I was up watching election results last night, and I didn’t get what I would consider to be a good night sleep.  But our 21st century view of what constitutes a good night sleep is very different from the 18th century conception of sleep.

Prior to the 20th century, and the widespread use of electrical lighting, “segmented” sleep was more common.  People would sleep for a couple of hours at a time after sundown – their “first sleep,” – wake up, and do light activities, such as talking or reflection, and then fall back asleep for their “second sleep.”  This New York Times article references several places in historical literature in which the second sleep/first sleep played a role:

A character in the “Canterbury Tales,” for instance, decides to go back to bed after her “firste sleep.” A doctor in England wrote that the time between the “first sleep” and the “second sleep” was the best time for study and reflection. And one 16th-century French physician concluded that laborers were able to conceive more children because they waited until after their “first sleep” to make love.

The idea of first sleep/second sleep appears to have disappeared from Western thought by the 1920s.  Thanks to artificial lighting, night became a time when people could be productive, or could go out on the town.  That period between sleep, for quiet contemplation, seems to have disappeared.


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