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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Sleep in the Medieval World

There are two eras of history that I love most: early colonial America and early Medieval Europe. I can't get enough of them! For whatever reason, I find both time periods absolutely fascinating.

One of the reasons I adore Medieval history so much is due to the fact that it is so very misunderstood and so very saturated in fable/mythology. What we of the modern era depict as being "Medieval" in our Renaissance Fairs, video games and on Game of Thrones is usually more a reflection of modern day beliefs than of actual Medieval history. When one actually studies the time period we call "Medieval," an entirely new and different story emerges.  And just when you think you've "heard it all," you discover something new and fascinating you never considered before.

Such has been the case for Yours Truly.  Just this week, I was reading an absolutely fascinating article that discussed sleep customs in Medieval Europe. It was an idea I had never thought of before and simply took for granted.  After all, how could the practice of sleep be all that different for humans of any era?

Truth be told, they can be quite different.  In his book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, historian Roger Ekrich illustrates just how different sleep patterns could be for those of the Medieval World. For Europeans of this era, sleep was usually broken into two separate time periods, each lasting roughly 3-5 hours (naturally, more time was given in the winter for sleep) He writes:
Both phases of sleep lasted roughly the same length of time, with individuals waking sometime after midnight before returning to rest. Not everyone, of course, slept according to the same timetable. The later at night that persons went to bed, the later they stirred after their initial sleep; or, if they retired past midnight, they might not awaken at all until dawn. Thus, it ‘The Squire’s Tale’ in The Canterbury Tales, Canacee slept “soon after evening fell” and subsequently awakened in the early morning following “her first sleep”; in turn, her companions, staying up much later, “lay asleep till it was fully prime” (daylight).
Usually there was a period of activity (anywhere between the hours of midnight and 4:00 a.m.) between sleep cycles which many Medieval "experts" considered to be some of the most effective hours for prayer, meditation and even sex.  Even renowned French physician Laurent Joubert would advise his royal clients to take advantage of this particular time of the night because it was, in his mind, more enjoyable and more likely to cause pregnancy of male offspring.

Ekrich adds:
Although in some descriptions a neighbor’s quarrel or a barking dog woke people prematurely from their initial sleep, the vast weight of surviving evidence indicates that awakening naturally was routine not the consequence of disturbed or fitful slumber. Medical books, in fact, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries frequently advised sleepers, for better digestion and more tranquil repose, to lie on their right side during “the fyrste slepe” and “after the fyrste slepe turne on the lefte side.” And even though the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie investigated no further, his study of fourteenth-century Montaillou notes that “the hour of first sleep” was a customary division of night, as was ‘the hour halfway through the first sleep.” Indeed, though not used as frequently as expressions like “candle-lighting,” the “dead of night”, or cock-crow,” the term “first sleep” remained a common temporal division until the late eighteenth-century. As described in La Demonolatrie (1595) by Nicholas Remy, “Comes dusk, followed by nightfall, dark night, then the moment of the first sleep and finally dead of night.”
The evidence for these two separate sleeping cycles is more abundant than one might think. Even the now infamous (thanks to Walt Disney) Brothers Grimm tale of Sleeping Beauty (originally called La Belle au bois dormant or The Beauty who Sleeps in the Woods), contains references to duel sleeping periods. The story, which is likely based on the earlier Medieval romance known as Perceforest, relates the tale of the beautiful Princess Zellandine, who has fallen madly in love with a man named Troylus.  To prove his love, Troylus must leave on a lengthy quest, but he promises the young Zellandine to find her in the enchanted forest. Zellandine, who anxiously waits night after night for her love to return, falls asleep under an enchanted spell, but is then awakened in the middle of the night by Troylus, who impregnates her (as mentioned above, during the best hours of the night to produce such results). Zellandine then falls back asleep but is unable to be awakened due to the pregnancy.  It isn't until the return of Troylus from his quest that Zellandine is awakened by true love's kiss...and to go through labor of her child!

Sleep, in whatever the era, is a beautiful thing! Whether we choose to partake of it in portions or all at once, I still believe we all crave to have more of it than we already enjoy.  Perhaps Earnest Hemingway said it best:
I love my sleep!  Life has a tendency to fall apart when I am awake, you know.  So I will sleep on!   
Sleep well my friends!!!


Jonathan Rowe said...

While I prefer to get a straight 8-9 hours in a good night sleep, sometimes I do the segmented sleep thing.

A lot of folks wake up in the middle of the night, frustrated, toss and turn, and so on. If I wake up and know I'm not going to be able to fall back a sleep, I embrace it and do things for as long as I need to until I feel tired again.

I'm lucky I have a job with flexible hours that permits me to do this.

Brad Hart said...

I envy you!!! Wish I had a schedule that made for flexible sleep.