The 21st century is a pretty lame place to sleep. Eccentric circadian rhythms are the norm in college, but once you enter the "real world" they're no longer tolerated. Business hours begin at 9 a.m.—or earlier—and if you plan on being employed you better be there with bells on. The whole getting up at the crack of dawn thing makes staying up till 4 a.m. a lot less fun. (Some of us do it anyway, and it ain't pretty). Even if you don't have to get up for work, you probably have to get up for your kids. Smugly thinking that none of the above applies to you? Society will judge you anyway. SoulCycle starts at 5:45 a.m. and you should probably try to squeeze in your mindfulness practice before you get there.
What if I told you there was another way? What if I asked you to come with me on a journey through space and time to a land beyond the reach of iPhones and Google Calendars? Oh wait, this place doesn't even have electricity. That's because the Industrial Revolution hasn't happened yet. We're in the Middle Ages! Living conditions are, by and large, way worse than where we came from. But the Middle Ages do have one major advantage over the age of Queen Bey—they have first and second sleep.
Historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech spent sixteen years researching Medieval sleeping patterns. In his book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, he documents more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern. Ekirch's research reveals that sleeping patterns used to be divided into two distinct segments before the advent of electricity:
"Both phases of sleep lasted roughly the same length of time, with individuals waking sometime after midnight before returning to rest. Not everyone, of course, slept according to the same timetable. The later at night that persons went to bed, the later they stirred after their initial sleep; or, if they retired past midnight, they might not awaken at all until dawn. Thus, it ‘The Squire’s Tale’ in The Canterbury Tales, Canacee slept “soon after evening fell” and subsequently awakened in the early morning following “her first sleep”; in turn, her companions, staying up much later, “lay asleep till it was fully prime” (daylight)."
What does this mean exactly?
Before our schedules were regimented by lightbulbs and beeping fluorescent screens, most people would go to bed around sunset. They would snooze for a few hours and get up again sometime after midnight. Instead of having a panic attack about not getting enough sleep—they'd do things. Popular activities included reading, saying prayers during Matins, visiting neighbors, and getting freaky. In the 16th-century, French physician Laurent Joubert theorized that the 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. shift was an ideal time for a roll in the hay, since couples “have more enjoyment” and “do it better.” Once they had tired themselves out, everyone went back to bed for a few hours. I know it's easy to romanticize the past, but this sounds like a pretty sweet lifestyle option. If I decide to unplug all of my lights and visit my neighbors for a 2 a.m. "Cards Against Humanity" session, I'll make sure to report back.