Pre-Industrial Sleep

I was reading about A. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close. The book covers the history of night – a forgotten realm.

“This book sets out to explore the history of nighttime in Western society before the advent of the Industrial Revolution. My chief interest lies in the way of life people fashioned after dark in the face of both real and supernatural perils. Notwithstanding major studies on crime and witchcraft, night, in its own right, has received scant attention, principally due to the longstanding presumption that little else of consequence transpired. ‘No occupation but sleepe, feed, and fart,’ to quote the Jacobean poet Thomas Middleton, might best express this traditional mindset. . . . Nighttime has remained a terra incognita of peripheral concern, the forgotten half of the human experience, even though families spent long hours in obscurity.”

What interested me was the history of sleep patterns, specifically preindustrial sleep patterns. Peoples without electricity experience a phenomenon called divided sleep – falling asleep shortly after darkness, then waking up around midnight, spending a few hours either sitting quietly in contemplation or perhaps finding something to do for those 2-3 hours (chores, even socializing), and then going back to sleep until morning. The continuous 6-8 hour sleep pattern is relatively new to human civilization, and is a result of electricity, clocks, and the demands of industrialized society. It is not the normal way humans sleep.

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