How much sleep?

In 2001, Roger Ekirch (historian at Virginia Tech) published an important paper that revealed a wealth of historical evidence that throughout our history humans used to have a different sleeping pattern from us today.  They used to have a “first sleep” which began about two hours after dusk, after which they woke up for an our or two, followed by “a second sleep”. However, this remains largely unknown to the general public.

During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

And these hours weren’t entirely solitary – people often chatted to bed-fellows or had sex.

A doctor’s manual from 16th Century France even advised couples that the best time to conceive was not at the end of a long day’s labour but “after the first sleep”, when “they have more enjoyment” and “do it better”.

(Stephanie Hegarty, “The myth of eight-hour sleep”, BBC News, 22 February 2012)

Roger Ekirch’s book, At day’s close: night in times past (2005)

Categories: The Idle Ethnographer

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