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Shakespeare & Beyond

Early modern sleep care: Recipes for restful sleep

In the Folger Shakespeare Library’s world-renowned collection of manuscript recipe books lies Thomas Sheppey’s Book of choice receipts (ca.1675). It is largely composed of medical recipes, which Sheppey pieced together from other manuscripts and published medical works. At almost 500 pages long it is one of the library’s most expansive repositories of early modern medical knowledge.

Book of choice receipts Book of choice receipts
Thomas Sheppey, ‘Book of choice receipts collected from several famous authors a great part in monasteries and often experimented as to a great number of them’, ca.1675, Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.A.452.

Sheppey devoted several densely written pages of his manuscript to the topic of sleep — how to trigger it, how to interrupt it, how to influence its depth and length, and even how to stop people talking in their sleep. Early modern people treasured sound sleep as a vital restorative to mind and body, and it occupied a central place within the popular corpus of preventative healthcare known as the six non-natural things, which influenced healthcare practices across early modern Europe.

Sheppey’s Book of choice receipts suggests that restful sleep could be procured by washing your feet in a mixture of water and white willow leaves. White willow was widely valued for dissipating excess heat within the body and for easing aches and pains, and it could be found in plentiful supply near riversides and in watery ground.

Recipe for sleep using willow leavesRecipe for sleep using willow leaves
Recipe using white willow leaves. Sheppey, ‘Book of choice receipts’, fol. 318

Agrimony, a spiky primrose flower that grows well in hedge banks, field-borders, and grassy areas, could be laid onto the head or chest, which Sheppey believed would guarantee that the patient “will not wake till it be removed”.

Recipe for sleep using agrimonyRecipe for sleep using agrimony
Recipe using agrimony. Sheppey, ‘Book of choice receipts’, fol. 318

The acknowledged sedative powers of wormwood, lettuce, camomile, fennel, mandrake, and distilled cowslip leaves ensured them an equally prominent place within Sheppey’s compendium.

Commonplace flora and fauna furnished key soporific ingredients. Sow’s milk was judged to be “a speciall thing to cause sleep” whilst a more bloody recipe to cure sleeplessness involved slitting a pigeon in half and laying its divided body on either side of the temples to draw out ill humors.

Sow's milkSow's milk
Recipe using cow’s milk. Sheppey, ‘Book of choice receipts’, fol. 320
Dividing a pigeonDividing a pigeon
Instructions on dividing a pigeon. Sheppey, ‘Book of choice receipts’, fol. 319

I encountered Thomas Sheppey’s book in 2019 while at the Folger on a fellowship as part of the ‘Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures‘ project. At that time I was hunting for posset recipes— a milky foodstuff that was widely used as a health restorative and as an aphrodisiac for newlyweds on their wedding day.

But as I surveyed the manuscript recipes in the Folger reading room, I was also struck by the incredible variety of ways in which people used their physical surroundings to help them manage their sleep routines, whether to prepare sleep tonics, to make and cleanse their bedding materials, or to control the climatic conditions of their bedchambers.

Eager to discover more about how environmental forces and materials influenced people’s sleep routines, I applied for a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award for the project: ‘Sleeping well in the early modern world: an environmental approach to the history of sleep care’.

The bid was successful and from October 2021 I will lead a small team of researchers to investigate the distinctive set of environmental relations and practices that shaped people’s sleep timings, sleep spaces, soporific foodstuffs, and medicines in ecologically distinct parts of Britain, Ireland, and England’s emergent colonies of Virginia and Newfoundland.

The team will consider the assortment of soporific herbs, plants, and flowers that were used to manage sleep in regions with distinctive landscape features and climates, from the boggy wetlands of Ireland to the temperate marine climates of coastal England, Scotland, and Newfoundland.

The project will also be the first to assess the impact of early modern processes of environmental change upon people’s experiences of sleep. Did the cooling effects of the ‘Little Ice Age’ shape the ways in which people managed their sleep? How did agrarian reform, land enclosure movements, large-scale drainage projects, and the increased mobility of early modern people both within and outside of their native countries influence how they managed their sleep?

By prioritizing these questions, we hope to shed light on the geo-specific nature of these essential healthcare practices, the deep-seated environmental knowledge of early modern communities, and the lively exchange of medical expertise and materials between old and new world communities.

The project will also reassess the primacy of modern ‘watershed’ moments such as industrialization and the digital revolution in transforming human sleep fortunes, by drawing attention to an earlier phase of environmental change and to the ways in which people engaged with their environments to manage their sleep.

Thomas Sheppey’s collection of sleep tonics will sit at the heart of this project, as will the soporific foodstuffs and medicaments that are littered throughout the Folger’s recipe books. They reveal the ecological diversity of early modern environments and the vital role that they played in shaping people’s sleep.


I would think that many of the “medical” remedies and beliefs are best avoided.

Rachel Bowen — June 26, 2021