Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ancient Authors Teach Us About First and Second Sleep

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Today's post doesn't have anything to do with the craft of writing. It has to do with history and how the writing of history can teach people about the past. Even when forgotten for years, something you write today could be found in the future, shared with the world, and reveal something that had been lost.

I find that fascinating.

As people have been reading Darkness Reigns, I’ve received a few questions about something in the story I called first and second sleep. I thought it would be a fun topic to discuss with you guys.

What is Segmented Sleep?
The idea of segmented sleep came from some of my research on the medieval era. It has been somewhat recently discovered by historians that in ancient times, long before the invention of electricity, people took two periods of sleep each night, separated by a short period of wakefulness. They would go to bed at dark for several hours, wake for an hour or two, then go back to sleep again. Many historians believe this is the natural way humans would sleep if it were not for the distractions of the modern world. Dickens spoke of first sleep in chapter 81 of his novel Barnaby Rudge:

“Such conditions of the mind as that to which he was a prey when he lay down to rest, are favourable to the growth of disordered fancies, and uneasy visions. He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first sleep, and threw up the window to dispel it by the presence of some object, beyond the room, which had not been, as it were, the witness of his dream.”

First and second sleeps were mentioned in hundreds of historical writings, including: Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Homer's Odyssey, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And when authors such as these referenced first or second sleep, it was with the implication that the reader knew all about such things already and didn't need to have it explained. After all, when the sun set, one couldn’t see to plow fields or do any other outdoor work. Nothing to do then but rest and wait for the sun to come up again.

Historian A. Roger Ekirch wrote an entire book on the subject. At Day's Close: Night in Times Past is filled with fascinating information about what went on in ancient times during those nocturnal hours when humanity was forced to endure near total darkness.

Here is a little more about this book:

Bringing light to the shadows of history through a "rich weave of citation and archival evidence" (Publishers Weekly), scholar A. Roger Ekirch illuminates the aspects of life most often overlooked by other historians―those that unfold at night. In this "triumph of social history" (Mail on Sunday), Ekirch's "enthralling anthropology" (Harper's) exposes the nightlife that spawned a distinct culture and a refuge from daily life.

Fear of crime, of fire, and of the supernatural; the importance of moonlight; the increased incidence of sickness and death at night; evening gatherings to spin wool and stories; masqued balls; inns, taverns, and brothels; the strategies of thieves, assassins, and conspirators; the protective uses of incantations, meditations, and prayers; the nature of our predecessors' sleep and dreams―Ekirch reveals all these and more in his "monumental study" (The Nation) of sociocultural history, "maintaining throughout an infectious sense of wonder" (Booklist).

I so loved this idea of segmented sleep that I decided to make it part of my storyworld in Darkness Reigns. In my Five Realms, however, people tend to take first sleep for about two hours, wake for a formal dinner that lasts anywhere from two-four hours, then return to bed for another six hours or so.

What did people do when they woke up?
Historically speaking, what one did between the first and second sleep depended on who one was. Many simply relaxed and reflected on life. Some prayed. Those who woke from first sleep and recalled their dreams might have contemplated possible interpretations or meanings. Some would read. Some wrote letters or journaled. Those with bedfellows might have had long talks or made love—the perfect time for such activity if their children had shared the same room—since it is believed that children did not wake during this time... unless the couple had an infant, who likely took a feeding at this time. Some people got up to check the fire, go to the bathroom, smoke a pipe, or grab a snack. Some left the house and even visited neighbors.

Why did it end?
There are many theories as to what changed sleep forever. Some blame the invention of electricity, which allowed people to stay up later. Some blame the Industrial Revolution, in which people slept hard for eight hours after working a sixteen-hour shift. Most historians believe the practice came to an end long before then. As street lamps became more popular in large cities like Paris and London, the better lighting allowed establishments to remain open late into the night. People went out in groups to play games and socialize. Some attended church services and others joined secret societies. Night life began to flourish and people no longer went to bed so early.

Back to our roots?
Many retired people have said that as they got older and no longer needed to get up for work in the morning, their sleep patterns have changed, naturally morphing into a two-sleep pattern divided by a period of wakefulness at night. Some worry they are suffering from insomnia and take pills to help them get that eight hours of sleep that modern society deems necessary. Others embrace the quiet time in the dark of night, seeming to understand that there is something natural and calming about those hours. Perhaps that is how humans were created to sleep.

So, the next time you can’t sleep, take time to think. Maybe your body is trying to tell you to embrace the quiet night and try out a new—err, very old—sleep regimen.
Thoughts on this? Or about the fact that such a practice had been all but lost until historians found writings that had brought the truth out into the open? Wouldn't it be great if you wrote something that hundreds of years from now shed light on our culture for the people of the future? Words are powerful, aren't they? Share in the comments.
Also, in case you didn't know, Darkness Reigns is free in all ebook formats. So if you haven't grabbed it yet, check it out by clicking here.


  1. That is so cool! I love researching for my writing and discovering things I've never heard of before. Thanks for sharing your research, Mrs. Williamson!

  2. This is fascinating. I may have to start using this in my stories . . .

    1. Isn't it, though? I grew up without electricity, and I would occasionally read at night to an oil lamp, and it isn't really very bright.

  3. That is really cool! Thanks for sharing that with us. I'm definitely going to consider some more research about that for my books.

    1. You're welcome, Lily. It is pretty fascinating. :-)

  4. What a fascinating idea! At Day's Close looks like a really interesting read; I think I'll have to check it out!

  5. This is so cool, thank you for sharing! I'm going to have to read At Day's Close now :)

    1. You're welcome, Kate. I hope you enjoy it. :-)

  6. Wow I just heard about this a couple days ago!!!!!

    1. Ooh, sounds like you need to give it a try. LOL

  7. This is so cool! I had no idea that was the way humans used to sleep. Wow. History is fantastic! :D


  8. Just downloaded your book! I'm looking forward to reading it :D