish bursts of long and hard labour, and long spells of lesser activity. Even the slog of ploughing in March wouldn’t occupy 14 hours: again, not enough light.

  18. Monks had two periods of sleep, of course. I imagine someone in secular households would often get up in the night to ensure that the fire didn’t go out completely, given the difficulty of lighting another. But widespread household activity at night in the absence of cheap light seems implausible, except perhaps around mid-summer.

  19. The point my Dearieme, is that any sort of agricultural work without the benefit of powered machinery is absolutely knackering, and it is overwhelmingly probable that people would sleep all night. Also the point made above about warmth and heating is a point well made.

    \note to self: Stop saying point

  20. I think if you live in a largely lightless society you’d be pretty dark adapted. Starlight is surprisingly useful for social tasks if you live far away from a city, and when the moon is full it’s positively dazzling.

  21. If they’re shagging in the middle of the night then they are going to have lots of children so even with the high child mortality of the time there’s likely to be at least one little treasure that wakes screaming in the middle of the night.

    “The little bugger’s finally gone off but I can’t get back to sleep. Fancy a quick one?”

    “Nah. I think I’ll just meditate.”

    “Well just lie still darling while I go for it.”

  22. I think Theophrastuscompletely is on the right track here – monk’s split their sleep (can’t remember the terms for the offices at night, but they had to perform them), and (generally – there were some really poor monasteries) had the resources to do things by candle light. Some lay devotees would no doubt also repeat the pattern – as monks were seen as exemplars of holiness, then monastic patterns of worship were seen as ideals.

    I’ve never seen this idea put forward by a serious historian of the middle ages as opposed to modernists, sociologists and other such groups who don’t actually read the medieval sources. So it is either a misunderstanding of a religious lifestyle (my bet) or an early-modern phenomenon.

  23. What did medieval Spaniards do, I wonder? Take their siestas, and then engage in social, economic and household activity until midnight or later? Or did they just sit about chatting?

  24. @BIS
    I take your point, ‘related to effort…minimum of requirements’. However, as someone wholly dependent on a wood fire during winter, I find the wimp factor trumps all – and could well be responsible for the deforestation of large swathes of the South West.

  25. Ljh: “is that why men evolved enlarged prostates? To ensure someone was always up at night? Or is that taking the piss?”
    It has its uses. In the days before clocks, when people needed an early start for a bit of burgling or a long walk to the market they would set their alarm clock with a long drink at bedtime.

  26. “is that why men evolved enlarged prostates? ”

    They didn’t live long enough to get enlarged prostates

  27. It may have some truth way further back in history when night time was a good time to hunt/trap nocturnal animals, or raid adjacent tribes and take them by surprise to carry away women/food, or for travel/move camp when the heat of the day had passed.

  28. Kids go to bed just as it is getting dark, parents go just after dark after banking up the fire and closing the draught (slow burn). Bloke gets up just after midnight to put another log on to keep the embers going.
    Missus gets up just before first light, stokes the fire and gets on with breakfast, everybody else up at first light.

    There will be at least glowing embers in the fire 24/7, this is the most important thing in the house.

  29. Watchman – “monk’s split their sleep (can’t remember the terms for the offices at night, but they had to perform them), and (generally – there were some really poor monasteries) had the resources to do things by candle light.”

    The decline of modern education, shocking really.

    Matins is the monastic nighttime liturgy, ending at dawn, of the canonical hours. In the Roman Catholic pre-Vatican-II breviary, it is divided into three nocturns. The name “matins” originally referred to the morning office also known as lauds. When the nocturnal monastic services called vigils or nocturns were joined with lauds, the name of “matins” was applied at first to the concluding morning service and later still to the entire series of vigils.

    But you are certainly right that what was normal for monks would not be common for everyone.

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