Will Medieval Sleeping Habits End Your Insomnia?

By Derek Thompson

I was researching my nocturnal issues when I discovered a cottage industry of writers and sleep hackers who claim that sleep is a nightmare because of the industrial revolution, of all things. Essays in The Guardian, CNN, The New York Times, and The New York Times Magazine recommended an old fix for restlessness called “segmented sleep.” In premodern Europe, and perhaps centuries earlier, people routinely went to sleep around nightfall and woke up around midnight—only to go back to sleep a few hours later, until morning. They slept sort of like I do, but they were Zen about it. Then, the hackers claim, modernity came along and ruined everything by pressuring everybody to sleep in one big chunk.

The romanticization of preindustrial sleep fascinated me…I reached out to Roger Ekirch, the historian whose work broke open the field of segmented sleep more than 20 years ago…

When sleep was divided into a two-act play, people were creative with how they spent the intermission. They didn’t have anxious conversations with imaginary doctors; they actually did something. During this dorveille, or “wake-sleep,” people got up to pee, hung out by the fire, had sex, or prayed. They reflected on their dreams and commingled with the spiritual realm, both the divine and the diabolical. In the 1540s, Martin Luther wrote of his strategies to ward off the devil: “Almost every night when I wake up … I instantly chase him away with a fart.”

Today’s sleep writers often wield Ekirch’s research to suggest that segmented sleep (or, as Ekirch calls it, biphasic—two-phase—sleep) is old, and one-sleep is new, and therefore today’s sleepers are doing it wrong. But that’s not the full story, he told me…

Preindustrial sleep was nothing to romanticize. Death stalked our slumber for centuries. Late-night crime was rampant, and the home itself was a death trap, as slapdash construction left houses vulnerable to fire, leaking roofs, terrible heat or cold, and what Ekirch calls “the trifecta of early modern entomology: fleas, lice, and bedbugs.” As for that romantic French dorveille, it was functionally a second workday for many women, who rose at midnight to finish domestic chores. And ancient soporifics—such as poisonous leaves and various opiate concoctions—were roughly as likely to kill you as they were to induce REM.

Earlier years in my life, this would have prompted experimentation on my part. Especially when unwed and not bothering anyone else while screwing around radically with sleep patterns. Living together as retirees has already introduced a few qualitative adjustments to maintain more or less smooth sailing. I doubt we could accomplish something positive from attempting to wrench our placid and mutually-guided household into a science experiment.

But, read on into the experience of Mr. Thompson. His conclusions, albeit brief, are positive and may be useful to your own regimen.