Hoping & Praying (literally) for Better Sleep Across the Centuries - What History Can Tell Us About Health Habits
For Episode 4 of Life Butter Radio (out very soon), I had the pleasure of chatting with Dr. Sasha Handley, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Manchester. Dr. Handley is author of, amongst other works, Sleep in Early Modern England, and she joined me on the show to give us some insight on how we used to "do" sleep, and to reflect on how this ties in with our sleep and general wellness habits today.
This was a super fun conversation for me. History is one of my true passions, and I would contend that an understanding of how we used to live is essential to contextualising and understanding who we are and how we behave today. The period that Dr. Handley studies is the 16th-18th centuries, i.e. the period of many a popular BBC drama or Philippa Gregory novel. It's a time that has captured our popular imagination; it's close enough to be relatable, but romantic in that it is before the invention, or at least mass dissemination, of modern technology (no planes, trains or automobiles...or indeed electric lights). It's a period that I think we can easily romanticise as a "simpler time", when we could be our best selves, free of the distractions that so fascinate and infuriate us today.
And yet, when you delve into what it was actually LIKE to live in this time...I'm pretty sure none of us would go there. As Dr. Handley writes on her own blog, bedtime involved bedbugs, which could be lured away from your bed with cow dung. And as we discuss in Episode 4, people spent a lot of time trying to stay warm and conquer their fear of the night (think evil spirits and sickness-breeding vapours). Still, I'm sure we'd all happily skip back a few centuries so for the fashion, right?
I'm sure you'll be able to hear the geeky enthusiasm in my voice as I chat through these ideas with Dr. Handley on the show. 😝
What I love about conversations like these is that we are reminded that there is truly nothing new under the sun; health has always been a fundamental concern for men and women across the ages, and we have been forever trying to better understand how our minds and bodies work so that we can get the most out of them. The anecdotes Dr. Handley relates about the sleep habits of the men and women she studies are not only amusing (listen out for her beer-loving clergymen), but reveal that we were concerned with and complaining about poor sleep long before the advent of FaceBook and Netflix. Similarly, we were turning inward to prayer, quiet time and calming tasks like sewing to help find sleep and bookend their days...just in the way that many of us now use meditation. I love learning things like this; it makes us realise that as chaotic, unstable, and unprecedented (or unpresidented,to be of the moment) as this world seems to be today, human beings are the same across time and space, looking to the same sorts of tools to fix the same sorts of problems. I find this both comforting and encouraging.
Watch for the launch of Episode 4, check out Dr. Handley's blog, and, if you want to really bring this episode to life, stop by How We Used to Sleep, an upcoming exhibition that Dr. Handley is running at Little Moreton Hall in Chesire. I'll put more details on the blog when they are released, but this will be in May 2017. The exhibition is an interactive display highlighting her research on sleep, and allowing us to have a go at getting some Zzzs as we used to back in the day. I intend to go and mix up some historic sleep potions of my own. Whether or not I drink them remains to be seen!