House museums spend a lot of time talking about the history of bedsteads, bedding, and beds but almost no time on the history of sleep. It’s not surprising since human sleep patterns don’t seem to change. Sleep has always overtaken us at night and left us completely insensate for several straight hours until we awake in the morning.
Or has it? A. Roger Ekirch has studied early modern sleep patterns and it seems things have changed. Prior to the Industrial Revolution our sleep was segmented – each night people experienced two periods of sleep separated by an hour or so of calming wakefulness which started at midnight. Turns out our modern “good night’s sleep” has only been around for about two hundred years.
If you’re interested in old time sleep, or anything to do with early modern nighttime, check out Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. For those of you who don’t want to buy the book see Ekirch’s online article “Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles.”
UPDATE: The BBC just (22 February 2012) posted The myth of the eight-hour sleep on their news magazine website featuring Ekirch’s work.