In the Wee Small Hours

In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper about biphasic sleep. The product of 16 years of study, Ekirch’s research uncovered a wealth of historical evidence showing humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks. Stephanie Hegarty wrote all about it in an article from 2012.

It may not surprise Mad Christians who’ve been following Rev. Fisk’s fascination with time and circadian rhythms, that records, books and literature from pre-industrial times indicate that a normal night consisted of a “first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.” So what was everyone doing in the dark? “During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbors. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.” Doesn’t sound so bad!

Sleeping in “watches” seems to have been the norm for a lot of human history. As late as the 17th century, staying out at night was the wont of “people of disrepute – criminals, prostitutes and drunks… Even the wealthy, who could afford candlelight, had better things to spend their money on. There was no prestige or social value associated with staying up all night.” Hegarty writes that a change began to occur during the Reformation, when persecuted Christians would hold secret services at night. The trend to be awake during the hours of darkness began to catch on.

With the advent of street lighting, however, socializing at night began to filter down through the classes. Paris was the first city to get lit, using candles, oil and eventually, literal gaslighting (see what we did there?) A piece for Tedium concurs: “It began, as it always does, with the aristocracy. Robbed of the only cue they had to go to bed—the setting of the sun and the fading of the light—these raucous revelers stayed up later and later into the night, setting a trend which percolated to the lower rungs of society as lighting became more commonplace.”

Being out at night “became fashionable and spending hours lying in bed was considered a waste of time.” Interestingly, Ekirch notes: “People were becoming increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency, certainly before the 19th Century, but the industrial revolution intensified that attitude by leaps and bounds.” As late as 1829, medical journals urged parents to train their children to sleep their 8-hours per night. Towards the end of the 19th century, references to segmented sleep seem to disappear altogether.

It is strangely apt that Thomas Edison, who invented the lightbulb, thought sleep was a waste of time. He claimed he only needed three or four hours of sleep per night (though he was a notorious napper) and said humanity would eventually grow out of its need to sleep.

Not everyone is convinced that this type of segmented sleep is the best. Berkley sleep expert, Matthew Walker, thinks that the two phases you need are some at night and a good siesta in the afternoon. (These famous nap-takers would agree.)

So when you’re lying awake in the middle of the night, perhaps it’s not time to hit the panic button. Maybe you could pull out your Psalms, say the Creeds or even do some rewiring around the house. (Make sure you’re really awake before you attempt that though!) That would be an interesting way to reject Modernity!