Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Medieval Sleep and Highwaymen

The best bed in late medieval France. Pierre Salmon, Réponse à Charles VI et Lamentations, France (Paris), 1409 Paris, BnF, département des Manuscrits, Français 23279 fol. 19. Image Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

I recently saw a strange episode of the series Afraid of the Dark on the History Channel.  It was all about medieval sleep patterns and highwaymen who haunted the roads between hamlets at night.  It described a custom called 'shutting in,' where people in the English town of Dartmoor during the Middle Ages would shutter their windows, bar their doors and lock up to prevent bandits from breaking in while they slept.  The show opened with a brooding speculation on what life must have been like before electric light:
Go back to a time before the invention of artificial light and experience a world petrified in the pitch of darkness...when fear ruled the night. Throughout the ages, real and imagined terror existed in the absence of light, and nightime was anything but relaxing. Our predecessors cowered in caves to keep from being eaten alive. During the Middle Ages, brutal bandits went on the prowl and roadside ditches became death traps. Also in years past, the devil, werewolves and vampires were staunchly believed to stalk the night. With no artificial light, the black night sky of Galileo's gaze could illuminate every star without a telescope.
There is a transcript of the show (including transcriptions of advertisements) hereOne of the things that really struck me was the claim that people did not sleep right through the night the way we do.  They slept in two parts: 'first sleep' (also called 'dead sleep,' 'beauty sleep,' or 'early slumber') and 'second sleep' (or 'light sleep').  They did this because of the lack of technology as well as lifestyle.  After hard days of manual labour, people fell into bed when the sun set.  They only had the strength for socializing, discussions and contemplation after they had slept for a few hours.  The show suggested that when people went visiting between first and second sleep, they often fell prey to robbers on the unlit roads. 

This is one of those tangible little domestic details that, when we stop and think about it, suddenly makes life from several hundred years ago much more immediate.  I was curious whether the show's claims had any historical substance.  These details on medieval sleep patterns and nocturnal behaviour are confirmed in a Guardian review of Roger Ekirch's 2005 book on how people used to sleep: At Day's Close: Night in Times Past.  Wiki has an entry on segmented sleep here.

It turns out there is a blog on Dartmoor called Legendary Dartmoor, and the blogger served as a consultant on the History Channel show.  He tells his side of how the show was produced here.  There is a blog entry on how people slept, and what their beds were like during the Middle Ages, here.  Contrary to the picture above, most people slept on insect-infested sacks filled with straw, wool or feathers.  Beds were extremely valuable.  The blogger at Old and Interesting explains how wills are the main historical sources which inform us what kind of beds people from different social classes owned, and how much beds and bedclothes cost.

The beautiful late Gothic stove (1502) and private chambers of the Archbishop of Salzburg.  Image Source: © Lessing Photo Archive.

Barring a few monasteries, some castles, churches and crypts, and a disturbing farmhouse I will blog about on another day, the only preserved medieval rooms I have personally entered were in the Archbishop's sumptuous quarters at the tippy-top of the Fortress Hohensalzburg in Salzburg, Austria.  I'll never forget the arduous climb up to the top level, which opened into painted chambers that included a beautiful enameled stove.  The room also had a private toilet built into a stone structure outcropping from the building.  This was remarkably rare in medieval times.  The toilet had an open hole poised over the foot of the Fortress, far below. There are more photos of this room in Hohensalzburg here.

16th century oak staircase, from a house in Morlaix, Brittany, France, Museum no. A.8.1909. Image Source: V&A.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a new Medieval and Renaissance Gallery which opened on December 2, 2009.  This Gallery presents artifacts dated from 300 to 1600 CE; a sampler of the objects in the Gallery is here. The sampler includes a whole 16th century French oak staircase, which shows what house interiors were like.  The Gallery also runs a blog, entitled Past, Present and Future.  There's a Telegraph review of this exhibition here.  The Times reviewed it here, and the Guardian review is here, with a video of the exhibits here.

Watercolour (undated) showing an additional floor inserted into 33 Rue du Mur, Morlaix, France. Image Source: V&A.

Outside view of houses with staircases built in this style. View of La Grand'Rue, Morlaix. Watercolour by Suzanne Guéguen (1958). Supplied by Musée de Morlaix. Image Source: V&A.

The V&A preserves the only examples of common clothing and furniture from the medieval and early Renaissance periods that I've ever seen.  I couldn't find images of the artifacts from the earlier Middle Ages.  There is a photo of a bed dating from 1590, which was originally in the Inn at Ware, Hertfordshire, weirdly positioned in a modern setting in one of the galleries; a video about the bed is online hereThe V&A clothing galleries literally let you walk past an array of fashions from the 17th century right up to the present dayThe latest addition in the gallery when I saw it was a Juicy Couture pink velour tracksuit, which prompted the person with me to say, "Basically, we've reached the end of civilization."


  1. Technologically dependent though it may mark me as, I certainly wouldn't want to live in a time before electric light. As of course, a significant portion of the world still does.

    One sometimes marvels that we survived long enough to develop technology of the level we are familiar with at all.

    Despite all that, however, I find myself most interested in the "life cycle" of these nocturnal bandits.

  2. The bandits tied ropes across roads at night to trap people and carriages passing on the road. I can imagine a Markovian-like setting, high in the hill roads, with bandits in the mountain passes.

  3. A good point, well made; but what I meant was what it was like to *live* in the dark when everyone else was afraid of it.

  4. I wonder what the counterpart to that is today. What are we most afraid of, and who lives there?