Two sleeps
January 11, 2022 9:47 PM   Subscribe

The forgotten medieval habit of 'two sleeps' “ For millennia, people slept in two shifts – once in the evening, and once in the morning. But why? And how did the habit disappear?”
posted by dhruva (95 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's ba-a-ack... at least for me.
posted by y2karl at 9:53 PM on January 11 [12 favorites]


This doesn't make sense to me. What the heck are you going to do in the middle of the night for hours? It's not exactly a great work time and every time I'm up in the middle of the night, either my brain isn't on that much or I wake up so much I can't go back to sleep again. Also, it just makes your "bed" time even effing longer. It's hard enough to try to get 8 hours without really having to shoot for 10 because you're going to be awake in the middle of them for 2-4 more hours.

I get the "hey, it's okay to be a middle of the night insomniac!" thing about this, but can't say I like it IRL when it happens.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:13 PM on January 11 [7 favorites]


If you have any regrets, it is the worst time to be awake.
posted by y2karl at 10:17 PM on January 11 [44 favorites]


Honestly I got better sleep when I read this a while ago, because it turns out my natural sleep pattern is pretty much 4+x+4 where x is awake time and might be three minutes or an hour and a half.

It’s good listening-to-music time. I try to avoid phone. Reading is nice as long as it’s a bit boring. Or just yeah REGRRRRRETTTTTSSS
posted by sixswitch at 10:24 PM on January 11 [9 favorites]


This topic comes up every year or two like clockwork, and, as ever, I think millions of Americans can testify that "two sleeps" is still part of American life.

I can't speak to the rest of the world, but I know for sure the sleep, wake, putter around, sleep again pattern is not particularly unusual in the lower 48 of these United States.

(Not least because these essays appear like clockwork!)
posted by your postings may, in fact, be signed at 10:24 PM on January 11 [26 favorites]


All I know is if I can sleep 5 hours uninterrupted, I'm fine. But if I sleep 7 and it's interrupted for a period (say an hour) - I feel like utter crap.
posted by drewbage1847 at 10:30 PM on January 11 [5 favorites]


Some researchers discover that some people in the past exhibited similar variations in sleep to what modern people do when they're not otherwise constrained by practical needs, and then other people seem to have seriously played this up like we lost some golden age when everyone did this.

No, not everyone did this, probably not even most people. Ideal sleep patterns vary widely, and it sucks that people whose sleep phase is offset (like mine, a bit), or people who are biphasic or multiphasic have trouble fitting in with modern expectations, but I'd love for us to stop giving oxygen to these breathless "discoveries" that we lost some golden era, either in the pre-agricultural utopia (unless your local group decided that you were somehow supernaturally tainted), or this week's "modernity sucks" trending topic, the lost golden age of sleep.
posted by tclark at 10:30 PM on January 11 [47 favorites]


This doesn't make sense to me. What the heck are you going to do in the middle of the night for hours? It's not exactly a great work time and every time I'm up in the middle of the night, either my brain isn't on that much or I wake up so much I can't go back to sleep again.

That's just the point. You don't do that much. The heart of the notion of "biphasic" sleep is that you sleep, you wake, you putter around a bit, and then you sleep again.

As a peasant in the grips of the dreaded "biphasic" sleep pattern, life is not that complicated. Some hours past your normal bedtime, you wake and remain awake for a bit, and then you sleep again. And it is fine. It is not a pathology. It is not a problem. It is just, oh, gee, I am awake in the dark and I putter around with things that require very little light or effort.
posted by your postings may, in fact, be signed at 10:31 PM on January 11 [24 favorites]


I usually wake up for an hour or so sometime between 2 and 3am. I keep trying to internalize these articles about biphasic sleep because all my brain is thinking at the time is that I really need to get back to sleep or im going to be a zombie. I could probably fix some of my concerns by not being up until 11 every night and giving myself a chance to get a full night of rest even with the waking hour, but that never seems to happen for some reason.

That hour is great for any light tasks you have. I’ve done the dishes, paid bills or just taken the quiet time to do some reading. If I could stop treating it as something to fix about myself I could even see embracing it.
posted by mikesch at 10:39 PM on January 11 [15 favorites]


Well, in my case I'm up for hours and usually I don't fall back to sleep. I also think it sucks to have to go to bed "earlier" when you'd actually be able to do something, just to account for being up in the middle of the night. But that's me.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:40 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


From the article: "But when people learn that this may have been entirely normal for millennia, he finds that it lessens their anxiety somewhat."

I don't like harking back to lost golden ages either but I really did find this lessening happening for me just last week when I first read about the 'watch' in Wintering by Katherine May. She says it happened to her, too, after learning about it: "My own mid-night terrors vanish when I turn insomnia into a watch: a claimed, sacred space in which I have nothing to do but contemplate. Here, I am offered a place in-between, like finding a hidden door, the stuff of dreams. Even doormice know how to do it: they wake a while, and tend to business, before surrendering back to sleep. Over and again, we find that winter offers us liminal spaces to inhabit. Yet we still refuse them. The work of the cold season is to learn to welcome them."
posted by happyfrog at 10:44 PM on January 11 [32 favorites]


What the heck are you going to do in the middle of the night for hours?

