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Sleep / News / Lifestyle

The First and Second Sleep: Medieval Sleeping Habits

by BetterSleep
Nov 24 2023 • 7 min read
Last Updated on Nov 29 2023

In a world constantly buzzing and pinging with distractions, everyone– from toddlers to retirees– is having trouble sleeping.

Artificial lights and sounds from your phone before sleep, can disrupt your internal sleep cycle, making you feel perpetually like a “zombie.”

This gradual decline in the quality and duration of sleep is not onlyan inconvenience; it affects your health, productivity, and well-being.

A Nod (Off) to the Sleep Routine of the Past

We’ve come a long way from how medieval people lived their lives. Our lives are the pinnacle of convenience, compared to our predecessors. We even have cars that charge and drive themselves!

In the search for these modern luxuries, there are some things we might have left behind— the most important being a good night sleep. What if we told you that the answer to better sleep might be hidden in the past?

Unveiling the First and Second Sleep Routines

Our sleep routine differs considerably from people in the medieval times who frequently practiced segmented sleep rest. Their segmented sleep cycle often included two periods of sleep with different rest periods. They called on “first sleep,” then they had two periods of interrupted sleep or “second sleep.”

Let’s explore them a bit more:

First Sleep

During the first sleep, people tend to go to bed soon after sunset. This initial sleep session would last until dawn. People would then wake up toperform different tasks, such as talking to their family and friends, stitching, chopping wood, or knitting clothes.

These people would probably not be stirred awake by disturbances (such as light or noise) or even the discomfort their straw and feather-stuffed mattresses were causing. Instead, their body’s natural clock would wake them up.

Second Sleep

Once our ancestors finished their morning household chores, they’d go for their second sleep, usually in the afternoon. This sleep phase usualy includesignificant REM sleep, which is crucial for mental restoration and dream activity.

What Makes Our Sleeping Patterns Different From Medieval People?

We’ve strayed from the ways of the people before us in several ways. Now, let’s understand what we do differently.

1. Artificial Lighting

Unlike people in the Middle Age who depended on natural light or oil lamps, we are affected by artificial lights from streetlights, indoor lighting, and cell phone screens, which impact our sleep cycle.

This artificial light, especially the blue light, can directly affect the production of melatonin hormone, disturb your internal body clock and makes it harder to fall asleep or maintain a night’s rest.

2. Sleep Disruption

During the day, people in the Middle Ages performed various tasks, from adding wood to fireplaces to repairing linen and collecting food. While the night time was used for their bodies to rest.

In contrast, we sometimes pull all-nighters or work through the night. This can disrupt our sleep cycles, sometimes beyond repair.

3. Physical Labor

In older times, most people performed physically strenuous labor throughout the day and as a result, they usually came tired to bed and nodded off. That’s not the case anymore, with most people working desk jobs.

What Do Medieval Sleeping Habits Teach Us?

Medieval sleeping habits offer a window into a lifestyle tied to natural rhythms. Let’s understand what they can teach us:

1. Adaptability

Medieval people often allowed themselves seven to nine hours of sleep, according to their body’s natural sleep cycle.

If we adopt this strategy, we may feel better rested.

2. Encourage Natural Sleep Cycles

People in the Middle Ages had no artificial light, so they were probably more in tune with their natural circadian cycles.

Limiting screen and artificial light exposure two hours before going to bed may improve your sleep quality.

3. Importance of Quiet Time

People often dedicate the time between the first and second sleep to introspection, prayer, and personal conversation. A “quiet hour” before bedtime might provide similar mental and emotional benefits.

4. Luxury of Uninterrupted Rest

Even though they woke up for different tasks, medieval people probably viewed both sleep intervals as necessary.

Modern sleepers should value rest as much as they valuefood, and they might improve their overall wellness if they view the two periods of sleep as a necessity instead of a luxury.

Practical Steps to Incorporate Medieval Sleep Patterns into Modern Life

How can we apply this age-old wisdom to modern life? Let’s take a look at some suggestions:

1. Embrace Darkness and Reduce Artificial Lighting

Artificial light can contribute to sleep issues by reducing melatonin production in the body. It might not have affected medieval people much because they were limited to oil lamps throughout the Middle Ages. With us, that isn’t the case.

To boost melatonin production and improve your first and second sleep, you should consider embracing darkness in the evening by reducing lights or burning candles as a light source.

2. Understand the History of Second Sleep

Medievals would wake up during the middle of the night (eight hours after their first rest period) to work. After doing the work they needed to complete, they would then retire for a shorter sleep period.

Sleeping in the afternoon feels almost impossible if you have a regular 9-to-5 job. Still, getting some rest after returning home from work is possible, which may provide similar benefits.

3. Select the Best Sleep Environment

Medieval folks stuffed their mattresses with dried grass or feathers. Modern folks certainly have an advantage over their ancestors, but sleeping comfortably is sometimes a challenge.

If noise, light, and mattress-related discomfort constantly wake you, consider using earplugs, a white noise machine, black-out curtains, a more comfortable mattress, or a sleep assistance app like BetterSleep. These may help you get better rest.


While the stresses and distractions of modern life make adopting other sleeping patterns difficult, do not overlook the potential benefits of incorporating medieval sleep practices.

Your ancestors understood that practicing first and second sleep may provide a more natural and satisfying rest cycle.

The BetterSleep app gives you access to hundreds of peaceful tunes, guided meditations, and bedtime stories to help you fight insomnia and improve your sleep quality. We might not live like our ancestors from the Middle Ages, but we can adopt healthier sleep habits with some adjustments.

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