Sleep in Early Modern England 
by Sasha Handley.
Yale, 280 pp., £25, August 2016, 978 0 300 22039 1
Show More
Show More

Of the thousands​ of people who visited the Buckinghamshire astrologer-physician and clergyman Richard Napier around the beginning of the 17th century, many were troubled by questions of sleep. The mother of 11-year-old Susan Blundell told Napier that her daughter was ‘now given mutch to sleeping’, and that two days before, she had slept ‘the space of 24 houres but that her sleepe was interrupted with her usuall fites & that very often.’ Margery Dayrell worried that her son Nathaniel could not sleep, though he was drowsy. John Windmill complained that he ‘cannot sleepe nor take any rest on his bed or up or Downe’. Hugh Thomson feared that his son, ‘who he supposeth to be taken or planet stroken’, had been unable to sleep the previous night. Broken and disrupted sleep could be a symptom of illness or a mark of being ill at ease: Thomas Bentley, of Turvey in Bedfordshire, consulted the astrologer because he found himself ‘Troubled in his sleepe with dreaming of Children’.

To draw the curtains around a bed and prop one’s body against a bolster was to court spiritual, medical and material danger. Sleep, Sasha Handley writes in her study of it in early modern England, ‘was understood as a state of transition between day and night, between degrees of consciousness, between the earthly and spiritual realms, and between life and death. The forces of nature moulded its boundaries, as did supernatural agents and human action.’ People ‘begged for divine protection by repenting of their sins at bedtime, by offering prayers in and around their bedsteads, and by filling their minds with holy thoughts, often with the aid of devotional texts, images and other meaningful objects’. The type of ‘sleep-piety’ you practised depended on confessional allegiance: Thomas Ken’s ‘White Paternoster’, a prayer to be said before bed, drew on a Catholic model but pruned it of saints, even though the bedchamber remained a place where Catholics and dissenters could follow their own practices in seclusion. Bedtime prayer was a necessary precaution in case of sudden death during the night, and guarded against demonic attack – fears that seemed real to many.

The site of sex, childbirth, sickness and death, the bed could also be a source of contagion. Hamlet plays with its less wholesome associations when he attacks his mother for living in ‘the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,/Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty’. Thomas Tryon, a London merchant and the author of A Treatise of Cleanness (1682), warned that ‘beds suck in and receive all sorts of pernicious Excrements that are breathed forth by the Seating of various sorts of People, which have Leprous and Languishing Diseases, which lie and die on them.’ In a culture which thought the prospect of death should be kept in mind, the similarities between the linen sheets that clothed the body at night and those in which it would be wound after death did not go unnoticed. One clergyman mused that ‘[Not] always for my Rest shall I/A Bed and Blankets have./Soon shall the Moulds for Blankets serve,/And for my Bed the Grave.’ Morbid imaginings gave rise to material fears: before visiting Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill, one guest asked not to be put up in ‘your best chintz bed, as I am in the secret, and know Sir Robert died in it.’

Good sleep was the key to good health. Following Aristotelian medical theory, it was believed in the 16th century that sleep was closely linked to digestion: during slumber the stomach heated up, causing the ‘concoction’ of the food eaten during the day, which would then spread through and nourish the body. It was imperative for the sleeper’s head to be elevated, so that the beneficial vapours given off during digestion would be free to rise to the brain – hence the importance of the bolster. ‘Night waistcoats, soft leather pillows tied around the waist or even small dogs’ were used to ensure the creation and retention of heat in the stomach of the sleeper. Practitioners like Richard Napier were consulted for medical (and magical) advice about disrupted sleep, and household remedies were used. Surviving recipe books show that families preserved instructions for making ‘syrups, conserves and distillations of herbs, flowers and vegetables that were believed to provoke sleep’. Cooling liquids were concocted for ingestion or application to the head, neck and temples: common ingredients included ‘aniseed, chamomile, cucumbers, houseleek, mandrake, deadly nightshade, poppy, purslane, rose, violet, lavender, cowslips, endive, eringo roots, lettuce, saffron, tobacco, wormwood, henbane, lily, parsley, nutmeg, dandelion, onions, rushes and sweet reed’.

