My Q and A With Roger Ekirch on the Way We Sleep, and How It’s Changed Over the Centuries

Roger Ekirch is a professor of history at Virginia Tech and the author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. He is also a leading scholar on segmented sleep — the idea that for much of history people slept into two separate chunks separated by a waking period, as opposed to a single span of sleep. In answer to my questions, he shared his insights on “normal” insomnia, how technological advances have changed the way we sleep, and why in many ways we’re living in a golden age of sleep.

1) How was the waking time between the two sleeps spent?

In myriad ways, from the spiritual to the profane, in addition to more mundane tasks such as rising to urinate, either in a chamber pot or, on mild evenings, outdoors. Fires needed to be tended or perhaps a tub of ale brewed. Virgil in the Aeneid wrote of women servants, after the “first slumber,” who “ply the distaff by the winking light, and to their daily labor add the night.” The sick were given potions and elixirs; whereas for the poor, the dead of night (midnight to three a.m.) was a prime time for poaching and petty theft so long as the moon, or “tattler,” was not full. Orchards were pilfered and firewood filched. Still, most persons never left their beds, preferring instead to ponder dreams from which they awakened. No other period afforded such a secluded interval of darkness in which to absorb fresh visions of solace, spirituality, and self-revelation. There were also prayers to be recited “when you awake in the night.” And no time was thought better for sexual intimacy if a couple wished to conceive children. A sixteenth-century French physician ascribed the fecundity of rural peasants to early morning intercourse “after the —> Read More