Most of us have never heard of “Biphasic Sleep”, let alone heard of “First Sleep” or “Second Sleep”. However, they seem to have been normal activities for many hundreds of years across many countries and cultures.
In the early 1990s, the historian Roger Ekirch walked through the arched entranceway to the Public Record Office in London – an imposing gothic building that housed the UK’s National Archives from 1838 until 2003. There, among the endless rows of ancient vellum papers and manuscripts, he found one document that struck him as odd.
Ekirch had been researching a book about the history of night-time, and, at the time, he had been looking through records that spanned the era between the early Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution. He was dreading writing the chapter on sleep, thinking that it was not only a universal necessity – but a biological constant. He was sceptical that he’d find anything new. But as he read through this one manuscript, two words seemed to carry an echo of a particularly tantalising detail of life in the 17th Century, which he had never encountered before. That detail was called “first sleep”.
A first sleep implies a second sleep, or a night divided into two parts. Was this just a familial quirk, he wondered, or something more profound?
Over the following months, Ekirch scoured the archives, and found many more references to this mysterious phenomenon of double sleeping, or “biphasic sleep” as he later called it.
Some were fairly banal, but others were darker, such as that of Luke Atkinson of the East Riding of Yorkshire. Luke managed to squeeze in an early morning murder between his sleeps one night and, according to his wife, often used the time to frequent other people’s houses for sinister deeds.
When Ekirch expanded his search to include online databases, it soon became clear the phenomenon was more widespread and normal than he had ever imagined.
For a start, first sleeps are mentioned in one of the most famous works of medieval literature, Geoffrey Chaucer’s, The Canterbury Tales, which was written between 1387 and 1400. The concept is also included in the poet William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1561) – a satirical book considered by some to be the first-ever novel.
But that’s just the beginning. Ekirch found casual references to the system of twice-sleeping in every conceivable form, within hundreds of letters, diaries, medical textbooks, philosophical writings, newspaper articles and plays. The practice even made it into ballads, such as “Old Robin of Portingale. “…And at the wakening of your first sleepe, You shall have a hot drink made, And at the wakening of your next sleepe, Your sorrows will have a slake…”
Biphasic sleep was not unique to England, either – it was widely practised throughout the pre-industrial world. In France, the initial sleep was the “premier somme“; in Italy, it was “primo sonno“. In fact, Eckirch found evidence of the habit in locations as distant as Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Australia, South America and the Middle East. One account from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1555 described how the Tupinambá people would eat dinner after their first sleep, while another – from 19th Century Muscat, Oman – explained that the local people would retire for their first sleep before 22:00.
The earliest record Ekirch found, was from the 8th Century BC, in the Greek epic, The Odyssey, while the last hints of its existence dated to the early 20th Century, before it somehow slipped into oblivion.
How did it work? Why did people do it? And how could something that was once so completely normal, have been forgotten so completely?
In the 17th Century, a night of sleep went something like this; From as early as 21:00 to 23:00, those fortunate enough to afford them would begin flopping onto mattresses stuffed with straw or rags – alternatively it might have contained feathers, if they were wealthy – ready to sleep for a couple of hours. (At the bottom of the social ladder, people would have to make do with nestling down on a scattering of heather or, worse, a bare earth floor – possibly even without a blanket.) At the time, most people slept communally, and often found themselves snuggled up with a cosy assortment of bedbugs, fleas, lice, family members, friends, servants and – if they were travelling – total strangers. A couple of hours later, people would begin rousing from this initial slumber.
The period of wakefulness that followed was known as “the watch” – and it was a surprisingly useful window in which to get things done. “The records describe how people did just about anything and everything after they awakened from their first sleep,” says Ekirch. But most of all, the watch was useful for socialising – and for sex.
Once people had been awake for a couple of hours, they’d usually head back to bed. This next step was considered a “morning” sleep and might last until dawn, or later. Just as today, the hour when people finally woke up for good depended on what time they went to bed.
But humans aren’t the only animals that enjoyed the benefits of dividing up sleep. It’s also widespread in the natural world, with many species resting in two or even several separate stretches. This helps them to remain active at the most beneficial times of day, such as when they’re most likely to find food. It also helps to avoid them ending up as a snack themselves.
In short, single periods of slumber might not be “natural”. Equally, neither are fancy ergonomic mattresses or modern hygiene. “Seriously, there’s no going back because conditions have changed,” says Ekirch.
So, we may be missing out on confidential midnight chats in bed, psychedelic dreams, sex, opportunities to commit murder, and night-time philosophical revelations – but at least we won’t wake up covered in angry red bites or being nudged in the ribs by complete strangers.