We tend to think that the basic elements of human lives–things as fundamental as sleep patterns–have forever been as they are now. I’ve always assumed, without thinking much about it, that sleep means going to bed and sleeping straight through until waking up in the morning. The BBC recently published a fascinating article about research that squarely refutes that assumption–and shows instead that our current approach to sleep is inconsistent with the accepted practices that prevailed for many centuries.
According to the BBC article, humans used to have “two sleeps” as a matter of course. The “first sleep” would last for a few hours, until about 11 p.m., followed by about two hours of wakefulness–a period known in medieval England as “the watch”–after which people would return to bed and sleep until morning. This pattern was confirmed by sworn testimony in court records and multiple references in literature, and the research indicates that it was followed across different countries and cultures dating back to classical times, during the prolonged period when life was much more communal than it is now and it was typical for multiple humans to share beds or other sleeping quarters.
What did those who awakened from their “first sleep” do during “the watch”? The research indicates they did just about everything from the exalted (it was viewed by some as a good time for quiet religious observances and reflection) to the productive (peasants completed some of their many daily chores, stoked the fire, and tended to animals) to the mundane (the newly roused typically answered the call of nature). The BBC article also reports: “But most of all, the watch was useful for socialising – and for sex.” People would stay in their communal bed and chat with their bedmates, and husbands and wives, refreshed from the day’s exhausting labors by their “first sleep,” might find a place for some alone time before “the watch” ended and it was time to hit the crowded sack again.
At some point, the practice of “two sleeps” ended and our current approach of seeking one, uninterrupted “good night’s sleep” became the norm instead. But, as the BBC article points out, a sleep research experiment from the ’90s suggests that it wouldn’t take much for people to be nudged back into the world of “two sleeps.” A careful look at some remote cultures also indicates that the practice of “two sleeps” still prevails in some areas. And of course, in some cultures where an afternoon siesta is commonplace, a different form of “two sleeps” is practiced.
What would the world be like if humans still followed the practice of “two sleeps,” and what would they do during “the watch”? I would guess that they would do just about everything that their medieval ancestors did–although with modern technology I imagine that many people would take “the watch” literally, and use the break in sleep to catch up on the latest offerings on streaming services.