There was a time when people slept in two shifts: this is how the “biphasic sleep” of the Middle Ages worked

There was a time when people slept in two shifts: this is how the “biphasic sleep” of the Middle Ages worked

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There was a time when people slept in two shifts: this is how the “biphasic sleep” of the Middle Ages worked

There was a time when people slept in two shifts: this is how the “biphasic sleep” of the Middle Ages worked We have explained the details of the news, step by step, below. There was a time when people slept in two shifts: this is how the “biphasic sleep” of the Middle Ages worked Keep reading our news. Here are all the details on the subject.

There was a time when people slept in two shifts: this is how the “biphasic sleep” of the Middle Ages

For us, going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning is the most normal thing in the world. At least seven to nine hours (or so we all hope, although we rarely get it) . But was it always like this? Various books and studies on the history of sleep show that during the Middle Ages people used to sleep in two periods during the night, two shifts in which activities were carried out in the middle of them.

Wait, two dreams? If two.

Roger Ekirch’s book At the End of the Day: Night in Times Past reveals that until modern times, when artificial lighting allowed us to stay awake longer, most people went to bed at sunset and the time spent sleeping was divided into two phases , known as first and second sleep. Both phases of sleep lasted approximately the same, and people would wake up in sometime after midnight before going back to rest.

At the beginning of the decade of 1555, the historian Roger Ekirch found in the London Public Record Office, which has housed the National Archives of the United Kingdom since 1838 until 2003, various testimonies between rows of old vellum papers and manuscripts that seemed strange to him. Ekirch had been researching a book on the history of the night and various records that spanned the era between the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution.

I was afraid to write the chapter on sleep, thinking that it was not only a universal need, but a biological constant. I was skeptical that I would find anything new. But while reading a criminal statement, two words underlined a particularly tantalizing detail of life in the 17th century that he had never seen before: “first dream”.

A first dream had to also imply a second dream : a night divided into two halves. Was it just an anecdote or something else? When Ekirch widened his search, it soon became clear that the phenomenon was more generalized and normalized than I had ever imagined.

In the following months, the writer went through hundreds of files and found many more references to this mysterious phenomenon of the double dream, or ” biphasic sleep”, as he later called it. Some were pretty banal, but others were more obscure, like Luke Atkinson’s from the East Riding of Yorkshire. The guy managed to perform a quick kill between one dream and the next and, according to his wife, he often used the time to haunt other people’s homes to commit sinister acts.

Actually, the first dreams are mentioned in one of the most famous works of medieval literature, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (written between 1387 Y 1400), which is presented as a storytelling contest among a group of pilgrims. They are also included in Beware the Cat (1561) by the poet William Baldwin, a satirical book considered by some to be the first novel. But that is not all. Ekirch found casual references to the sleep-twice system in every conceivable form, with hundreds in letters, diaries, medical textbooks, philosophical writings, newspaper articles, and plays. The practice even turned into ballads, such as Old Robin of Portingale.

“And when you wake up from your first dream, they will prepare a hot drink for you, And when you wake up from your next dream, Your sorrows will fade…” Biphasic sleep was not unique to England either: it was widely practiced throughout the world pre-industrial. In France, the initial dream was the “premier somme”; in Italy, it was “primo sonno”. In fact, evidence of the habit was found as far afield as Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Australia, South America, and the Middle East. A colonial account of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1387 described how the Tupinambá people dined after their first dream.

As it turned out, far from being a quirk of the Middle Ages, the method had been the dominant way of sleeping for millennia, an ancient defect we inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. The first record he found dates back to the 8th century BC. C., in the Greek epic The Odyssey , while that the last signs of its existence date back to the beginning of the 20th century, before it somehow fell into oblivion.

The medieval night activity

How did it work? Why did they do it? And why did it stop? This is what we are all wondering right now. Well, one night in the fifteenth century was more or less like this:

From 08: 00 until 23: 00, those who were lucky enough to be able to afford them began to throw themselves on mattresses stuffed with straw or rags (or feathers, if they were rich) ready to sleep for a couple of hours. At the bottom of the social ladder, people would have to make do with curling up on a heather or, worse, a bare dirt floor, possibly even without a blanket. At that time, most people slept in community and often found themselves huddled with a welcoming assortment of bedbugs, fleas, lice, family, friends, servants and, if traveling, complete strangers.

To minimize any discomfort, sleeping involved a series of strict social conventions, such as avoid physical contact or move around too much, and there were designated positions. For example, girls generally lie on one side of the bed, with the oldest close to the wall, followed by mother and father, then boys, again in age order, and then non-family members.

A couple of hours later, people were starting to wake up from this initial dream. Night vigil generally lasted until around 01: , and was not caused by noise or other disturbances at night, nor was it triggered by any kind of alarm. Instead, waking up occurred completely naturally, just like it does in the morning.

The waking period was a surprisingly useful window to get things done. Records describe how people did almost anything after waking up from their first dream. Under the dim glow of the Moon, the stars, and oil lamps or “reed lights” – a kind of candle for ordinary households, made from waxed stems of reeds – people went about their ordinary chores, such as adding firewood. to the fire, take medicine, or go to urinate (often in the same fire).

For peasants, waking up meant rededicating themselves to more serious work, whether it was venturing out to watch the farm animals or performing menial tasks such as mending cloth, combing wool, or stripping reeds for burning. But it was also a time for religion. The Christians had elaborate and specific prayers prescribed for this exact period of time.

But, above all, that time was useful for socializing and for sex . As Ekirch explains in his book, people often stayed in bed chatting. And during those rare twilight hours, bedfellows could share a level of informality that was difficult to achieve during the day. For husbands and wives who managed to handle the logistics of sharing a bed with others, it was also a convenient interval for physical intimacy: if they’d had a long day of manual labor, the first sleep took their weariness away, and the aftermath was a excellent time to conceive.

Once people had been awake for a couple of hours, they usually went back to bed. The next step was considered a “morning” dream and could last until dawn or later. Just like today, when people finally woke up depended on what time they went to bed.


Similar forms of biphasic sleep are evident in today’s society, for example, in cultures that take a siesta in the afternoon. Our biological clock lends itself to that schedule , with a reduction in the state of alert in the early afternoon (the so-called “post-lunch slump”).

At the beginning of the decade of 1555, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted a experiment in which he exposed a group of people to a short photoperiod, that is, they were left in the dark for 14 hours every day instead of 8 hours, for a month. It took a while for her sleep to settle down, but by the fourth week, a distinct two-stage sleep pattern emerged. They first slept for 4 hours, then woke for 1 to 3 hours before falling into a second 4-hour sleep. This suggests that biphasic sleep is a natural process with a biological basis.

Today’s society often doesn’t allow this kind of flexibility, so we have to adjust to current sleep and wake schedules. It is generally thought that a continuous uninterrupted sleep of 7 to 9 hours is probably the best to feel refreshed. However, such a schedule may not fit our circadian rhythms, as we become out of sync with the external light/dark cycle of 23 hours.