Can Medieval Sleeping Habits Fix Insomnia?

People typically sleep about seven to nine hours daily, but has that always been the case? A recent book on sleeping history reveals that, on average, medieval people slept in two distinct stages.

According to At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by Roger Ekirch, before the invention of artificial lighting, most people went to bed at sunset. We can break down the time spent sleeping into two distinct stages: first and second.

About an hour would pass between the first and second sleep, giving the individual time to study, pray at Matins (generally between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning), or engage in sexual activity.

Getting to sleep or staying asleep can be a constant battle for many who struggle with insomnia.

Some people have trouble falling asleep until the early hours of the morning, while others have difficulty falling back asleep after waking up in the middle of the night because of light sleep or a full bladder.

It can be challenging to fall asleep for many people who awaken between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning. So they have a second nap right before dawn, then wake up in the late morning feeling groggy.

It is currently thought that this split-stage sleeping pattern is a sleep disorder.

In the following section, we determine whether medieval sleeping practices reduce insomnia.

Biphasic Sleep

Biphasic Sleep

When electric lights became commonplace, they brightened evenings, and this trend shifted. Now that people can work or play well into the night, the time between sunset and sunrise is continuous.

The situation had evolved into the “new normal,” he claimed. People who can only get to sleep in two-hour stretches now seek help for their condition, even though bisection sleep was formerly the standard.

Biphasic sleep, often known as two-phase sleep, describes this sleep pattern.

Biphasic Vs. Monophasic sleep

Biphasic Vs. Monophasic sleep

In contrast to the typical “monophasic” sleep pattern, those who engage in biphasic sleep, sleep in two distinct phases. Individuals who are monophasic sleepers get all of their REM sleep at once, usually at night.

During the industrial age, when artificial illumination allowed people to stay up past sunset, monophasic sleep is thought to have become the norm, according to researchers. But, before that time, it was common for people of various cultures and countries to sleep in two distinct cycles.

Around 9 or 10 o’clock, they turned in for the night, getting a few hours of sleep before getting up at midnight. Then they’d stay up to eat, take care of the kids, or maybe even get some more wood for the fireplace.

When nighttime came around again, they’d enter their second slumber phase.

As an artificial light spread, people began following a single-phase sleep cycle. We have since assumed that we are the only animals to sleep through the night in one continuous period. But new evidence suggests that this might not be true.

In a study conducted in the 1990s, a group of healthy volunteers was exposed to 10 hours of light followed by 14 hours of darkness. There was significantly less light in this environment than in our modern world of 16-hour days.

In the beginning, people averaged 7.7 hours of sleep every night. However, they inevitably changed to a biphasic sleep regimen as the trial progressed. As a result, they slept for 11 hours total, with a one- to three-hour wakeup interval in the dead of night.

Our modern, one-stage sleep schedules could have unintended consequences. For example, long-term exposure to artificial light, particularly late at night, suppresses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Furthermore, some people’s regular sleeping habits look like biphasic sleep.

Medieval Sleeping Habits

1. Sleeping in Shifts

Sleeping in Shifts

The idea that people can go to bed and sleep for eight hours straight is modern. However, there’s proof that some of our predecessors split their sleep time in half.

Anthropologists and historians have observed that this sleep pattern, often termed first and second sleep was widespread in preindustrial Europe.

According to Ekirch, people in the past didn’t go to bed at a predetermined time but instead would sleep for two shifts. The first would begin about sunset and end around daybreak. What, then, would people be doing in the early hours of the morning?

People would use this time to do anything they wanted, whether it was to sit around and daydream. Others would use the moon or oil lamps to sew, chop wood, or read.

However, Ekirch claims segmented sleeping had fallen out of favor by the end of the 17th century due to the inconvenience it caused.

2. Bed Sharing

Bed Sharing

Beds have also developed over time. As Ekirch explains, the luxury of owning custom furniture, such as a mattress filled with wool and rags laid atop a wooden frame, was no longer reserved for the few by the 17th century.

He notes that a family bed was one of their first big-ticket furniture purchases back then. And that it might account for as much as a fifth of a home’s total worth. So, sleeping was a communal family activity, and more than one person used beds at a time.

Beds and other sleeping places have had many inhabitants for most of human history.

It was not only usual for members of the same family to share a bed when traveling. However, this was a natural and expected aspect of any trip, even when you were with strangers.

3. Sleeping Upright

Sleeping Upright

Beds in the past were shorter because people tended to sleep sitting up in them, resting on the headboard. This fact is often highlighted during tours of manor houses and castles belonging to the elite.

People’s widespread explanation for this was that it was healthier to stand with one’s head slightly higher (thereby allowing one’s nose to receive the superior air) since, as the thinking went, “bad air” was denser than fresh air.

Of course, that could be possible, but there’s nothing to back it up in ancient times.

However, British medical texts from the 17th century show that people in Great Britain began sleeping on their backs to create a slight incline from the head to the stomach to improve digestion.

