The dark night

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

Athe wak­en­ing of your first sleepe. You shall have a hott NDAT drinke made. And at the wak­en­ing of your next sleepe, your sor­rowes will have a slake. So goes the me­dieval English bal­lad Old Robin of Portin­gale. “Let the end of thy first sleep raise thee from thy re­pose: then hath the body the best tem­per; then hath thy soul the least en­cum­brance,”wrote the 17th cen­tury English moral­ist Fran­cis Quar­les.Mod­ern ad­vo­cates of un­bro­ken eight hour sleep at night might sneer at an in­ter­lude be­tween two seg­ments of sleep. But about un­til two cen­turies ago, in most parts of the world, peo­ple had two dis­tinct in­ter­vals of slum­ber, known as “first” and “sec­ond”sleep,bridged by an hour or more of quiet wake­ful­ness.

Ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Roger Ekirch, “Usu­ally, peo­ple would re­tire be­tween 8 and 9 only to stir past mid­night to smoke a pipe,brew a tub of ale or even con­verse with a neigh­bour”. Some lay in bed ruminating on the mean­ing of a fresh dream. Some prayed. Count­less prayer man­u­als from the 15th and 16th cen­tury Europe of­fer spe­cial prayers for the hours in be­tween sleeps. Many made love. A doc­tor’s man­ual from 16th cen­tury France ad­vised cou­ples that the best time to con­ceive was not at the end of a long day’s labour but “af­ter the first sleep”,when “they have more en­joy­ment”and “do it bet­ter”. Ekirch, au­thor of the sem­i­nal work, At Day’s Close, be­lieves that seg­mented sleep was for long the nat­u­ral form of our slum­ber and con­sol­i­dated sleep is a prod­uct of the industrial age.“Even Homer in­voked the term first sleep in The Odyssey,” he writes. Ekirch’s book draws on more than 500 ref­er­ences to a seg­mented sleep­ing pat­tern: court records, med­i­cal books, lit­er­a­ture and early an­thro­po­log­i­cal ac­counts.

Night used to ar­rive early. Usu­ally by about 7-8 pm. For many it was not a rest­ful time. This was the pre-peni­cillin age. Re­s­pi­ra­tory tract ill­nesses such as in­fluenza, pul­monary tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and asthma,all ag­gra­vated by bed­ding rife with mites,made nights dif­fi­cult for many. Ekirch’s quotes an 18th cen­tury diarist who de­scribes her asthma-rid­den hus­band sleep­ing in “a chair for months, with watch­ers re­quired to hold his head up­right”. Among the labour­ing poor,sleep de­pri­va­tion was prob­a­bly chronic, prompt­ing many to nap at mid­day, much to the an­noy­ance of their masters. “As­so­ci­a­tions with night be­fore the 17th­cen­tury were not good.The night was a place pop­u­lated by peo­ple of dis­re­pute—crim­i­nals, pros­ti­tutes and drunks,”writes his­to­rian Craig Koslof­sky.“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.”So peo­ple went to bed early.

Things be­gan to change in the 16th cen­tury. In the wake of the Ref­or­ma­tion and the counter-Ref­or­ma­tion, ri­val Protes­tant and Catholic groups took to hold­ing se­cret ser­vices at night. This trend be­gan to be ex­tended to other so­cial spheres, but only for those who could af­ford to live by can­dle­light.

With the ad­vent of street light­ing, how­ever, so­cial­is­ing at night be­gan to fil­ter down through the classes. In 1667, Paris be­came the first city in the world to light its streets, us­ing wax can­dles in glass lamps.It was fol­lowed by Lille in the same year and Am­s­ter­dam two years later, where a much more ef­fi­cient oil-pow­ered lamp was de­vel­oped.Lon­don joined ranks of cities with street light in 1684.By the end of the cen­tury, more than 50 of Europe’s ma­jor towns and cities were lit at night.

Ekirch be­lieves that im­prove­ments in street light­ing, do­mes­tic light­ing and a surge in cof­fee houses—which were some­times open all night—had a say in sleep­ing pat­terns.Nights be­came fash­ion­able and peo­ple started go­ing late to bed.Not sur­pris­ingly then,ref­er­ences to the seg­mented sleep started to drops from the late 17th cen­tury. This started among the ur­ban up­per classes in west­ern Europe and, over the course of the next 200 years, fil­tered down to the rest of West­ern so­ci­ety.By the late 19th cen­tury,the idea of a first and sec­ond sleep had re­ceded en­tirely from so­cial con­scious­ness.

When there is light

Be­fore the 17th cen­tury night was as­so­ci­ated with peo­ple of dis­re­pute. This be­gan to change with the ad­vent of street light­ing. His­to­rian Roger Ekirch be­lieves im­proved light­ing and a surge in cof­fee houses in­flu­enced sleep­ing pat­terns

In re­cent times,there is a grow­ing con­sen­sus on the im­pact of mod­ern light­ing on sleep. Er­kich quotes the Har­vard chrono­bi­ol­o­gist, Charles Czeisler, who likens light­ing to “a drug in its phys­i­o­log­i­cal ef­fects,pro­duc­ing,among other changes,al­tered lev­els of me­la­tonin, the brain hor­mone that helps to reg­u­late our cir­ca­dian clock”.

Along with in­creased use of light, peo­ple were be­com­ing more sen­si­tive to ef­fi­ciency and time-con­scious.“The industrial revo­lu­tion in­ten­si­fied that at­ti­tude by leaps and bounds,”Ekirch notes.In 1829, a med­i­cal jour­nal from Eng­land urged par­ents to force their chil­dren out of a pat­tern of first and sec­ond sleep.

Amer­i­can sleep sci­en­tist Thomas Alvin Wehr be­lieves that con­di­tions to­day de­scribed as sleep dis­or­der “may be noth­ing more than sleep’s older, pri­mal pat­tern try­ing to re­assert it­self. For most of evo­lu­tion we slept a cer­tain way,” says Har­vard-based sleep psy­chol­o­gist Gregg Ja­cobs. Rus­sell Foster, a pro­fes­sor of cir­ca­dian neu­ro­science at Ox­ford,agrees.“Many of the med­i­cal prob­lems that doc­tors are faced with stem di­rectly or in­di­rectly from sleep.But sleep has been ig­nored in med­i­cal train­ing and there are very few cen­tres where sleep is stud­ied.” He sug­gests that the wak­ing pe­riod be­tween sleeps, when peo­ple were forced into pe­ri­ods of rest and re­lax­ation, could have played an im­por­tant part in the hu­man ca­pac­ity to reg­u­late stress nat­u­rally.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.