It was risky to sleep too deeply, or too drunkenly. The candles that lit the chamber, the fire that heated it and the hot coals of the bedwarmer were all threats in a room packed with flammable materials: sheets, paper, bedsteads and bed-curtains. The clergyman Ralph Josselin gave thanks for his deliverance from a fire that started in his maid’s bedchamber, recalling how in 1677 one of his parishioners, having drunk too much and fallen asleep, had been ‘burnt in his bed’. Twenty years later, John Evelyn’s daughter almost failed to wake when a blaze caught hold in her chamber; she escaped, but her father remained anxious about the vulnerability of the human body in the ‘dead time of sleepe’.

As well as documents like those written by Evelyn and Josselin, Handley uses a set of probate inventories from the prerogative court of Canterbury between 1660 and 1760 to reconstruct in exquisite detail the sleeping environments of the middling and upper classes. The location of these rooms and how they were furnished changed during the early modern period. In medieval England bedsteads were commonly found in multipurpose ground floor parlour rooms. As notions of privacy changed, and living conditions improved, they were vertically relocated to the upper storeys, so that ‘by 1760 it was the exception, rather than the rule, for sleep to take place in the main living spaces of the household, or in their ground-floor chambers.’ When sleeping chambers migrated upstairs, they were also ‘singled out as special status rooms through their … decorative schemes, material enhancement, and … the labels given to them’ – labels such as ‘best chamber’, ‘parlour chamber’ and ‘upper room’.

Every aspect of the sleeping space carried meaning, from the respective heights of a master’s bed and the truckle bed occupied by a servant to the pictures on display: perhaps a hanging decorated with an image of Adam and Eve – a common bedchamber ornament – or the ‘three pictures of Death in black frames’ that surrounded Elizabeth Dugdale, a widow from Coventry, as she settled down to sleep. The bedstead might be decorated with the names of family members, or with iconography appropriate to the bed’s role as ‘the practical and symbolic heart of the household and indeed of marriage’. In some parts of England, practitioners of ‘candle magic’ marked the ceilings of bedchambers with words and symbols that promised spiritual protection to the inhabitants. Children’s cots, associated with peril and misfortune in a society where infant mortality was common, were filled and surrounded with protective objects: amulets or rattles containing coral were thought to offer both spiritual and physical protection to young children, while a carving knife suspended above the cradle of an unbaptised baby defended against fairies.

Even the mundane accoutrements of the early modern bed were threaded with meaning. Bedsheets were ‘the most heavily used, laundered and replaced bed furnishings within the household since they lay in closest proximity to the body.’ White linen – by some distance the most popular textile for bedclothes – was associated with purity, comfort, peace and health. Sheets could be personalised with initials or images relevant to the sleeper; sewing was a common way for women who woke in the night to occupy themselves and soothe themselves back to sleep. The expansion of foreign trade, and of the oppressive systems that sustained it, made itself felt against the skin of English sleepers in the cotton and calico sheets that grew in popularity during the 18th century, or the Indian textiles depicting exotic flora and fauna. Like gloves or jewellery, bedsheets were objects that circulated socially: gifts offered to or inherited from family members, or items given in charity to social inferiors. One fascinating aspect of this only briefly (and tantalisingly) touched on is that some well-off families loaned bedsheets to poorer neighbours, making sure to launder, air and even bake them when they got them back, so as to kill off any bedbugs. Letters, diaries and recipe books from the period testify to a constant battle against bedbug infestation; protective measures included ‘ash-boughs and flowers’ placed at the head of the bed.

Handley is also conscious of the role played by the senses in shaping the experience of sleep. Air, fire and smoke all had to be managed. Windows or shutters could provide the constant supply of fresh air desired by many sleepers: the Norfolk clergyman James Woodforde took thermometer readings every night to ensure his bedchamber was suitably cool. Fires – like bedwarmers – ensured a warm bed but could give off noxious smoke, as well as posing more significant risks. Scents and soporifics could make bedtimes soothing: sleepers had pillowcases filled with hops, ‘watch pockets’ sewn into bedclothes to hold smelling salts and sheets scented with rose-based perfumes (as recommended by the chemist Robert Boyle).