Sleeping Tips From History

Ancient people were no different from modern ones in pursuing a restful night’s sleep. So, how did our ancestors deal with lack of sleep and insomnia?

1. Follow a Regular Schedule

Follow a Regular Schedule

A group of early modern sleep gurus concluded that regular bedtime rituals were essential to a healthy and long life.

As a society, we are fixated on sleep, or the lack thereof. It has evolved into a holy grail in today’s society of long work hours, high stress, and increasing screen time to get an optimal sleep of eight hours each night.

Our predecessors did what, exactly? In what ways did they manage to triumph against sleep deprivation? Of course, one of their top concerns was establishing a regular bedtime routine that they would adhere to no matter what.

They thought a sleep schedule contributed to a healthy body, mind, and spirit.

We also saw adherence to a regular sleep schedule as a measure of a person’s moral and ethical well-being. Those who slept at odd hours or stayed in bed too late were subject to name-calling.

2. Eat Healthily And Sleep Well

Eat Healthily And Sleep Well

Our ancestors believed that the food in their stomachs was the key to a restful night’s sleep.

Caffeine’s disruptive effects on sleep have been known for almost as long as it has been consumed. Tea and coffee are best for people “who would study at night,” as the self-styled French apothecary Philippe Sylvestre Dufour warned as early as the 17th century.

However, our early modern forebears thought eating and drinking might treat and trigger sleeplessness. So they valued lettuce soup for its sedative properties. Also, they drank posset, a hot milky drink that provided a dairy “cover” to the stomach and helped it sleep better.

It was believed that your digestive process would improve if you sleep in a proper sleeping position. So, it was recommended that people sleep “well bolstered up” or with their heads elevated to generate a downward path towards the stomach, reducing the likelihood of regurgitation.

Also, it was suggested that they switch places during the night. When you lay on your right side first, food can more readily make its way down into the lower portion of your stomach.

After a couple of hours, turn over onto the cooler left side to disperse the body’s heat more evenly and release the stomach gasses that had been building up on the right side.

3. Treasure Having Your Bed

Treasure Having Your Bed

Do not dismiss the significance of a comfortable, familiar, and stress-free bedroom.

People have always valued the safety, comfort, and convenience of sleeping in their beds. However, they’re sensitive about their personal space being invaded.

Beds were highly valued for their social, ceremonial, and emotional significance. However, people also treasured beds for their practical use as repositories of rest, relaxation, and safety.

Beds and bedding were heirloom items for our early modern ancestors, passed down from generation to generation or given as wedding or baby shower presents.

The scientific community now backs the 17th-century fixation on routine. For example, studies on sleep have long shown what is known as the “first night effect,” the hypothesis that people have trouble falling asleep in new environments.

Researchers have determined that this is because half of the brain is on “night watch,” getting only a few solid hours of sleep in case the strange surroundings provide a threat.

4. Stay Cool

Stay Cool

It is simpler to fall asleep at night in a cooler room.

Experts in sleep medicine today have settled on a temperature of 18.5 degrees Celsius as the sweet spot for a restful night’s sleep. But, even if they did not have access to such accurate data, our early modern forebears were still well aware that high temperatures are not conducive to restful sleep.

Then how did they maintain a comfortable temperature in their private quarters? They let in fresh air by cracking open windows and doors and perfumed the air with rose and marjoram. Having a cold and refreshing sleep on linen sheets was also valued.

An additional perk of sleeping on linen was that it warded off three minor but persistent pests: fleas, flies, and bedbugs.

5. Connect With The Divine

Connect With The Divine

Nighttime prayers were a preventative measure against the dangers lurking in the dark.

Even though it was common practice for most individuals to say a prayer before going to sleep in the 16th and 17th centuries, this practice has mostly faded from popular culture in today’s more secular period. Even more importantly, believers searched for opportunities to commune with God before turning in for the night for their safety.

In early modern thought, nighttime was perilous when the human body was dangerously close to dying.

6. Home Remedies

Home Remedies

Using homemade cures, we primarily fought against sleep deprivation in the early modern period.

Many of us today turn to sleep drugs when we can’t get to sleep. Sleepless people in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance did not have that option. Though this didn’t mean they were out of choices, it did need some innovative thinking.

Most cases of insomnia were treated at home, using tested methods passed down and tweaked over the years.

Parting Note

Although some of these practices may appear archaic, they have much in common with modern sleep patterns. For example, research shows that split sleep can be helpful, even if we are yet to advance to sleep in two shifts throughout the night.

The next big thing in sleep is sure to have at least some ties to habits of the past. And, if history has shown us anything, it is that what is excellent sleep hygiene now may be terrible for our health tomorrow.

Given the importance of sleep for our health, seeing a physician before making any significant adjustments to your current sleeping habits is recommended. They may have other suggestions to aid in getting better rest and feeling more refreshed during the day.


Sarah Wagner

I'm Sarah Wagner, and I founded Sweet Island Dreams in 2022. It's a blog dedicated to helping people mental vacation virtually anytime they want. By providing information about the best sleep of your life, I help people drift away to paradise without ever having to leave their bed!