Fuck.
posted by porpoise at 10:50 PM on January 11 [39 favorites]


I’ve been doing this, and I’m finding that some of the math ability I thought was irretrievably lost to a brain injury is still available in the middle of the night occasionally; it’s weird and edged in somber hues when it happens to reappear, but it’s existence can no longer be denied.
posted by jamjam at 10:50 PM on January 11 [34 favorites]


Some things in the article don't add up.

A lady brews a batch of beer in two hours. Hmmm, probably not? You can't really do this in two hours with all our modern conveniences of compressed gasses, thermometers, etc. Maybe she attended to one step in the brew, that would make some sense. But I don't think I'd want to leave the boil unattended during sleep.

Also they mention people often urinated into the fire. If you've ever actually done this, you know how foul it is. It can fog an entire state park campground and raise the ire of your neighbors (don't ask me how I know). I doubt this was a nightly occurrence.
posted by keep_evolving at 11:07 PM on January 11 [5 favorites]


Baby sleep had become a bit of a hobby of mine. A common goal of many parents (especially those cursed with abysmal leave options) is to get baby to sleep all night. Often babies do this- sleep, wake up and party, then go back to sleep. It's usually a sign the parent is asking too much total sleep in 24 hours and it might be time to stretch "wake windows" (aka wake times) and perhaps drop a nap.

I wonder how much baby making actually happened in the watch since the other children also might have woken?
posted by freethefeet at 11:14 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Medievals probably had at least as many reasons to be anxious as us moderns. They certainly had lots of experience with plagues!

But I'm skeptical that they did anything even semi-productive like read or visit with friends or putter around. In the pitch dark? When a single candle represents hours of manual labor?

Even pooping was probably fraught. My grandmother grew up in a pre-industrial village; when she was a child, someone went to the outhouse in the middle of the night and was eaten by a tiger. One big argument in favor of chamberpots.
posted by basalganglia at 11:19 PM on January 11 [15 favorites]


Canoodle, pray, nurse a baby, check that the fire is banked but not going out, check that there’s a reasonable amount of water in the porridge, listen to make sure the penned or stabled animals are making the right small amount of noise. Tell ghost stories if someone else is up. Appreciate that it’s dark, you can’t do any real work, you get to stay in bed. Pray in case that was sinful sloth. Zzz.
posted by clew at 11:25 PM on January 11 [38 favorites]


The first time I heard about polyphasic sleeping was as something apocryphal about Benjamin Franklin?
It made sense to me as a schoolkid, for Colonial times and previous eras, where you had to keep a fire going all the time.

You throw some logs on and go to bed soon after dark. Several hours later, you shiver awake because they're burned out. You throw some more wood on. But now you're cold and have to pee. Which means putting on boots and going outside. Well that was bracing. Now you're not really sleepy anymore. So you light a candle, and get out the inkwell and pen a letter to your cousin. Or start the bread dough to proof. Catch up on carding wool or sharpen your knives, whatever. After an hour or so, you've warmed up again, and back to bed for the hours until dawn. Then it's up with the sun, more logs for the oven, milk the cow, on with the day.
Therefore I've never seen anything that odd about finding yourself awake and dealing with it by doing a crossword puzzle or folding laundry or whatever for an hour or two, then back to bed. The bad choice for many is to start doing emails or playing videogames, then suddenly you notice birds chirping and it's light out. Aw crap. You forgot to sleep the other half.
posted by bartleby at 11:33 PM on January 11 [23 favorites]


...lie in bed and ponder what it will feel like to die and the fact that *I* will not exist anymore, I will stop thinking, oh wow there's the existential dread.

No? Just me? Personally I'd rather be asleep.
posted by muddgirl at 11:34 PM on January 11 [13 favorites]


I’ve lived someplace with frequent power outages in winter, back when running a generator much would have been considered extravagant (and pretty rude to the neighbors) and checking the fire and maybe the animals was plenty. Because it’s dark and cold and a little scary. Bed’s really nice!

I think I told myself long, extravagantly self indulgent adventure stories, too. And negotiated with the indoors animals if they would sleep with me but not on my face.
posted by clew at 12:02 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


I noticed that this is from an American scholar, and I think I know what's going on here. This guy, like me before I moved to Europe, had no idea how incredibly freaking long European winter nights are. The sun goes down at 4:30pm. You've got 16 hours of darkness a day to contend with, and if you don't have electric light you're just not going to be very productive during any of those hours. Even with electric light, you get tired way early, but the average person's body isn't going to stay asleep for more than 8 of those hours.

So yeah, I can imagine people in Europe going to bed not that long after it gets dark, having 16 hours of darkness, and waking up in the middle of that to do something because you can't physically sleep that long. And I can also image some American reading about this and thinking, "People used to get up and DO stuff in the middle of night! And we just sleep the whole time like dummies!" because Americans value productive work too highly and rest not enough.

Just my opinion as me and my other American immigrant friends all deal with being tired all the time right now because it's so dark all the time and there's no reason to leave the house because nothing but the grocery store and the pharmacy are allowed to be open.
posted by antinomia at 12:16 AM on January 12 [72 favorites]


1) Loving the time stamps on these comments.