When woken in the night restless sleepers prayed and sewed and engaged in pillowtalk, as satirised in a text published in 1640 and entitled Ar’t asleepe husband? A boulster lecture, which opens with the image of a wife who ‘a wondrous racket meanes to keep,/While th’Husband seemes to sleepe but does not sleepe.’ They had sex, though it’s an activity that receives surprisingly little attention in Handley’s account. And they read: aloud or silently, by moon or candlelight. Lady Anne Clifford had devout material read to her in bed by her servants, who noted down ‘things new and old, Sentences, or Sayings of remark, which she had read or learned out of Authors’ on small pieces of paper which were then pinned around her bedstead so that the bedchamber’s inhabitants could ‘make their descants on them’; the overall effect was such that the clergyman who delivered her eulogy described her bedchamber as a ‘Temple’.

Clifford’s chamber was sociable rather than solitary, a place where servants read, wrote, prayed, and sometimes slept. Bedfellowship was a key social institution in early modern England: people shared their beds with non-sexual partners for reasons that ranged from convenience or compulsion to the desire for friendship, solace or amusement. Samuel Pepys chose his male bedfellows for the quality of their conversation – with the merchant Thomas Hill he could discuss music and ‘most things of a man’s life’, while he valued the company of his friend John Brisbane, judge advocate of the Fleet, because he was ‘a good scholar and sober man’ with a store of Grand Tour stories. The early modern period, Handley argues, was one in which ‘sleeping practices were bound by codes of civility that helped to broker bonds of sociability and friendship.’ But bedfellowship could be abused – servants, for instance, could be coerced – and the church courts were busy with cases of sexual exploitation and assault. Anne Dormer, an Oxfordshire gentlewoman who endured an unhappy marriage, described her marital bedchamber as ‘a hatefull roome … [where] I lost my sleepe, and health and those somers I have layn there this last seven yeare I lived in a manner without sleepe; to stay in it was worss then Death.’

A sweeping history of such a ubiquitous phenomenon provokes questions about the relationship between it and the grand narratives of the period: Handley describes the early modern era as ‘a transformative phase of change in sleep’s history’ and she demonstrates that the place of the bed in the home and in thought changed fundamentally in this period. While she discusses the notion of ‘sleep-piety’ she is reluctant to draw broader conclusions about the place of sleep practices in narratives of religious change. She argues convincingly that the medicalisation of sleep began in this period, hence ‘the impulse to cleanse household sleeping chambers and to prepare and purchase soporific medicaments to deal swiftly with sleep loss when it occurred’. After 1660, healthy sleep was increasingly attributed to the ‘health and vitality of the brain and nerves’. Sleep was seen as ‘the principal guardian of rational, productive minds’, presaging its central role in Enlightenment debates about reason, sensibility and identity. Lacking, due to Handley’s focus on the better-recorded habits of the middling and upper ranks, is a sense of sleep’s role in the lives and labours of workers in the fast-growing cities who were caught up in the great machinery of the industrious and industrial revolutions.

This book considers several increasingly important strands of historical thought: the histories of material objects, the body, the emotions and the senses. Handley’s materially and emotionally rich account of early modern sleep shows that the early modern bedchamber was a space where these histories intertwined. A bed and its coverings carried traces of all of those who had slept, loved, talked, been born and died in it. Alice Thornton, a Yorkshire widow, went to great effort in the 1660s to prevent her creditors from seizing her ‘scarlet bed’ and its furnishings: it was the bed in which she had recovered from injury as a child under her mother’s care, where she had given birth to her own children, the ‘sorrowfull bed’ to which she had retreated after the death of her husband. In her testimony, the bed became ‘an extension of her own body and of the bodies of her loved ones who had interacted with it over generations’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences