Review of Sasha Handley's Sleep in Early Modern England
Yale University Press, 2016
Of recent years there have been some estimable contributions to the study of the night as a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps two of the most notable are At Day's Close: A History of Nighttime by A. Roger Ekirch and Evening's Empire by Craig Koslofsky. Both of these volumes offer compendious and innovative perspectives on how early modern people negotiated their way through the hours of darkness. Ekirch's book is perhaps best known for the claim that the nightly sleep pattern of our pre-industrial ancestors was biphasic or segmented. In practice, what that means is that after an initial period of slumber people would regularly awake to indulge in a variety of activities ranging from reading, smoking or embroidering through to getting up to visit the neighbours. Thereafter they would return to bed for their so-called second sleep, which would then see them through to the morning. Meanwhile, Koslofsky's contribution sees its author identify and analyse the way in which European culture was 'nocturnalised' as it emerged from the Middle Ages. In essence, due to a combination of factors such as religious reformation, courtly spectacle and the introduction of street lighting, the mediaeval night and its attendant Stygian demons were effectively dispersed to make way for a world in which nightfall no longer meant citizens having to hasten home, the curfew bell tolling in their ears, to ready themselves for the fast encroaching darkness “like a ship's crew preparing to face a gathering storm.” Although clearly indebted to the work of Ekirch and Koslovsky, Sasha Handley's Sleep in Early Modern England manages to expand and deepen our understanding of nighttime and its attendant observances in its own engagingly perceptive way. In some respects, Handley's book can be seen as a counterpart to Matthew Beaumont's Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, a particularly impressive addition to the corpus of recent works dealing with life after dark. Whilst Beaumont concerns himself with those who through choice or necessity experienced night in the Metropolis and its environs as a stage upon which to consciously enact their heterogeneous states of mind and social roles, Handley takes as her subject the various etiquettes, precepts and precautions which that great swathe of demographic indeterminacy known as ‘ordinary people’ deployed in their households of an evening, having opted for a decent kip rather than a night on the tiles.
As is the case today, physical well-being was recognised in the early modern period as a key enabling factor in achieving a sound and revitalising sleep. Medical treatises emphasised the importance of keeping the bodily humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) in balance. Likewise, a stomach in good working order, free of excessive or harmful content, would help to ensure that food was properly digested during the night and, in turn, assist with general constitutional nourishment. Having eaten sensibly before retiring to bed, the sleeper was also advised to adopt the correct posture, which meant, in practice, positioning the head higher than the body to ensure that all internal traffic was flowing in the right direction whilst turning over at regular intervals to allow intestinal vapours to circulate freely. Furthermore, for reasons that blurred the boundaries between the physical and supernatural realms, individuals were advised not to sleep on their backs lest a passing incubus decide to straddle their chest with the wicked intention of obstructing their breathing and movement.
On the subject of incubi, whether they actually existed or were merely the hallucinatory byproduct of a morbid imagination was a matter of debate, which highlights the nebulous balance between what our ancestors considered a real and present danger lurking in the corner of every darkened bedroom and what they saw as simply a matter of frayed nerves. In any case, the importance of preparing for sleep in the right frame of mind in order to ward off evil or calm an overwrought imagination became just as important as avoiding too much rich food. Adequate room ventilation would help to create the right slumber-inducing ambience as well as ensure that any putrid effluvia which emanated from bodies and other organic sources was properly dispersed overnight. Access to fresh air, best achieved by sleeping in upstairs rooms, was recommended. However, even once one had relocated to the optimum micro-climate in which to cultivate a sense of serenity, the act of slipping between the covers could often be a problematic act in itself. John Wesley, for one, warned against the dangers of lying for extended periods between warm sheets (a practice that he termed “soaking”), which he saw as the surest way to render the body and mind “soft and flabby.” To reduce the danger of waking up in a sultry pit wherein all manner of fevered vices might thrive, linen sheets, popular for being cool and fresh to the touch, were the bedding of choice for the more circumspect Christian households. Not that such Godliness guaranteed cleanliness in an age when the bed, as an expensive item of furniture, would often be passed down through generations of occupants — which included family members and bedbugs alike. Whilst any self-respecting family unit would valiantly attempt to combat unwanted parasites in their sleeping quarters, this was not a concern which troubled the owners of certain notorious lodging houses and inns whose unfortunate guests could often find themselves in for an itchy old night of it. Then again, a few nibbles from cimex lectularius were as nothing compared to the mementoes that previous visitors might have left in the bed. Not surprisingly, with such an unappealing night of squalor in prospect, simply coaxing oneself into a soporific state of mind was often nigh on impossible. Luckily, for all those troubled by the thought of sharing accommodation with acrobatic fleas and the remnants of “languishing diseases,” a number of sleeping potions were available. These contained several interesting ingredients including chamomile, mandrake, poppy, deadly nightshade, dandelion and onions, various permutations of which were said to guarantee the weary wayfarer a swift passage to the land of Nod.
