Sleep has been challenging to people ever since we were people. The night was full of dangers that made a good night’s sleep difficult and dangerous. While modern life has sleeping tips and tricks that are unique to our day, including the very podcast that is attached to this blog, people in ancient and early modern history had their own. Some of which may be useful today. We have the highlight below, but be sure to click through to the story for more info, some fun, some useful. 🙂
“Everyone wants to get a good night’s sleep – and people in the past were no different. So how did our forebears tackle sleep deprivation and insomnia? As Sasha Handley reveals, their sleep routines included eating lettuce soup, placing cow dung at the end of their beds, and hanging wolves’ teeth around their necks to ward off the devil…
1. 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”.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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”.
6. 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.”
While some of these methods may seem strange to today’s sensibilities, many may work for you. Try them out and let me know!
Let me help you keep your routine with my Podcast, Sleepy Times Tales. This will help engage your mind in a positive way and create a suitable mindset to relax for a good night’s sleep.
While a mix of poppy seeds and wine sounds like a good way to get a good night’s sleep, maybe a more modern sleep aid will be easier and maybe more useful.