Scientific and medical research has revealed that sleep is anything but a passive state. Though we may largely lie immobile and insensate at night, our sleeping brains remain hives of activity. Any EEG readout will tell you that the brain is in a state of flux throughout the night, from the long, slow waves of deep sleep to the frantic scribblings etched out during REM sleep. Behind all this electrical activity, sleep busily attends to such diverse processes as memory consolidation, synaptic pruning, and the cleansing of neurotoxins. A small group of recent studies have shown that sleep is no less active and varied in history than it is in an EEG readout. A. Roger Ekirch’s pioneering article in this journal (“Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles,” AHR 106, no. 2 : 343–386) helped inspire the idea that sleep is subject to historical change. Ekirch argued that before the modern era—with its incursions of powerful artificial light and changing patterns of labor—European sleep was typically bundled in two packages at night, with “up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness” in between, often given over to prayer, dream interpretation, or lovemaking (344). (In the book under review, Sleep in Early Modern England, Sasha Handley cautions against accepting this as a universal model of early modern sleep.) Kenton Kroker’s The Sleep of Others and the Transformation of Sleep Research (2007) charted how sleep has been measured, manipulated, and explained in science and philosophy from antiquity to the age of the sleep clinic. Sociologists and anthropologists including Simon Williams, Carol Worthman, and Matthew Wolf-Meyer have shown the tremendous range of sleeping-related behaviors across cultures and within different segments of particular societies. My own cultural and literary history, Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World (2017), synthesized much of this work with a view toward providing a deep backdrop for widespread contemporary obsessive behaviors and social conflicts related to sleep. Handley’s book is an important addition to this group; to my mind it is the best historical case study to date of sleep’s changing configurations and meanings. The author makes a strong case for the importance of her period—roughly 1660–1800—on both genealogical and anthropological grounds. Most scholars have treated the nineteenth century as the period in which sleep (like so many other consciousness-related phenomena) came under neurological interpretation, but Handley shows convincingly that this process began as early as 1664, when the physician Thomas Willis identified nerves in the cerebellum as the site of sleep (32–33). The site of sleep during this period became recognizably modern, not only in a neurologic sense, but in an architectural one as well. Prior to the mid-seventeenth century, the combination of small homes and large families meant that most sleep occurred in common domestic areas such as hallways. But by the 1660s, as home sizes expanded, sleep migrated upstairs. It was only in the nineteenth century, though, that the idea of a “bedroom” to denote a space especially appointed for sleep emerged. Despite the emergence of these recognizable features of medicalization and privatization, one finishes Handley’s book with the feeling of having entered another world. In our own time, sleep is a zone of sacrosanct privacy: at most two consenting adults share a bed, with even very young children banished to their solitary dark spaces. In contrast, eighteenth-century English nights were a veritable slumber party. Poor families slept together out of necessity, but among London’s fashionable set, new types of bed-sharing arose. Historian Craig M. Koslofsky refers to the “nocturnalization” of society, as powerful sources of lighting allowed for new entertainments and heightened nighttime physical mobility (Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe ). Still, the hospitality industry, such as it was, did not yet cater to the individualized preferences of the nighttime traveler or thrill-seeker, and so sharing beds was the norm. In an especially amusing and eye-opening chapter, Handley portrays well the rituals, indignities, and occasional pleasures of sharing beds among strangers. Bedmates were typically of the same sex, similar age, and similar social standing, but there were occasional fascinating cross-class encounters between the sheets, such as the bed-sharing with servants documented by Samuel Pepys: “During an overnight stay at the home of his patron, the 1st earl of Sandwich,” Handley tells us, Pepys looked forward to sleeping with Sandwich’s servant; but because the bedmates “fell to play with one another” for so long into the night, Pepys ultimately ordered him to sleep with another servant, but then regretted his decision when he “lay alone all night” (176–177). And though many diarists complained of the indignities of enforced co-sleeping, emotional bonds between travelers sometimes thickened at night, as tailor’s daughter Sarah Hurst’s moving poetry about sharing her inmost feelings with her regular bedfellow attests (208). (Ishmael’s paeans to his “cannibal” bedmate Queequeg in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale  a century later represent a survival of this sociable sleeping among travelers.) Other chapters detail the household management strategies that developed as the economics of sleep changed; the Christian rituals that safeguarded sleep against the dark forces that might seize the soul via the vulnerable sleeping body; and the dovetailing of new neurological understandings of disturbed sleep with the rise of the concept of “sensibility.” This last chapter, drawing on Jane Austen novels as well as medical case studies, argues convincingly that during a time when “moral sentiments and feelings were expressed through physical discomfort and emotional crisis,” disturbed sleep became a sign of extraordinary sensitivity that prompted writers and artists to map “changing historical understandings of self and society” (182). In her conclusion, Handley offers thoughts about the value of historical findings for medical research into sleep. By understanding sleep’s historical variability, she argues, researchers can better determine what is truly transhistorical or species-based. Yet recent work in evolutionary anthropology suggests that, compared to other primates, humans developed a wide range of sleeping practices and patterns that are responsive to different environments; this is one reason, the hypothesis goes, that humans have been able to flourish in so many different regions across the globe. What makes human sleep human, therefore, is its variability—and so I hope that those interested in the biological underpinnings of sleep will turn to Handley’s richly detailed and powerfully conceived work on its own terms, rather than cull data points from it to confirm what they find in clinical settings—which are, after all, only one more historically contingent environment to which human sleep can be adapted. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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