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How We Used To Sleep


According to a recent report, approximately 40% of men, women and children across England and Wales are currently affected by sleeping problems. A recent Panorama documentary, entitled ‘Sleepless Britain’ went so far as to label this a ‘crisis’. This is a term that has been used to describe endemic sleep problems across the western world, seemingly triggered by the structure, values and material environments of our global 24/7 societies. The effects of this sleep crisis are many and varied. They range from the mental health problems reported by victims of sleep loss, to the increased risk of obesity, diabetes and heart attacks in people that are chronically sleep deprived. The pressures that these health problems exert on NHS resources is now being calculated by healthcare professionals, whilst governments, pharmaceutical companies, sleep researchers and multinational corporations estimate that billions of dollars, euros and pounds are lost each year due to sleep loss, which manifests in ‘absenteeism’ from work, or in ‘presenteeism’ – when workers are present but lack sufficient mental focus to perform their tasks effectively.

National Trust property, Little Moreton Hall
Little Moreton Hall. Credit: Dr. Sasha Handley, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, University of Manchester

How We Used To Sleep is an innovative collaboration between the University of Manchester and The National Trust’s Tudor-property Little Moreton Hall, which offers a critical toolkit for rethinking modern approaches to sleep-management. The project is funded by an AHRC Follow On Funding Award and it exploits the research of Dr. Sasha Handley (Senior Lecturer, University of Manchester), the project PI, whose recently-published book Sleep in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2016) uncovers a world in which sleeping soundly was understood to be pivotal to physical vigour, emotional wellbeing, prosperity, personal reputation and spiritual health. Sleep’s critical importance was deeply rooted within Christian beliefs and within a preventative culture of healthcare that was dominated by the principles of the six non-naturals things – a set of environmental and dietary rules in which sleeping and waking patterns were central to long-term physical and mental health. Regular habits of sleeping and waking were thus a foundation stone upon which human life depended. Sleep’s knowledge economy in early modern England thus presents an instructive case study for the present day by demonstrating that the way people think about sleep, and how they manage it, have a critical effect on sleep quality. This principle sits at the heart of this project and it supports the vital contribution of humanities scholars to contemporary debates about sleep quality and sleep ‘value’.

The Dream Library
The Dream Library. Credit: Dr. Sasha Handley, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, University of Manchester
Ceramics exhibition showing sleeping potions
Ceramics exhibition, with sleeping potions on display. Credit: Dr. Sasha Handley, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, University of Manchester

How We Used To Sleep is a wide-ranging, creative project that involves costumed interpreters, gardeners, staff and volunteers at Little Moreton Hall, as well as local artists, filmmakers, social enterprises, mental healthcare providers and service users, and school groups across the northwest. Visitors to the Hall can go on a ‘Sleep Walk’ adventure trail around the Hall and gardens, designed by the award-winning social enterprise Wild Rumpus, that will introduce them to early modern sleep routines, sleeping potions, a sleep-bed of medicinal plants, and to the nightmare creatures that were thought to prey upon vulnerable sleepers. A series of sleep-themed exhibitions are running throughout the year, looking at how bedding textiles were made and personalised within the home, which foods and drinks were judged most conducive to a good night’s sleep, and how they were prepared, alongside sleeping potions, within the Hall. Visitors can see, and even climb into, a typical four-posted bed from this period, as well as enjoy a whole host of sleep-themed talks, demonstrations, videos, and a sound installation focused on the noises of night-time. By walking in the footsteps of early modern people, visitors to the Hall can learn how to grow their own sleep herbs, and how to prepare their bodies, minds and bedrooms for a peaceful night’s sleep. They can also visit our Dream Library in the gardens at Little Moreton Hall to record and file their own dreams, whether good or bad, and learn how early modern people would have interpreted them. The Dream Library will go on tour to  the Just So Festival (18-20 August).

The project will have a powerful legacy amongst staff and volunteers at Little Moreton Hall, who have been trained in the core principles of early-modern sleep management, which they will share with visitors in future years. Educational resources linked to the project are also in preparation for the Primary and GCSE curricula and a series of talks with local community groups and charities, including Jodrell Decorative and Fine Arts Society and Macclesfield Society for the Blind, are taking place throughout the year. The Hall will also host a free public event on 12 August 2017 when The Tudor Group will recreate a series of Tudor bedtime routines as night-time falls.

We hope that this year-long calendar of activities will improve public understanding of how our perceptions and practices of sleep vary across time and across cultures. By understanding the central place that sleep occupied within the lives and homes of our ancestors, we hope that the project will encourage people to place greater value on their own sleep, and to optimise their sleep routines by drawing on lessons from the early modern world.

Information about all of these activities can be found at: www.historiesofsleep.com

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