Sleep Was Different Then

Remember that Seinfeld episode where Kramer decides to innovate on sleep, taking several short periods of shut-eye over the course of the day instead of the traditional full-night’s rest? The Internet has failed me insofar as providing a video, but you’re going to have to trust me that he calls the tactic “evolutionary” when he describes it to Jerry.

OK, Kramer’s specific strategy — 20 minutes every three hours — may have been uncharted territory. But interrupted sleep, it turns out, used to be pretty common in Europe.

From SlumberWise, which is a website about sleep, which for some reason strikes me as funny even though this is a website about history and the Internet is just a bunch of bullshit anyway:

The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.

His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.

References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.

“It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch says.

An English doctor wrote, for example, that the ideal time for study and contemplation was between “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Chaucer tells of a character in The Canterbury Tales that goes to bed following her “firste sleep.” And, explaining the reason why working class conceived more children, a doctor from the 1500s reported that they typically had sex after their first sleep.

SlumberWise’s article notes that sex was one of the more popular mid-sleep activities. Reading, smoking, and praying were also common uses of those middle hours.

The practice appears to have begun dying out around 1700, and had totally disappeared in Europe by the 1920s, according to the BBC. Street lighting created a safer atmosphere outdoors at night, in turn leading people to spend more time out and about and giving them reason to consolidate their sleeping hours.

The two sleeps per night idea might not have been confined to Europe. The BBC notes that a tribe in Nigeria still uses the terms “first sleep” and “second sleep” to refer to different periods of the night. And commenters on SlumberWise reference several texts from Asian countries that suggest they, too, historically spent some late-night time awake.

Learn more, including about the science behind the two-sleep practice, at SlumberWise.

photo credit: MissMessie, Creative Commons/flickr