However, even if they did manage to drop off, for our early modern forebears finally getting to sleep was only half the battle. The moment that unconsciousness descended a whole new landscape full of potential spiritual corruption lay in wait for them. To combat such hazards divine protection was needed and, to that end, the faithful practised “sleep-piety,” a process which entailed performing certain religious rituals before bed using a mixture of texts and devotional images. The biggest fear fuelling sleep-piety was what might happen to a person's soul if he or she were suddenly “taken” in the night whilst not on the best of terms with their maker. However, even for those who were satisfied that they could give a good account of themselves if unexpectedly summoned to Abraham's bosom, not surviving till the morning remained a nagging prospect —one which, according to a particularly cheery seventeenth century advice manual, could be prepared for by imagining that “the bed clothes are the mould that shall one day cover your breathless carcass.” Even if pale death with impartial tread didn’t come knocking at the cottage door all kinds of somewhat lesser, if still highly unpleasant, misfortunes might befall the unsuspecting sleeper, the bedchamber being a potentially diabolical playground wherein all manner of malign entities might assemble for fun and games. That, at least, seems to have been the opinion of Robert and Mary Sugate of Great Barton in Suffolk who, from the evidence that they left behind, employed candle magic to sanctify their daughter Sarah's bedroom, a process which entailed holding a candle flame against the ceiling to trace symbols, patterns and words designed to act as ceremonial deterrents. The Sugates' efforts on behalf of their daughter are still visible today despite having been originally inscribed sometime around 1660 to 1700.
Provided that all due precautions were in place, such as dietary restraint, adequate ventilation and a judicious dose of candle magic etc., come nightfall the family unit could collectively look forward to spending the wee small hours in a haven free from the threat of rampant dyspepsia, fetid air and opportunist hobgoblins. However, what about those occasions when this sanctum was disturbed by having to accommodate guests? This concern became particularly pressing by the end of the seventeenth century, when the “nocturnalisation” of society which Koslovsky has identified started to manifest as the “extension and legitimation of social, religious and political activities deep into the night,” meaning that those who found themselves guests in the houses of their hosts after an evening of polite conversation or full-blown revels would often fully expect to be accommodated until the morning. In terms of space constraints this could occasionally prove tricky, and one way that hosts got around the difficulty was to have guests of the same sex share a bed. Sometimes, particularly if both parties were of a naturally civil disposition, this could turn out to be a surprisingly agreeable experience. Samuel Pepys, an astute assessor of his bedfellows' characters whenever the occasion called for him to buddy up, once expressed “great satisfaction” with his counterpart between the sheets, a merchant named Thomas Hill with whom he philosophically conversed one night about “most things of a man's life.” On the other hand, there were instances when sharing bed-space was not so rewarding. Spare a thought for poor old John Cannon who, back in 1739, had to put up with his cousin-in-law, Stephen Knowles, a rector of Mere in Somerset, proving “troublesome in the night” after a heavy drinking bout that caused him “to snore and make a hideous noise,” which, Cannon averred, “I was not pleased with.”
By the late eighteenth century, presentiments about what dangers might imperil the Christian soul once it had entered the dream-world gradually gave way to a spiritually charged curiosity about the labyrinthine realms through which the unconscious mind journeyed in its nightly progress, an interest exemplified in the work of some of the leading lights of the Romantic movement such as Shelley, Byron, Blake and Coleridge. Henry Fuseli, their febrile, romantic counterpart in oil paint, produced The Nightmare in 1781 which, with its startling blank eyed horse (or 'mare') peeping through the bed curtain and familiarly troublesome incubus perched atop a flaked-out female, captures something of the fascination which the subliminal realm held for those who lingered in its byways. Such was the stir caused by Fuseli's painting that it became the subject of a best-selling engraving popular across Europe and was parodied by leading political caricaturists such as Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray, the latter substituting the corpulent, sozzled bulk of the Prince Regent for Fuseli's classically swooning damsel. Meanwhile, Coleridge developed a fascination with the sleeping mind (opium-fuelled or otherwise) and its effect on his work. He was also an enthusiast for the experiments carried out in Dr Thomas Beddoes' Pneumatic Institution, where chemical gases induced various states of altered consciousness in befuddled volunteers. Coleridge himself was a poor sleeper who could often only manage to half-doze the hours of darkness away before turning aspects of his restlessly hypnagogic episodes into poetry. Other victims of sleep loss weren't quite so imaginatively resilient, kept awake, as they often were, by the commonplace irritations and worries of everyday life. A number of commercially marketed products to calm the jangling nerves of these crotchety insomniacs became available in the late eighteenth century. One such soporific, known as 'Dover's Powder', was used by yet another man of the cloth from Somerset, a certain William Holland, whose sleep had often been disturbed by personal and professional anxieties as well as “untimely bell-ringing” coming from the local church and, on one particularly unforgivable occasion, by the noise of a “disagreeable cow.”
