In Robert Harris’s thrilling new mystery The Second Sleep, the author transports us to a time when humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks. A fact that remains a surprise to many of us, in pre-industrial Europe, households retired to bed after dusk for a ‘first’ sleep. A few hours later, they rose for one or two hours’ nocturnal activity, then returned to bed for a ‘second’ sleep until dawn.
What on earth were they doing in that hiatus between the first and second sleep? A whole range of things is the answer. Moonlit pursuits ranged from sewing, smoking, praying, chopping wood, imbibing ‘a hott drinke’, reading, visiting neighbours and, of course, sex: indeed, a doctor’s manual published in sixteenth-century France recommended indulging in a spot of procreation ‘after the first sleep’ for the simple reason that then people derive more ‘enjoyment’ from it and thus ‘do it better.’
According to the world’s expert on this subject,