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To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
When We Sleep

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When We Sleep

Night-time slumber was divided into “first” and “second” sleeps, separated by a period of wakeful activity. How many hours one should sleep was dictated by one’s humoral “complexion”—that is, the balance in the body of the four humors (blood, phlegm, choler or bile, and melancholy or black bile). Sleep was associated with cold and moisture, and therefore with phlegm, a cold, wet humor. Napping during the day was discouraged, as it was believed to cause, in the words of Thomas Cogan, “great domage & hurt of body.” And sleeping too much was both a physical and spiritual transgression.

Thomas Fella. A booke of diverse devices. Manuscript, ca. 1585-1622

Sleep was thought to be associated with the humors, which were closely related to a person's temperment. Both sloth and forgetfulness were moral vices associated with sleeping too long or at the wrong time of day.


Thomas Fella's heavily-illustrated miscellany includes an “alphabet” of moral advice. The letter F is devoted to sleep—particularly the fitful sleep of the rich as compared to the sweet sleep of  “a laboring man.”


And Scipion Du Plesis' The Resolver , a translation of the French Curiosité naturelle, poses and answers a question about the relative strength of “first sleep” that foregrounds the importance of digestion— namely that it produces fumes that ascend to the brain, and provokes sleep by “stop[ping] the conduits of the Senses.”



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