Wherein medieval people know it’s “early to bed, early to rise…and then early to bed and rise all over again.”
Doctors have sounded the alarm about sleep problems since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a recent report noting two-thirds of Americans claim they are sleeping more or less than desired. Athena Akrami warns, “Once sleep is disrupted, it can impact mental and physical health, which may in turn cause further sleep disruption…A vicious cycle may form that is very difficult to diagnose and treat properly.”
Interestingly, while many of us struggle with interrupted sleep—I keep my iPad and headphones by my side of the bed, ready to play Groove Salad immediately upon an eye popping open—people in the Middle Ages not only expected to wake in the middle of the night, but thought it was an essential part of a healthy life (and particularly a healthy sex life).
Wake Up Little Susie
Most people in the Middle Ages—and, in fact, most people throughout history until the widespread use of oil (and then electric) lighting—went to bed within an hour or two of sunset. For example, monks adhering to the Rule of St. Benedict went to bed around 7 p.m., and numerous sources indicate people of the time thought it virtuous to follow the monastic example.
This early period of rest was called “first sleep,” followed by “second sleep,” which went from sometime between 2–3 a.m. and sunrise. Monks were roused at 2 a.m. for the prayer service of Matins; people living around monasteries were woken by the bells ringing for Matins and, as the fictional elderly husband of Le Ménagier de Paris tells his wife, could imitate the monks and “at the hour that you hear the Matins ringing, you praise and hail our Lord with some greeting or prayer before you fall back to sleep.” Those who didn’t live around monasteries nonetheless followed a similar sleep schedule, not because of any specific compulsion to pray (although some people did spend spend their time awake in prayer, and many medieval prayer manuals provided special prayers for the hours), but because it is a natural pattern of bi-phasic sleep, where a person sleeps for four hours, wakes up for 1–3 hours, then falls asleep again for another four hours.
People could be surprisingly active during their mid-night wakeful period. While many people prayed or contemplated until they fell asleep, others would read, write or sew; some would engage in chores such as chopping wood, and there are even stories of individuals visiting their neighbors for a short chat before returning to bed. At the same time, however, concerns about noise and maintaining a competitive balance in trade resulted in laws against engaging in commercial work during the night. While there were, of course, exceptions (the phrase “burning the midnight oil,” referring to working late into the night, dates back at least to the 17th century), and some trades such as bakers were given exemptions from the regulations, medieval nights were generally times for rest.
There is one type of nocturnal exertion that received an enthusiastic thumbs-up from health experts: sex. Laurent Joubert, a sixteenth-century French physician, encouraged his patients to have sex between first and second sleep because they “have more enjoyment” and “do it better.” I like to think of him waving around a bucket of leeches and singing with Ray Charles:
I know the night time (night and day, oh)
Whoah is the right time (night and day, oh)
To be with the one you love (night and day)
You know what I’m thinking of (night and day)
Some modern doctors are beginning to recommend that, instead of panicking over lost sleep when waking in the middle of the night, we should instead embrace such wakefulness as a return to natural bi-modal sleep patterns.
Demonic Snooze Alarm
Of course, we shouldn’t assume all people were enthusiastic about leaping up in the middle of the night. An 11th century monk, Rodulfus Glaber, complained that a tricky little demon tempted him to sleep in. The demon whispered,
I wonder why you are so eager to jump so quickly out of bed, as soon as you’ve heard the signal, and to interrupt the sweet rest of sleep, while you could give yourself up to rest until the third signal.
So always remember: every tap of your snooze button is a pat on the head for Satan.
Image: Liber Tacuina sanitatis (XIV century), Ububchasym Baldach, s. XIV-XV, Bibliotheca Casanatense Roma (Source).