However, as was fitting in an age when the cult of sensibility cast its tender net wide, it wasn't only intransigent cattle that kept people awake. In certain quarters exquisite emotions were running high, as affairs of the heart proved both turbulent and bittersweet. This was certainly the case for Sarah Hurst, whose long-distance love affair with the soldier Henry Smith regularly caused her to sit up late writing romantic missives for despatch to whichever corner of the Empire currently required his presence. As Sarah avowed in a diary entry recording one of her nocturnal scribble-fests, “This solemn time of night suits a love sick Mind & soothes its Melancholy.” On another occasion in 1760, having read a newspaper account of a battle in which she believed Henry to have been engaged, Sarah's “unhappy heart,” as she put it in another diary entry, “in painfull throbbings, sighs for my dearest Harry & is a stranger to repose.” In such outpourings, sleep, or the lack of it, had become a key dramatic accessory of the Romantic disposition.
Handley contends that “the heavy investments of time, labour and imagination that surrounded sleep's daily practice underline the unique cultural value that sleep states of different kinds had in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” an assertion amply supported by the wealth of evidence that she brings to bear. Even though these days we may not be as assiduous in checking for loitering incubi under the bed as our ancestors were, like them we appreciate the benefits to be had of preparing for sleep with a healthy constitution, at peace with the world and in a safe, comfortable environment. By the same token, our pursuit of a good night's sleep and the various latter-day rituals and practices that we employ to achieve it will no doubt prove every bit as idiosyncratic and curious to future generations as those of our sixteenth and seventeenth century forebears do to us. With these kinds of cross-generational correspondences in mind, it can be seen that the investigation of sleep culture remains a subject ripe for much more investigation, with Sasha Handley's book an admirable addition to the existing corpus.--Mark Jones
2016 was a year in which everything went to hell in a handcart, as the received wisdom would have it. It was indeed a rather bad year for many people, but the increasing hyperbole of these assessments towards the year’s end caused me to cast my mind back seventy years to 1946, and the essay from that year to which I invariably turn when in a troubled state of mind, George Orwell’s "Some Thoughts on the Common Toad." It is well worth revisiting for its cautious optimism in the face of hardships that we in the modern West would find it hard to imagine.
In 1946 a post-apocalyptic human world was exhausted and very far from beautiful. It is therefore significant that Orwell turns to nature and produces this extremely unconventional pastoral essay, finding beauty in the most surprising place, the eye of the common toad, which is ”like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet-rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.”
In the classical pastoral poem or eclogue, which Orwell emulates here, the coming of spring is often contrasted with winter. Here, however, the winter conquered by spring is not just a natural one (winters appeared to be unusually long during the war and post-war years, as Orwell noted) but also man-made, a continuous winter of civilisation from which humanity is struggling to escape. The aftermath of total war, venality and poverty are all challenged by Orwell’s toad and other small emissaries from a parallel natural universe with which the human race has, in the last seven years, all but lost touch: the “brighter blue between the chimney pots,” “the vivid green of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site,” and “a blackbird in the Euston Road,” which is one of probably “millions of birds living inside the four-mile radius,” rent-free, as the author drily notes. In Orwell’s post-Second World War evocations of birdsong we hear an echo of that earlier, more famous torrent of sound which followed the silencing of the Great War’s guns, as poignantly evoked in Powell and Pressburger’s 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
The scale of the contrast is key to the power of Orwell’s subtly political essay. The monumental horrors that humanity has conjured seem to make the millions of renewals that springtime traditionally brings impossible, and yet they come anyway. There is a sort of blind defiance and hope in the toad’s drive to produce a “new generation of toads, smaller than one’s thumb-nail but perfect in every particular,” set against the Thanatos of the civilised world’s urge to self-destruct. (Incidentally, the portrait of this indomitable creature echoes another famous literary toad, Kenneth Grahame's immortal character in The Wind in the Willows.)
As part of this opposition, Orwell emphasises the immutability of the law that spring will come —the toads spawn every year, the lark still flies over the Deptford gasworks— as against the rupture, chaos and change of the civilised human world, driven by the immaterial motivations of politics, particularly nationalisms, of which birds and beasts are ignorant. In a statement that is a quietly shocking allusion to recent nightmares, he highlights this contrast arrestingly: spring “comes seeping in everywhere, like one of those new poison gases which pass through all filters.”
Orwell’s ironical digression on the type of criticism of nature articles that was then to be expected from readers of left-wing publications reminds us that short-sighted fanaticism is not a new development, even though modern technology may have made it more visible in our day and age. His prediction that he would receive critical post in response to the article would be borne out —many in the readership viewed a love of nature as suspiciously bourgeois and reactionary. His pre-emptive riposte, however, is masterful: “by retaining one's childhood love of such things as (…) toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable….. by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.” In the political uncertainty of the immediate post-war period, this seemed to be a very real prospect.
The essay is a remarkable exercise in the expression of hope inspired by the permanence of the natural cycle despite human activities, famously ending: “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories (…), the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.” It is a conclusion which suddenly opens up the essay’s focus to take in a far wider field than England: not just the particular capitalist system which has produced the slum in which Orwell lives, and which he sees as inherently opposed to the natural life-force, but also totalitarian regimes and their apparatchiks. All these expressions of humanity’s tendency towards political evil are reduced to their proper scale when viewed through the sparkling golden eyes of the invincible common toad. Their gleam of certainty can comfort us, like Orwell, in our unpredictable, fractious times. --Isabel Taylor