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How We Sleep Has Changed Over The Past 200 Years

September 18, 2013

[Part 1 of a 2 Part Series]

Our grandparents and even great, great-grandparents might have shared our modern European sleeping patterns, but if you go back to the early 1800’s you’ll soon see that the way us humans slept is a lot different than how we sleep now. In fact, modern humans would find the sleep patterns of more than 2 centuries ago rather bizarre. Why? Because our ancestors slept twice in a 24 hour period…

Historical Sleep Search

The existence of our sleeping twice in a night has been a subject of conjecture for some time amongst historians, but according to research done by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech, we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk at night. Sleeping time was for much of European history spread out over a 12 hour period and began with a sleep of three to four hours, was followed by a period of wakefulness of two to three hours, then finished with another sleep until morning.

Literary References To Historic Sleeping Patterns

Inspired to do the research by literary references to old sleeping patterns in stories, court documents and personal papers, Ekirch scoured through the ephemera of the past and found that it was common knowledge that the accepted way to sleep was a two-piece sleeping pattern.  

For example, an English doctor in private papers concluded that the best time for study and contemplation was between “first sleep” and “second sleep. Literary references went further back than that however and were even found in Chaucers Canterbury Tales which makes mention of going to bed after “firste sleep.” 

Ekirch himself has now written a book on the subject of past sleeping patterns entitled “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past” which is packed full of further two sleeps a night examples.

So What Did People Do Between Sleeps?

Pretty much what you might expect humans to do even in the modern age! Many stayed in bed reading and praying. In fact, many religious manuals of the time included special mid-sleep prayers. Others smoked, talked with co-sleepers and even had sex or visited neighbours who were also awake. 

Changing Times...

Life as we know it has changed over the past 200 years and with it our sleep patterns. The two sleeps a night pattern eventually died out as street and eventually electric indoor lighting was introduced. Author Craig Koslofsky has offered an insight into the reasons why this happened in his book Evening’s Empire:

“With the rise of more street lighting, night stopped being the domain of criminals and sub-classes and became a time for work or socializing. Two sleeps were eventually considered a wasteful way to spend these hours.”

We don’t actually know if this is the exact reason why our sleeping patterns changed, but we do know one thing for certain the concept of two sleeps a night had vanished from modern day life, that is until now…

Read more about the 2 sleep night cycle in our second part of this article.

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