How did our ancestors from the early modern era and beyond combat the scourge of insomnia? Here, Sasha Handley reveals six historic tips and tricks for a better night’s sleep…
Stick to a routine
Early modern sleep gurus believed that consistency was the key to a long, virtuous life
We’re all obsessed with sleep – or the lack of it. In our modern world of long working hours, high stress levels and soaring screen time, the quest to get the recommended eight hours a night has become something of a holy grail. So what did our forebears do? How did they combat the ogre of sleep deprivation? Top of their list of priorities was to put aside a set period dedicated to sleep – and to stick to it every night. In fact, they believed that keeping fixed sleeping hours was one of the keys to keeping body, mind and soul in good order. John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement, echoed the views of his 17th-century ancestors when he advised his followers to “lay all things by til the morning… keep your hour or all is over”.
Such was the importance of regular sleep in the early modern psyche that – along with air, diet, excretion, exercise and passions of the mind – it was considered one of the six key ingredients in balancing the body’s four humours of phlegm, blood, black bile and yellow bile. This, it was believed, helped maintain long-term physical and mental health.
Regular sleeping hours were also regarded as an important barometer of an individual’s reputation and spiritual health. Those that kept erratic sleeping hours, or lay in bed for too long, invited a variety of insults. Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Livingston, a maid in the privy chamber of Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza, called herself “Soloman’s sluggard” when she confessed to “staying in bed until noon”. Elizabeth was clearly fearful that her “acustomed lasynesse” was damaging the health of both her body and her soul.
Eat right, sleep tight
For our forebears, the secret to a good night’s sleep lay in the contents of your gut
We’ve been alive to the sleep-disrupting qualities of caffeine for almost as long as it’s been drunk. As far back as the 17th century, the self-styled French pharmacist Philippe Sylvestre Dufour declared that tea and coffee should be avoided before bedtime, noting that they were only useful for those “that would study by night”.
But our early modern ancestors believed that food and drink could cure sleep deprivation, as well as cause it. They prized lettuce soup for its soporific qualities, and often supped a hot, milky drink known as posset – a common bedtime beverage that strengthened the stomach by placing a dairy ‘lid’ on it.
Early modern medical advice drew close links between healthy sleep and healthy digestion. In his 1534 book Castel of Helth, the lawyer and humanist scholar Sir Thomas Elyot declared that: “Digestion is made better, or more perfite by slepe, the body fatter, the mynde more quiete and clere, the humours temperate.”
Adopting the right sleep posture was thought to speed digestion. People were advised to sleep “well bolstered up”, with their heads raised to create a downward slope towards the stomach, so preventing the regurgitation of food.
They were also encouraged to alternate their position during the night. Resting first on the right side allowed food to descend easily into the stomach’s pit. Turning onto the cooler left side after a few hours released the stomach vapours that had accumulated on the right, and spread heat more evenly through the body.
Treasure your own bed
Never underestimate the power of a safe, soothing and, above all, familiar sleeping environment
“Someone’s been sleeping in my bed!” As this famous line from Goldilocks and the Three Bears reveals, people have long cherished the security, familiarity and comfort that comes with sleeping in their own beds. And they don’t take too kindly to it when that space is violated. This is as true today as it was when Robert Southey’s celebrated fairy tale first became popular in the 1830s. And it was certainly the case in the early modern era.
Beds were cherished because they had important social, ritual and emotional functions, as well as being places of refreshment, comfort and security. Our early modern ancestors often slept in beds and beneath textiles that had been handed down through their families, or gifted to them upon marriage or the birth of a child.
Women made or decorated bedsheets, coverlets and quilts for loved ones – in doing so, imbuing bedding with great sentimental value. Little wonder that Yorkshirewoman Alice Thornton fought tooth and nail against court appraisers in the 1660s to keep possession of the scarlet bed that her mother had given her. This was the bed in which Alice and her offspring had recovered from childhood illnesses, and in which Alice had mourned the death of her husband, William.
