Until the modern age, most households had two distinct intervals of slumber, known as "first" and "second" sleep, bridged by an hour or more of quiet wakefulness. Usually, people would retire between 9 and 10 o'clock only to stir past midnight to smoke a pipe, brew a tub of ale or even converse with a neighbor.Why was I not informed of this earlier? Not only is this supremely interesting, but is it also useful. I often wake up after an interval of "first sleep," but I've never thought of it as anything but a problem, a form of insomnia to be combatted by getting back to sleep as soon as possible. I'm fascinated by the idea of valuing this wakeful interlude by engaging in activities that, for one reason or another, are done especially well in an hour between two sleeps.
Others remained in bed to pray or make love. This time after the first sleep was praised as uniquely suited for sexual intimacy; rested couples have "more enjoyment" and "do it better," as one 16th-century French doctor wrote. Often, people might simply have lain in bed ruminating on the meaning of a fresh dream, thereby permitting the conscious mind a window onto the human psyche that remains shuttered for those in the modern day too quick to awake and arise.
A. Roger Ekirch, the author of the linked article, theorizes that the older pattern of sleeping is the natural one, and our modern "consolidated sleep" is an artificial byproduct of artificial lighting. What we are perceiving as a sleep problem is really this natural form of sleeping breaking through.
This is simply amazing news. It might just change my way of living. I have been thinking that it's just terrible to go to bed as early as 9 only to wake up and see that it's midnight. I've thought that it's important to stay up late enough that you won't just be taking what turns out to be merely a nap, a sleep snack that spoils my appetite for a full meal of sleep. Now, I'm going to think, it's time for first sleep. On waking at midnight, instead of thinking, oh, no, there's no way I can start the day this early if I can't get back to sleep. I'm going to think it's a valuable opportunity, use the time, and feel confident about the arrival of the wholly natural and not at all weird second sleep.