2) What the heck are you going to do in the middle of the night for hours? talk; feed your baby; make more babies; eat; carve stuff; clean -- so so much to clean, always; sew; prepare food -- so so much more work than you think; think. Basically, the stuff of life beyond being an animal.
posted by amtho at 12:52 AM on January 12 [16 favorites]


middle of the day when I posted, amtho- timezones are also a thing. :)
posted by freethefeet at 1:08 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


I had heard of time zones -- but still, for me here in GMT+5 land, the times I'm seeing are delightfully evocative.
posted by amtho at 1:11 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


how incredibly freaking long European winter nights are. The sun goes down at 4:30pm. You've got 16 hours of darkness a day

Europe is a pretty big place. So is the USA. It's difficult to make generalizations about them, and in this case your generalization doesn't hold true in many locales. In northern parts of the USA, in midwinter there is close to that 16 hours of darkness you wrote about. In Port Townsend in Washington state where I used to live, for example, sunset is at 4:23 on the longest night of the year, and sunrise is after 8. But in parts of Europe, there is less darkness. In southern Italy, for example, sunset is after 5 PM in midwinter.
posted by Flock of Cynthiabirds at 1:12 AM on January 12 [10 favorites]


This doesn't make sense to me.

Life's rich tapestry.

What the heck are you going to do in the middle of the night for hours?

Turn the cheeses over is the first thing that comes to my mind. Needs to be done every six hours to start with.
posted by pompomtom at 1:13 AM on January 12 [19 favorites]


Of course, if I didn't have a boss, I'd find things to do when I wake in the night, and then sleep a little later (or maybe not - I still wake up in the night under capitalism. Sorry capitalism, I try not to!). The only reason it's a problem is that someone (eventually the bailiff) insists I be somewhere compos mentis at 9am.
posted by pompomtom at 1:20 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


I've yet to read the article, but I recently encountered this concept as "dorvay" (from the French dorveille) in Colson Whitehead's latest, Harlem Shuffle.
One day in October, while impressing the importance of scrupulous vigil over one’s accounts, Simonov recommended that they pick one time every day for bookkeeping and stick to it. “It doesn’t matter when you do it, but get it done.” His father, a textiles merchant back in the old country (Romania? Hungary?), preferred the dorvay, that midnight pasture, for squaring his accounts. “We’ve forgotten now, but until the advent of the lightbulb, it was common to sleep in two shifts,” Simonov said. “The first started soon after dusk, when the day’s labor was done —if there were no lights to see, what was the point of staying up? Then we woke around midnight for a few hours before the second phase of sleep, which lasted through the morning. This was the body’s natural rhythm, before Thomas Edison let us make our own schedule.”

The British called this wakeful interval the watch, Professor Simonov explained, and in France it went by dorvay. You went over your accounts, whatever they may be—reading, praying, lovemaking, attending to pressing work, or overdue leisure. It was a respite from the normal world and its demands, a hollow of private enterprise carved out of lost hours.

Professor Simonov returned to his lecture and his unique pronunciation of receivables. Carney wanted more on the nighttime flights. He spoke up in his classes but not Simonov’s—the old man was too imposing. A trip to the library was fruitless until another librarian overheard Carney pestering the reference desk and suggested the French word was spelled thusly: dorveille, from dormir, to sleep, and veiller, to be awake. Professor Simonov told the truth; the body had kept a different clock in olden times. Medieval scholars chronicled it; Dickens, Homer, and Cervantes made references. Carney hadn’t read Homer or Cervantes, but recalled Great Expectations (humble beginnings) and A Christmas Carol (rueful ghosts) with much fondness. Benjamin Franklin enthused over dorvay in his diaries, using the intermission to walk around the house naked and sketch inventions.

Learned gentlemen aside, Carney knew crime’s hours when he saw them—dorvay was crooked heaven, when the straight world slept and the bent got to work. An arena for thieving and scores, break-ins and hijacks, when the con man polishes the bait and the embezzler cooks the books. In-between things: night and day, rest and duty, the no-good and the up-and-up. Pick up a crowbar, you know the in-between is where all the shit goes down. He upheld the misspelling in his thoughts, in keeping with his loyalty to his mistakes.
posted by Strutter Cane - United Planets Stilt Patrol at 1:46 AM on January 12 [22 favorites]


This comes up on Ask Historians sometimes and most researchers seem a bit skeptical about how common this pattern was.
In 2014, I participated in a symposium titled "History of Sleep in Humans: The Loss of Segmented Sleep" at the annual SLEEP meeting, which involved Ekirch and experimental sleep scientists. The conclusion was that segmented sleep has been observed in modern settings in the real world and in experiments, but it is rare. The evidence for it being our normal mode of sleep in the absence of artificial light is not yet strong.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:21 AM on January 12 [8 favorites]


basalganglia: Medievals probably had at least as many reasons to be anxious as us moderns. They certainly had lots of experience with plagues!

But I'm skeptical that they did anything even semi-productive like read or visit with friends or putter around. In the pitch dark? When a single candle represents hours of manual labor?


If I'm remembering Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error correctly, they'd talk about heresies with travelling heretics they were hiding.

...or they'd sneak over to the (very poorly soundproofed) house of a neighbour who they suspect was hiding a heretic and listen in on them.

It's possible I've got the time of night wrong on that, though. They may have limited it to the evening.
posted by clawsoon at 2:37 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Team have regrets, do the spelling bee puzzle, and feed the cats. Hi!
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 2:47 AM on January 12 [6 favorites]


Surely, if you feed your cats during sleep breaks, the cats will make sure those breaks happen.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:59 AM on January 12 [27 favorites]


(The one with cancer gets meds that boost her appetite so it’s kind of unavoidable, but yes, also self-perpetuating. Sorry for derail.)
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 3:11 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


What the heck are you going to do in the middle of the night for hours?

Oh! I've got this!

Existential Dread... slowly panic about existential dread. Lay miserably in bed trying to ignore it until the bladder activates then get up and pee. Then get up, read CNN and the NYT, maybe do a suduko. Read work emails, plan my day... code something... then put away dishes, put dogs out, feed dogs and cat, make coffee and put out pills for the kids.

At this point, I'm past games or tv shows or dumb youtube videos in the middle of the night. I'll save those for when my brain is in a more functional state.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:05 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Someone commented on time zones and locations here - so I will report that right now, in my own corner of the world, sunrise is usually about 6:45 am, and sunset is at about 5:30. Granted I am living in a major metropolitan area, with all kinds of electric lights and all that jazz, but that's still a long time to be in the dark, and if this were colonial days that would be about 11 hours of darkness, and I'd likely be trying to sleep all that time. Even with all the lights I notice I'm kind of wired into the sun's timing, and I tend to get sleepier sooner this time of year; and still wake up for a few minutes in the middle of the night. I got into the habit of toddling off to the loo and then having a big glass of water, because I figured either one thing or the other was what woke me up, and then I drop back off to sleep pretty easily.

This is probably just a winter thing, too. Around here, the sunrise/sunset timing in summer is more like 5:45 am and 8:30 pm.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:06 AM on January 12


tclark: I'd love for us to stop giving oxygen to these breathless "discoveries" that we lost some golden era

I don't see anything in the article that asserts this. From the article:

However, before Ekirch's research spawns a spin off of the Paleo diet, and people start throwing away their lamps – or worse, artificially splitting their sleep in two with alarm clocks – he's keen to stress that the abandonment of the two-sleep system does not mean the quality of our slumber today is worse.

Despite near-constant headlines about the prevalence of sleep problems, Ekirch has previously argued that, in some ways, the 21st Century is a golden age for sleep – a time when most of us no longer have to worry about being murdered in our beds, freezing to death, or flicking off lice, when we can slumber without pain, the threat of fire, or having strangers snuggled up next to us.

In short, single periods of slumber might not be "natural". And yet, neither are fancy ergonomic mattresses or modern hygiene. "More seriously, there's no going back because conditions have changed," says Ekirch.


basalganglia: But I'm skeptical that they did anything even semi-productive like read or visit with friends or putter around. In the pitch dark? When a single candle represents hours of manual labor?

To my understanding, English peasants in the medieval era rarely used candles anyway – they were, as you note, too expensive. Rushlights (mentioned several times in the article) were more common – they're just dried plant stalks soaked in grease. Any peasant household would have used them routinely. The article even mentions people using the "watch" (the period between sleeps) to prepare rushlights (you have to peel off the outer layer of the stalks).

The article also mentions prayer, going to the toilet, and stoking the fire (which would have provided its own light, and would have been pretty necessary in the colder months). You could also attend to some minor but necessary step in food preparation (which required much more labor and forethought than it does today).

antinomia: "People used to get up and DO stuff in the middle of night! And we just sleep the whole time like dummies!"

I see nothing in the article which suggests that modern monophasic sleep is for dummies. To the contrary, as quoted above, it specifically disclaims this interpretation.

It's entirely possible that the prevalence of biphasic sleep has been overstated. I certainly don't know; I'm far from a medieval scholar. But most of the objections in this thread are addressed in TFA.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:09 AM on January 12 [9 favorites]


(Also: most people in this time and place wouldn't have been able to use the time for reading, because the vast majority of people were illiterate, and books were rare and extraordinarily expensive.)
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:20 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


For those who find this more than passing interesting, I recommend the book cited in TFA -- Ekirch's At Day's Close. It goes into greater detail about all of this, and it's (to my taste) well written in the bargain. See also: Reiss' Wild Nights, though I haven't read it as closely. Have not yet read Nina Edwards' Darkness: A Cultural History, but it's on the long TBR list.
posted by cupcakeninja at 5:04 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


this week's "modernity sucks" trending topic, the lost golden age of sleep.

It's a "modernity sucks" topic because the subtext is "the lost golden age(s) of not having to work 50 - 100 hours a week."

Whether that particular golden age ever really existed and for who may be up for debate, but biphasic/multiphasic sleep isn't really compatible with late stage capitalism. Go to bed early enough to account for those extra awake hours in the middle of the night (assuming this is even possible because you don't have a second or third job or a "side hustle") and you fuck up your "quality of life" time with friends and family and hobbies and just taking care of basic shit like dishes and laundry and helping your kids with their homework; and there's a limit to what you can do between 2 and 3 am without disturbing your household or neighbors (for those of us who live in urban/suburban areas.) And if you wake up in the middle of the night anyway, you're groggy and slow the next day because you couldn't get your full second half in and, hey! Now it's time to have a serious talk with your boss about your poor performance.

TL:DR - you could argue that the giant monster movies of the 50's were a sort of collective expression of our fear of nuclear power, and in the same sense you could view these articles about some golden age of flexible sleep patterns as a collective expression of feeling overworked and underpaid.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:19 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]


I think biphasic sleep makes more sense than a 7 hours asleep 17 hours awake cycle.

Personally experienced this when living alone and unemployed after completing my degree and waiting for my visa to come through.

I was trying to be the first person on the server to hit the level cap in World of Warcraft, which takes roughly 4 days? You can't stay awake for the whole thing, it would be miserable. So basically the moment I felt sleepy or tired, I would just crawl into bed and sleep, no matter what time it was, and I wouldn't set an alarm, so whenever I woke up, I would just start playing again. Plus have meals, do chores, etc.

It was nice never worrying about "going to bed too late" or "waking up too early and not being rested enough" or "I'm desperately trying to sleep now but my mind is too awake but if I don't sleep I won't get enough rest by tomorrow". ... you just slept when your body told you to sleep, and woke when your body tells you to wake. It's a kind of utopia. And yeah the biphasic pattern - two blocks of 3-4 hours per day - that's what seemed to naturally happen.

Of course, it only works if you're single and don't mind being literally out of sync with the rest of the world.
posted by xdvesper at 5:24 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


Thanks for the book recommendations, cupcakeninja!

For the inverse of those, perhaps, I recommend Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century. (I might've learned about it here on MetaFilter.) It's a little pricey, but it's short and readable, and an absolutely fascinating glimpse into the way that lighting technologies have changed culture over the decades. It really helps to make the texture of daily life in different eras more tangible.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 5:37 AM on January 12 [4 favorites]


I also am tired of hearing about the era of two sleeps. But maybe I'm just tired because 2 sleeps would be great, I'm more likely to get 4 or 5. In any case, of course you could get 2 sleeps, no alarm clocks, no time punch, no 9 to 5. What's an hours difference in wake time when nobody is keeping track. I love refrigerators and plumbing but there are some things modernity has truly fucked for everyone
posted by dis_integration at 5:39 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


When I was in college, my roommate took some class that discussed this and he decided he would adopt the practice. I learned that if your roommate becomes a biphasic sleeper, you will also become a biphasic sleeper. Thankfully he got bored of that quickly.

In a setting where you aren't tied to the clock, it actually makes sense to me, maybe coupled with a midday nap as well. But when you have work or class starting at the same time in the morning and other commitments, changing around the whole sleep schedule is more fraught.

However, these days I frequently just plain wake up in the middle of the night; if I didn't have work or other obligations in the day, I could see just embracing it (rather than fighting it) and sleeping in several pieces every day.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:56 AM on January 12


Jenfullmoon:

What the heck are you going to do in the middle of the night for hours?

Plot! Literally, I'll lie there and think about whatever novel I'm writing and unknot some story issues. It's useful. And if I'm not doing that I'll do reading on my phone until I'm sleepy again.

Like a fair number of people the knowledge of "two sleeps" made waking up at 3am (or, more accurately, being woken up at 3am by a cat) slightly less stressful because I no longer beat myself up if I can't get right back to sleep; I'll just read or plot until I get tired again. That said, I recognize that since I work for myself, I don't actually have to wake up at any particular time most days, so going back to sleep at, like, six am is not actually a problem for me. Someone who has a real job may not have that luxury.
posted by jscalzi at 7:01 AM on January 12 [11 favorites]


I'd love for us to stop giving oxygen to these breathless "discoveries" that we lost some golden era, either in the pre-agricultural utopia (unless your local group decided that you were somehow supernaturally tainted), or this week's "modernity sucks" trending topic, the lost golden age of sleep.

My favorite part is how every time this comes up (previously, previously, previously), two things happen: 1) people immediately start complaining about pressure on their sleep schedules from their work, family, and social obligations, and other ways that "modernity sucks" going way beyond Ekirch's claim that changes thereto were solely and mechanistically caused by the invention of electric lighting, while 2) taking Ekrich at his word that this subject is somehow better approached by historical analysis of Western literature than by actually studying some of the half a billion people or so who lead lives still largely uninfluenced by same.

At least the current article links a study someone did on, like, 20 people in Madagascar. So that's, y'know, something.
posted by 7segment at 7:07 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]


What the heck are you going to do in the middle of the night for hours?

Reading, checking to see which HF bands are open, or arguing with the cat that It Is Neither Morning Nor Time To Eat.
posted by jquinby at 7:28 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


The only time I've been productive in the middle of a sleep is if I wake up and realize I forgot to take the trash to the curb, which I then do with much cursing. And go back to sleep if I can.
posted by emjaybee at 7:42 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


There would be many downsides to sleeping in a bed full of people, but it sure would be nice if those hours could be spent chatting with your bedmates instead of pondering your aged care options with a heart full of doom.
posted by HotToddy at 7:59 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


7segment, thanks for that! It links through to my 2011 comment which was a bit more strongly worded.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:01 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


I also recommend At Day's Close. I was a bit skeptical before reading it, but there's a ton of good research to back it up.

Also, it's about all the stuff that went on at night in pre-industrial societies - the watch, reading, working and so on. The chapter on sleep patterns is only one part of it. A fun bit was that it was more or less ok to turn over and go back to sleep if you heard your neighbor being robbed or murdered, but if someone yells "fire" you'd better be dressed and out there to help immediately.
posted by YoungStencil at 8:03 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


When this has come up in the past, some of the interesting ideas I remember tossed about were that this pattern made more since in high latitudes, where nights were long in winter. If it's dark for 12 hours, and you only need 8 hours of sleep, you will have trouble sleeping through the night. It wouldn't happen in the tropics. Also, the cost of lighting, rushes, candles, lamp oil would make a big difference in what activities you'd partake in.
posted by Bee'sWing at 8:07 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Also they mention people often urinated into the fire.

I remember reading in Civilization and its Discontents that all men have an irresistible urge to pee into the fire and thinking that in all the many opportunities to do so that this never once occurred to me. But I did learn the word “micturate” so there’s that.
posted by sjswitzer at 9:13 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


I've been told that among European colonists in America in the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn't uncommon for people to make social calls on their neighbors in the middle of the night in between sleeps.
posted by biogeo at 9:15 AM on January 12


It’s really bad faith misreading to consider this idea a secret advocacy for more work. They describe the time between the two sleeps as a time for conversation with bed partners, sex, prayer, contemplation of dreams. Not simply work. Ek itch has been publishing the historical phenomenon of biphasic sleep since at least January 2001, this is not trendy workaholic grind clickbait.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:23 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Also they mention people often urinated into the fire. If you've ever actually done this, you know how foul it is. It can fog an entire state park campground and raise the ire of your neighbors (don't ask me how I know).

Yea, this is something that someone does, or encounters, once - because that's enough. But that's a modern-day perspective and maybe they were doing it to keep the tigers away from the outhouse?
posted by achrise at 9:59 AM on January 12


In Lawrence Block's Tanner series, the title character didn't sleep at all (due to a brain injury) and used the extra time to start a revolution in Macedonia, prevent the kidnapping of the Queen of England, smuggle a dozen Latvian gymnasts out from behind the Iron Curtain... just some suggestions if you find yourself with time on your hands.
posted by Naberius at 10:15 AM on January 12 [6 favorites]


I am thinking of my dad, dozing off in his recliner every night from eight to ten, then going upstairs to his bed to sleep from eleven-ish until a little before five. He would steadfastly deny that he has a biphasic sleep pattern. (After he snores himself awake, the first thing he says is, “I wasn’t asleep.”)

I am thinking about how the only way I can avoid a similar nap, which always seems to overtake me when I have other goals for the evening, is by judiciously consuming stimulants which were unavailable in medieval England.

I am thinking about the role of England’s insatiable appetites for tea and tobacco in upending world history beginning in the 1600s.

I am thinking of the widespread phenomenon of the siesta, which is bizarrely absent from this entire discussion. Perhaps biphasic sleep is less interesting if one of the phases is in the middle of the day?

I am thinking this is a neat article, but by no means the end of the story.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:18 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]


of course you could get 2 sleeps, no alarm clocks, no time punch, no 9 to 5

Roosters, church bells/prayer calls, the deeply miserable sound of animals that need milking pronto, the clattering of the person who got up to get the water-fire-food-weaving started for the day. Your neighbors going out to mow or fish while the weather makes it possible, rattling under your window because if you don’t do yours you’ll be in trouble soon. In cities, the noise when the gates open and carts come in for market and leave with nightsoil (and way more bells or muezzins! )

People sometimes write about the curtailed pre-industrial work calendar, but they have to leave out a lot of subsistence work.
posted by clew at 10:23 AM on January 12 [7 favorites]


The siesta is a great example because it fills in the long days! In high latitudes, we have references to the ploughmen and reapers napping in the summer field after lunch. They were hot, and you can’t run muscle power full strength all day, and they needed a nap.

Back in the compiler era of software we used to sleep in the office during the build-test cycles. There’s a motive for coding well, longer naps.
posted by clew at 10:30 AM on January 12 [8 favorites]


This is me (and drives Mrs. Fluffy nuts). But I will wake up about 1:00 a.m., get some work done and fall back asleep at 4:00. Again waking at 7:00. That second sleep is hard, and I don't get that deep level of sleep if I just sleep straight through the night. This has been life-long event for me, not recent.

I would love to hear from other two-timers if they nap - generally I don't and find it hard to do during the day. But this two sleep business - I'm in!

Glad to know it's others as well. Time to re-read 'The Canterbury Tales'.
posted by fluffycreature at 10:34 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


A lady brews a batch of beer in two hours.
Beer in this case basically being wet bread.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:43 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]


The Wikipedia entry for biphasic and polyphasic sleep has some interesting links in the "See also" section:

Tahajjud is the custom, practiced by some Muslims, of rising during the night for prayer.

Tikkun Chatzot is a similar custom practiced by some Jews.

Of course, that's a long way from demonstrating that biphasic sleep is the norm in pre-industrial cultures. But it does show that it's not entirely unknown.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 10:43 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]


Before I had kids, I always had a nice 30 to 60 minute nap when I came home from school or work. I try to have a short snooze sometime after dinner when I can get away with it . . . usually by "watching" a show with my kids. But then I rarely go to bed until after midnight and pretty well always sleep in one big block. I come from a long line of night owls, going back to at least my great-grandparents, and am the earliest-to-bed, earliest-to-rise of the lot of them.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:52 AM on January 12


If I wake up at night it is because the cat is being an asshole again (as cats so often do), or because I have to pee. Either way, the situation is quickly resolved and I go right the hell back to bed because it's flippin' cold out and that down comforter is calling
posted by caution live frogs at 10:55 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]


The British called this wakeful interval the watch

Dungeons and Dragons has taught me that it's important for at least a couple of characters to practice biphasic sleep so that at all times someone in the party is on the lookout for goblins during the night. That or bring an elf.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:02 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]


btw the way the recent Robert Harris novel "The Second Sleep" was good. Let's just say that it is, initially, a historical novel set in the Middle Ages, and cease there for fear of spoilers.
posted by thelonius at 11:24 AM on January 12


And how did the habit disappear?”

Sleep? We work too much. That's why we don't sleep and eat too much.
posted by eustatic at 11:33 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


For my fellow 3-AM-lie-awake-and-think-of-doom folks, some time ago I read in a comment on an AskMeFi on this very site that you wake up because of a spike of cortisol countering a blood sugar crash, and then the cortisol hangs around making you anxious and contemplating DOOM because there's nothing else to be anxious about. And that the way to counter that was to eat a bit of protein before bed.

I have no idea how true that is, but holy frijoles has it worked for me, I wake up but no longer have that DOOM DOOM DOOM thing going on and I encourage others to try.
posted by telophase at 11:45 AM on January 12 [9 favorites]


I am always awake for a little bit of time between 2-3am. Learning about this biphasic sleep thing TOTALLY helped me not stress about it, and in essence cured my issue with insomnia. These days, I get up and pee, and then set my phone to play either a 30 minute old time radio detective episode, 30 minutes from a boring audio book, or a Calm sleep story. I do sleep solo, however, so I can't bother anyone.
posted by RedEmma at 12:18 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


I do this often. I'll do the dishes/light cleaning/fold laundry/prep the kids' lunches while listening to books or podcasts. House is nice a quiet and its excellent "me" time. I think I can only do it because I often pass out with the kids doing their bedtime (~9 pm-ish) and then wake up around 1-2 a.m. for an hour or two. Works pretty well for me.
posted by AwkwardPause at 12:35 PM on January 12 [4 favorites]


I do this! I frequently read for a little bit.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 12:48 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


This guy, like me before I moved to Europe, had no idea how incredibly freaking long European winter nights are.
Yeah, and some recent research (more details here) suggests that humans living closer to the equator naturally tend to sleep in one continuous block of about 7 hours, and segmented sleep developed only after humans migrated to places like Europe where winter nights are much longer.
posted by mbrubeck at 12:53 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]


I do sleep solo, however, so I can't bother anyone.

My sweetie and I are converts to sleep headphones, which are exactly for murmuring in your ears without bothering the next pillow over. Plus, in summer, the band-of-fabric kind are also eye masks and keep the light from waking us up at 4AM.

Europe vs the US: I wouldn't use the Salish Sea shed as disproof of USian low latitudinarianism. We aren't just north of most of the population of the US, we're north of most of the population of Canada and most of the population of Maine. I've been looking for a map of population distribution by latitude comparing the US and EU only, but only found these global ones showing how much of the world population is within 25deg of the equator. You can see that Europe is more densely populated at Seattle's latitude and north thereof; Seattle is a trifle south of Paris.

(Also a cool map/animation of solar intensity.)

tl;dr most people live close enough to the equator to have smaller insolation swings than seem to segment sleep.
posted by clew at 1:18 PM on January 12 [3 favorites]


What the heck are you going to do in the middle of the night for hours?

Fuck.


In your dreams, amirite?
posted by y2karl at 1:20 PM on January 12


I started doing this when my kids were small. I would fall asleep at 8PM, while putting them to bed. Then wake at almost exactly 1AM and be awake till 3 or sometimes 4, sleep, and then get up for the day at 7. Nighttime was wonderful me-time. I loved it. I would putter around, read and write and think, not a worry. I think it was more of a winter thing. Thanks for reminding me, maybe I should go back to that rhythm.
I also love afternoon naps. I feel there is a special sort of sleep for that, with its own smell, body feeling and dreams. Best if you can do it outdoors when it is still cold enough to put on a big eiderdown. I haven't done that for a long while, but I love it. One famous professor had a cot built for that purpose. It was like a huge pram on legs rather than wheels, with a comfortable mattress, and she could sleep in it all year.
posted by mumimor at 1:42 PM on January 12


As a boy, around age 10, I was in the habit of waking around 3am, and sneaking out to go for walks. An activity I honestly miss. But for me, that was about being out when no one was around to tell me what I could or could not do. FREEDOM! What a thrill that was.
posted by Goofyy at 2:07 PM on January 12 [6 favorites]


I am a two sleeper! I have done it naturally since I was a little kid and it helps me a LOT from a mood perspective. I do relaxation exercises between the two sleeps, or clean, or find ways to gently organize my thoughts so that when I next wake up I am ready for my day and don't spend my night dreaming fitfully.
posted by The Adventure Begins at 2:57 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


I seem to remember reading that medieval Japanese royalty was fond of long nights of poetry competitions and other nocturnal communal pursuits, then sleeping in the early part of the daylight hours.