This 17th-century obsession with familiarity appears to be supported by science. Sleep researchers have long been aware of the ‘first night effect’ – the idea that people sleep badly in unfamiliar environments. Scientists now believe that this is due to one half of the brain being on ‘night watch’, sleeping lightly in case the new environment is unsafe.
Keep your cool
One of the best ways to nod off at night is to lower the temperature
Modern sleep experts believe that there’s an optimum room temperature for a good night’s slumber: 18.5°C. Our early modern predecessors might not have been privy to such precise data but that didn’t stop them being keenly aware that excessive heat is no friend of sleep.
So what did they do to keep their bedrooms fresh and cool? They opened doors and windows, to ensure a constant flow of air, and they sweetened that air with the scent of rose and marjoram. They also prized linen sheets for the cool and refreshing sensation they offered in bed.
Linen provided the added benefit of protecting sleepers from three small but potent foes of slumber: bedbugs, flies and fleas. These, wrote the 18th-century Irish-born writer Oliver Goldsmith, had an unrivalled capacity to “banish that sleep, which even sorrow and anxiety permitted to approach”.
If linen sheets failed, then householders could deploy several recipes for cleansing their bedsteads and fumigating mattresses. Hannah Glasse, author of the Servant’s Directory, or House-Keeper’s Companion (1760), advised those who lived in marshy or fenny areas to hang pieces of cow dung at the foot of the bed to keep bugs at bay.
Talk to God
Bedtime prayers were regarded as the best safeguard against the evils that stalked the night
It may have fallen out of fashion in our more secular age but, back in the 16th and 17th centuries, prayer was an integral part of most people’s bedtime routine. And there was a good reason why believers sought to speak to God before retiring to their beds: self-preservation.
To the early modern mind, the night was fraught with danger, a time when the body came perilously close to death. As the physician and clergyman Thomas Browne put it in his most famous work, Religio Medici (1643), sleep was “that death by which we may literally [be] said to dye daily… so like death, I dare not trust it without my prayers”.
Browne feared for his body and soul during sleep since it was at night that the devil’s threat peaked. As the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Nashe explained in The Terrors of the Night (1594): “The Night is the Divells Blacke booke, wherein hee recordeth all our transgressions.” The devil and his servants had the power to perform devastating acts during the night, from diabolical possession and terrifying nightmares to the infliction of bodily harm. He could even, it was widely believed, steal or deform men’s penises during the night, robbing them of their fertility and their masculinity.
Bedtime prayer may have been the best way to ward off these evils but it wasn’t the only one. People also surrounded their beds with amulets and charms that were invested with protective qualities. When it came to protecting children, they tended to employ more visceral objects, hanging wolves’ teeth around their necks, and suspending carving knives or scissors over their cradles.
Get creative in the kitchen
In the early modern era, homemade remedies were a key weapon in the war on sleep deprivation
When sleep escapes us, many of us today seek solace in sleeping pills. That course of action wasn’t open to early modern insomniacs. But that doesn’t mean that their options were exhausted – they simply had to be a little more creative.
Homemade sleep remedies were an important part of the household’s medicinal stock and it was at home that most episodes of sleep loss were treated with tried-and-tested recipes passed down and adapted across family generations. A recipe book signed by Elizabeth Jacobs in 1654 included four remedies for sleep loss. One was designed “To make a man sleepe”, and it mixed the key ingredient of poppy seeds with beer, white wine or fortified wine depending on the patient’s age.
Less potent remedies included distillations of chamomile flowers (pictured above), rose petals, lavender, cucumber or lettuce that could be swallowed or applied externally to cool the head, neck or stomach. A recipe from c1710 recommended taking red rose leaves, milk and a slice of nutmeg, sewing them into a piece of cloth and applying the parcel “to each temple” before bed. Dried rose leaves were also stuffed inside pillows and mattresses, and sprinkled between the bedcovers to produce a “sweet and pleasant” scent.
Many of these sleepy ingredients were grown at home, so next time you struggle to sleep, you might consider whether your garden could offer some assistance.
Sasha Handley is senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of Manchester. Her books include Sleep in Early Modern England (Yale, 2016).
This article was first published in the May 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine