Sex, sorcery, sewing and sleep

Fascinating post about the way people used the night hours before artificial light became the norm. Splendid material for historical fiction – what goes on between first and second sleeps? A whole secret life, perhaps…

Evan Filby, the ‘revue guru’ writes in his blog the South Fork Companion:

According to the latest research, nighttime in pre-industrial society was not just the haunt of criminals, astrologers, desperate commoners, or “things that go bump.” This essay was, in fact, inspired by a discussion in one of my Groups on the LinkedIn forum. Thoughts there arose about time keeping, sundown and sunrise, and how all that impacted people’s behavior. That brought to mind the results of one of the most thorough studies of pre-industrial nighttime behavior, which are described in the book by A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past.

The almost-full moon in TransylvaniaOne of his key findings had to do with what he calls “segmented sleep.” People slept differently when simple flames (fireplace, candle, or smoky lamp) were their only sources of artificial light. Depending upon the season, they generally went to bed no later than nine or ten o’clock. After roughly four hours of “first sleep,” they awoke. After an hour or two of wakefulness, they dropped into another four hours of “second sleep.” Ekirch focused mostly on accounts from Western Europe, with some emphasis on the British Isles … and on the years before about 1750. Read more….

Crescent moon over the mountains in Transylvania
Around sunset comes first sleep, after a heavy day’s work. Refreshed, a few hours of night-time pleasure, work or contemplation (Photo: Arabella McIntyre-Brown)
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1 thought on “Sex, sorcery, sewing and sleep

  1. Very interesting, segmented sleep is news to me and could be slotted into a historical novel somewhere. In the UK it was generally thought that in pre-industrial times most of your average working class had their sleep ruled by the hours of daylight so slept longer in winter than summer and of course had more work to do out in the fields then. Its all fine and dandy to say they could sit around telling stories and sewing by candlelight but candles had to be paid for and kindling and fire materials had to be sourced. Not sure the four hours and then another four hours would fit the long ( and very cold) nights of winter but are a good fit to summer. Whatever I think more research would help and it is an interesting subject. Personally I seem to have my sleep segmented quite a lot, I have two daughters who like to stay out late/ go out early according to their work or social patterns and I can tell you this……. give me the old eight hours solid any time!!!

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