Anyhow, I'm a serial sleeper. I like the midnight hours for writing, playing the guitar, or watching the New Mexico sky do its magic. Now that Orion is moving on, Scorpio and the Big Bear work like winter clocks; they remind me that, although I belong here, I needn't be too proud about it.
posted by mule98J at 3:02 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Now that Orion is moving on

I always miss him when he goes.
posted by jgirl at 3:38 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


In Knut Hanson’s 1927 Wayfarers he mentions prominently that they are walking about in the dark of night, passing strangers along the way, as if that were normal, several times in the book. Not sure what time that was in Winter, but it seems to me being up in dark time was just living.
posted by waving at 3:38 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]


Hasn't this been disproven? Like, it wasn't that it didn't exist but it wasn't widespread or common like a lot of these articles make it out to be? IIRC, when I read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, he debunked the commonality of this pretty clearly.
posted by Kitteh at 5:40 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


For those of you who get the Existential Dreads on the night watch, I recommend occupying your mind by translating song lyrics into Spanish.
posted by bartleby at 7:40 PM on January 12


I did this once when I had a series of maintenance windows lined up for a whole month. Get home around 6, bed around 8, up at midnight for an hour of maintenance and an hour of wind-down, then back to bed until I felt like getting up. Annoying, but it worked. I actually tried it due to having read that a number of nomadic and uncivilized (as in not having cities) peoples do the two-sleep thing, which at the time intrigued the anthropologists enough that they had taken notice.
posted by Blackanvil at 10:46 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


*Knut Hamsun
**autocorrect :(
posted by waving at 6:02 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]


putter around

What is this, specifically? Like pacing your room in the dark, or...?
posted by ryanrs at 8:25 AM on January 13


straightening up, arranging your trash cans by alphabetical order of the store they were bought from, that sort of thing
posted by thelonius at 8:39 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]


> putter around

What is this, specifically? Like pacing your room in the dark, or...?


Doing really simple little mindless fiddly stuff - could be productive things like "lemme move my shoes back into the closet" or "lemme put those last two pairs of socks from the clean laundry basket back in my sock drawer" or "that book on my shelf has been leaning over at a weird angle, lemme straighten it up", or it could be non-productive stuff like "lemme play with my fidget spinner" or "lemme see if I can still do that thing where you balance a quarter on your elbow, then flip it off and catch it in midair".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:33 AM on January 13 [2 favorites]


*Knut Hamsun
**autocorrect :(


**autocorrect: the enemany of us all
posted by y2karl at 11:37 AM on January 13


> putter around

What is this, specifically? Like pacing your room in the dark, or...?


Water my plants. Definitely order the shoes in the hallway. Order the books so their spines are aligned with the front of the shelves (which is how it should always be, in case you are in doubt). Maybe wash up the two dishes that are left from dinner because I didn't know if someone would be hungry later. Decide wether to keep yesterday's newspaper for extra scrutiny or put it in the recycling pile. Maybe have a cup of herbal tea. Look out the window for a while. Absolutely nothing noisy that could wake up the kids and change this from me-time to we-time.
posted by mumimor at 1:21 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


> What is this, specifically? Like pacing your room in the dark, or...?

Baking some coffee cake for breakfast. Reorganizing the pantry. Scouring sinks and stovetops. Compiling a menu and shopping list for dinner in 16 hours...
posted by mikelieman at 4:49 PM on January 13


Plot! Literally, I'll lie there and think about whatever novel I'm writing and unknot some story issues. It's useful. And if I'm not doing that I'll do reading on my phone until I'm sleepy again.

I find the liminal state between sleep and waking to be's among my most fruitful and creative "writing" time. It's lovely. I'm a personal essayist, though, so not plotting so much as fooling around with words and ideas.
posted by Well I never at 4:21 AM on January 14


Interesting. I'm definitely struggling with how to avoid making my natural sleep pattern (3-4 hours twice a day) not annoy my spouse.

I'm not sure it's entirely forgotten, though. I've never been to Iran, but I've been told by a few people that randomly being awake and interacting with others for a few hours in the middle of the night is entirely normal. Not 'cause they don't have electric lights and clocks. I'm generalizing from very few data points, but the idea of whole families just being okay with that is pretty interesting. I also find the Argentine big-city habit of taking a nap mid-day and then having dinner at midnight pretty appealing.
posted by eotvos at 9:12 AM on January 14


I also find the Argentine big-city habit of taking a nap mid-day and then having dinner at midnight pretty appealing.

They do this in Spain, too. Maybe other places in the Spanish-speaking world?
posted by mumimor at 9:54 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Now I'm wondering about the correlation between climates and colonization and diaspora patterns, and when they don't correlate, how the cultural influence that matched the old country climate lasts (or doesn't) under the effect of the new country climate.

Plus language or business links -- if a lot of your city's business is with cities that take a siesta, or take August off, etc., there will be a bunch of matching pauses in your city, which should reinforce siesta or August breaks in your city. You can even feel this in the daily rhythm around US West Coast businesses that deal with the US East Coast (NYSE, DC) vs the Eurasian East Coast (Japanese stock market, Asian manufacturers).

Or anyway you could when people went into the office together.
posted by clew at 2:06 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


(me): I am thinking of my dad, dozing off in his recliner every night from eight to ten, … He would steadfastly deny that he has a biphasic sleep pattern.
Last night I was at my parents’ house during this time interval. Dad wasn’t properly asleep, because the rest of us were actually being interesting, but at about 10:15 he got out of his chair and announced he was going to bed. That reminded me to describe this article to him. I got as far as the premise, and he surprised me by saying, “That’s me! I’m a biphasic sleeper!” (Followed, unsurprisingly, by “Good night!”)
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 3:50 PM on January 19


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