Museum News

Two Sleeps

By 24 October 2023No Comments
Two sleeps

Did you know that our ancestors once had ‘two sleeps’ each day? Also known as biphasic sleep, the ritual of ‘two sleeps’ wasn’t discovered until the early 1990s, when historian Roger Ekirch found a mention of ‘first sleep’ in a historic court deposition. Further research uncovered a range of historical references to split sleep and the way our ancestors used to rest.

Ekirch discovered that prior to the Industrial Revolution, throughout Europe people used to sleep in two sections – ‘first sleep’ and ‘morning sleep’. The ‘first sleep’, which lasted a couple of hours, typically began before 10pm, and was followed by a period of wakefulness of around two hours.

This wakeful time was called ‘the watch’, which was used for a wide range of activities that varied significantly depending on social standing, such as quiet prayer, house chores, work or socialising.

However, ‘the watch’ was not only a time for good. Criminals also used this opportunity to make trouble with several accounts found referring to murders and unsavoury deeds taking place during this short window of time.

At around 2:00am people returned to bed for the second part of their night-time rest, known as ‘morning sleep’. This was a longer stint of sleep which continued until dawn or later.

The reason for abandoning this pattern of sleep has been pinned on the Industrial Revolution and shifts in behaviour, including the move to clock-time. Around this time artificial light became more common, starting with gas light and then the introduction of electric light at the end of the century. This allowed people to stay up later and started to compress their sleep into a longer ‘first sleep’ and shorter ‘morning sleep’.

By the end of the 20th Century, our biology had been altered, the two sleeps had consolidated, and this nocturnal pattern had disappeared.

Visit us to find out more about how our rural ancestors used to live, with special weekends taking place that focus on topics such as preparing for the winter months, heritage crafts and more.