First sleep, Watch, second sleep

Post 3/2022 Saturday 15 January . . . To bed at 10pm, up at midnight, then back to sleep. If that’s you, you’re in good company. Ancient company. The company of our pre-industrial era ancestors, who, inexplicably to our modern minds, shared a bed and kept a midnight watch. This custom from the past left me wondering how eight hours of sleep was a no-go back then.

History reveals that for millennia people slept in two shifts, according to an online BBC Future feature (9 January 2022), “The forgotten medieval habit of ‘two sleeps.'” written by Zaria Gorvett, a senior journalist.

This decorative windmill on the Greencroft Goshen campus is a reminder of simpler times before more ubiquitous mechanization revolutionized peoples’ nights and days.

If today I had to sleep on the floor on straw or other vegetation; if I couldn’t afford a covered mattress stuffed with straw, rags or feathers; if I couldn’t adapt to people and bugs sharing the communal bed–even with strict social conventions that included designated sleeping positions and avoiding physical contact or too much fidgeting–; if I couldn’t bide a room without a nightlight, I’d be in a tizzy, confounded, sleepless, maybe out under the stars tending sheep.

Thankfully, we have people like historian Roger Ekirch who shine scholarly light on sleeping habits of the past, roughly prior to the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Ekirch, professor at Virginia Tech, researched the history of what he came to call “biphasic sleep,” or double sleep, according to Zaria Gorvett.

That’s a first sleep, followed by a period of wakefulness (“the watch”) then a second sleep. Our ancestors divided the night into two halves with the waking time used to chat, check on farm animals, do household chores, take remedies, add wood to the fire, or go for a pee.

In the millennia before the transition to new manufacturing processes that began in 1760 in Great Britain, Europe and the United States, Gorvett, wrote, “most people slept communally, and often found themselves snuggled up with a cozy assortment of bedbugs, fleas, lice, family members, friends, servants and–if they were travelling–total strangers.”

For Christians it was a time to pray, she said, with prayers prescribed for the watch period. It was also a time to ruminate on one’s vivid dreams. “But most of all,” Gorvett wrote, “the watch was useful for socialising–and for sex.”

She added, “As Ekirch explains in his book, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, people would often just stay in bed and chat. And during those strange twilight hours, bedfellows could share a level of informality and casual conversation that was hard to achieve during the day.”

Gorvett: “Once people had been awake for a couple of hours, they’d usually head back to bed. This next step was considered a ‘morning’ sleep and might last until dawn, or later. Just as today, when people finally woke up for good depended on what time they went to bed.”

I had no clear idea how our ancestors slept, though given their context, it sure makes sense. As to what we face concerning sleep today, Gorvett wrote: “Despite near-constant headlines about the prevalence of sleep problems, Ekirch has previously argued that, in some ways, the 21st Century is a golden age for sleep–a time when most of us no longer have to worry about being murdered in our beds, freezing to death, or flicking off lice, when we can slumber without pain, the threat of fire, or having strangers snuggled up next to us.”

She concluded: “So, we may be missing out on confidential midnight chats in bed, psychedelic dreams, and night-time philosophical revelations–but at least we won’t wake up covered in angry red bites.”

Makes my day.

Sunset on the Greencroft Goshen campus.
Evening sky over Oliver Lake in LaGrange County.
Morning at Oliver Lake. In the distance they looked like loons, dove like loons, stayed underwater like loons, but made no sound like loons, leaving me to wonder what these loons were doing at this time of year in northern Indiana. The lake also sported Canada geese whose distinctive sound was audible, and Sandhill cranes who the night before had made their presence known by their loud chorus.
A most gaze-worthy tree on a road not taken on our return home from Oliver Lake. Let the record show that Gerald and I evened the Canasta score at 1-1, after Mary and Marty creamed us in the first game.
The Mennonite Central Committee Mobile Cannery at its stop in northern Indiana at The Depot, Goshen. Check out MCC Mobile Cannery online for the story of how this annual effort cans meat for a hungry world.

Sleep well

Sleep on! If you must rise at midnight, may ready somnolence return you to slumber and dreams and the wakeful wonders of a new day.


4 thoughts on “First sleep, Watch, second sleep

  1. Usually just before drifting off I’m thankful for my soft pillow and warm duvet. Seems I should be grateful for a lot more; no lice, no bedbugs I hope, and no strangers beside me!


  2. Love your commentary on sleep during the Middle Ages! It fits in with an historical novel I’m reading about England. And the photo of Hotel Elkhart, where I first met you in 1978! Is it a hotel again?


    1. Indeed, Hotel Elkhart is a boutique hotel, quite a tad spiffed up since we had an office there. Good memories of work and coffee break.


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