- Sleep in Early Modern England by Sasha Handley
Sleep, as this fascinating book demonstrates, is an extremely rich field. Perhaps as a measure of this, Handley's is the third monograph on the topic to appear in English in some fifteen years. Although there are inevitably some areas of overlap, Sleep in Early Modern England is distinctive in several ways. Crucially, Roger Ekirch's At Day's Close (2005) and Craig Koslofsky's Evening's Empire (2011) are histories of "The Night," paying attention primarily to what goes on after dark. Handley's topic is sleep itself and all that pertains to it, and by framing her subject in relation to scientific research into sleep physiology, she argues that sleep practices are culturally rather than biologically determined. Hence she is interested in such issues as how, where and when people in early modern England slept, how they prepared for it, the material culture which enhanced it and the values attached to it. The result is a meticulously documented analysis drawing on an array of sources from diaries, inventories, medical tracts and literary texts, to "bed-related" objects. However, the broader picture is not lost as this detail is set against a dynamic narrative of change driven by medical, religious and social forces and the book should appeal to students and scholars from across these fields.
Another contrast with former studies is that their approach was panoramic: Ekirch's volume studies "western society" before 1800, whilst Koslofsky's tackles all early modern northern Europe. In contrast Handley's is limited geographically and chronologically to England from the 1660's to the 1780's. This is as it should be. Given that previous scholars have already mapped out the broader field, what was needed was a more focussed and systematic study and this is what the book does beautifully: delving down into the specificities of English sleep culture whilst tracing its evolution over time. That said, it would have helped the reader had Handley articulated more clearly what it was that made English sleep culture unique against that broader European backdrop.
Sleep, one of the Galenic six non-naturals, had long been considered crucial for good health but Handley argues that from the 1660's the emergence of new medical theories had a huge impact on understandings of sleep. Arguably her suggestion that there was a "growing awareness" (38) of its importance for mind and body is overstated, since by the Renaissance sleep was already valued for its extremely positive impact on the brain and intellectual functions. [End Page 1391] However, what she clearly shows is that understandings of how sleep functioned changed dramatically. Physicians such as Willis and later Boerhaave, Cullen and Cheyne focussed on the brain as the centre which controlled sleeping and waking; this new "neurological" medicine stressed the importance of sleep for "restoring" the nerves which promoted the vitality of the intellectual faculties. Nor are we are left with any doubt as to the long-term impact of neurological medicine on attitudes towards sleep, as the final chapter returns to the theme, revealing the emergence of a culture of social and intellectual distinctions based on sleep and "sensibility." This shows how widespread acceptance of the neurological foundations of sleep underpinned a growing sense of the relationship between the conscious and "non-conscious" mind. Thus sleep disorders became symptoms of one's "intellectual distinction" and "moral virtue" (188)–though as Handley shows, such interpretations were typically available only to elite males.
Handley's analysis of the impact of the 1662 Act of Unification, which restored the Church of England, shows that it led to an intensification of domestic devotions amongst those whom it excluded (non-conformist Protestants and Catholics alike), so that sleep piety took pride of place in the devotional economy of these households. The discussion of this topic is ably inflected by an awareness of scientific studies of sleep and the history of emotions. For example, sleep-related anxieties and the need for physical and psychological comfort are understood in relation to the purposeful way...