Dr Neil Stanley Independent Sleep Expert
The influence of religious observance on sleep in pre-industrial England - Part 1 In his 2001 paper ‘Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles’. Roger Ekirch claims that “Until the close of the early modern era, Western Europeans on most evenings experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness“. Ekirch says that “At first glance, it is tempting to view this pattern of broken sleep as a cultural relic rooted in early Christian experience” and although he admits that “the church itself was not responsible for introducing segmented sleep” he does claim that by popularising the regimen of early Morning Prayer it had “colonized the period of wakefulness between intervals of slumber”. So to what degree, if any, did religious observance actually influence sleep in pre-industrial England? The history of midnight prayer can be traced back to the very beginnings of the Christian church. Horneck claims that the practice of midnight devotions can be traced back to the 1st Century “The Heathen, especially in the first and second Centuries after Christ, took so much notice of these midnight devotions of the Christians, that they ordinarily call'd them Owls, and men that shunn'd day-light, and though it's true, they accused them of promiscuous Copulations, eating of Children, and such Crimes, partly because they could not tell, what they did in those night Assemblies, and therefore suspected it must be some ill thing they did, because they made use of the night” and that Christians in Pliny's time, used to hold their meetings at night because “their Adversaries the Heathen were asleep, and therefore unlikely to disturb them in their Worship.” The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome approx. 215AD advises “Around midnight rise and wash your hands with water and pray”. In the 4th Century St Jerome in his letter to Eustochium instructs that “We should rise two or three times in the night, and go over the parts of Scripture which we know by heart” (Letter 22  Letters of St Jerome Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) and St. Chrysostom (347-407) in his Horm on Psalm VI. states “The night was not made to be spent entirely in sleep” (St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople: His Life, Eloquence, and ... By William Joseph Walter 1842). Ruffinus (340-410 AD) writes about seven men (the ‘Fathers of the Desert’) “who divided the night, and allotted four hours for sleeping, four for praising of God, and prayer, and four for working, and likewise the day, and appointed six for working, three for reading, and praying, three for eating, and walking. Procter and Frere (Francis Procter and W. H. Frere, A New History of the Book of Common Prayer London: Macmillan, 1908), here  give an outline of the development of midnight vigil although they say that “The whole of this history is very obscure” Early Christian fathers such as Clement of Alexandria (c. 195), and Tertullian (c. 200) are cited as ‘authorities ...to the use of a formal midnight prayer or Vigil’ and they say that it was ‘probably the Vigil or midnight service which first acquired’ public recognition and for which ‘public services began to be devised’. The reason for this was that ‘The early Christians were deeply impressed with the expectation that our Lord’s Second Coming, which they deemed imminent, would be at midnight and at the Paschal solemnities’. Thus the night preceding Easter was ‘a Vigil with continuous services preparatory to Easter Communion’ and then by ‘a natural process the Vigil was repeated before other Sundays, and in some cases before Saturdays’ and then ‘it came to be considered a natural preparation for any great day, and was prefixed also to Saints’ days’. They go on to say that ‘Later, when monastic influences began to act powerfully upon the services, the night service became a daily institution, but by the same process it was reduced in its proportions till it became the mediæval service of Nocturns, i.e., a midnight service of psalms and lessons of varying length according to circumstances’. Procter and Frere state that ‘The exact line of connexion between the occasional vigil and the daily vigil cannot be very exactly traced’ although they say that ‘This system of Hours of Prayer was already complete in the West, probably by the end of the fifth century’ The spread of monastic practice in to the ‘secular’ world is described by Procter and Frere ‘At first the, ‘religious’ of both sexes, other than hermits, lived at home and went to the churches for their devotions, and thus their private prayers became joint and public prayers. Then the clergy began to take an increasing part in the Hours. Meanwhile convent life was devised, and with it came a great enlargement of the system of Hour Services: this again further affected the clergy, who were not willing to be left behind in the course of progress, but were obliged to adopt the new ideas. Thus the system became obligatory upon clergy as well as characteristic of monasticism, and ‘secular’ schemes took their place side by side with monastic schemes of service.’ Palmer in 1832 here gives his version of the history on midnight vigils, The nocturns or vigils were derived from the earliest periods of Christianity. We learn from Pliny, as well as from Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and various writers of the three first centuries, that the Christians in those times of persecution held their assemblies in the night, in order to avoid detection. On these occasions they celebrated the memory of Christ’s death in the holy mysteries. When persecution had intermitted and finally ceased, although the Christians were able to celebrate all their rites, and did administer the sacrament in the day-time, yet a custom which had commenced from necessity was retained from devotion and choice; and nocturnal assemblies for the worship of God in psalmody and reading still continued. The monastic orders, who in the fourth century arose under Pachomius, Anthony, Basil, and others, in Egypt, Pontus, and Syria, tended to preserve this custom of nocturnal vigils: and in the following centuries we find from the testimony of Cassian, Augustine, Sidonius, Apollinaris, Sozomen, &c. that the same custom remained in most parts of the East and West. In the sixth century Benedict, the great founder of monastic societies in the West, prescribed the same in his Rule; and doubtless the nocturnal assemblies were common about that time, especially in monasteries. The most famous monastic scheme is The Rule of St. Benedict (6th century) required that monks rise after midnight for the recital of verses and psalms “It seems reasonable to arise at the 8th hour of the night. By sleeping until a little past the middle of the night, the brothers can arise with their food fully digested” (Chapter 8, 1–2). Although the Rules of St. Benedict spread throughout the monasteries of Western Europe and Night vigils became standard practices there were in fact large variations in the timing of this vigils in different countries, it could occur as late as 3.30 am or even after daybreak. This variation of timing was to a degree influenced by the different day/night lengths in the various monasteries as can be seen by the injunction in Chapter VIII of the Rule of St. Benedict Of the Divine Office during the Night Making due allowance for circumstances, the brethren will rise during the winter season, that is, from the calends of November till Easter, at the eighth hour of the night; so that, having rested till a little after midnight, they may rise refreshed. The time, however, which remains over afterthe night office (Matins) will be employed in study by those of the brethren who still have some parts of the psalms and the lessons to learn. But from Easter to the aforesaid calends, let the hour for celebrating the night office (Matins) be so arranged, that after a very short interval, during which the brethren may go out for the necessities of nature, the morning office (Lauds), which is to be said at the break of day, may follow presently that in summer the monks should wake later, in order that they could get sufficient sleep before waking in the shorter summer nights (A History of Prayer The First to the Fifteenth Century Edited by Roy Hammerling Leiden & Boston 2008). Niaussat & Thomas, (2000) write that “In the Benedictine Order, sleep was a single period, with an awakening 03:30 h for a prayer named Vigils (or Matins, which stands in Latin for “coming with the morning”). The word Vigils refers in Latin to “night watch.” The nightly Vigils ended with dawn and the prayer of Lauds, which symbolized the resurrection and ended with sunrise”. The Cistercians had their own interpretation of the convention of night vigils as “Whilst the Cistercians were noted for the brevity of their Divine Office, their decision to forego the customary pre- Lauds nap attracted the most attention from contemporaries.” and further on “The Cistercians, ‘sterner and more stricter with themselves’12 dispensed with this nap so that they could remain in prayer and vigil until daybreak, when Lauds was sung. Their intention was noble but overly ambitious, so to sustain their prayers they rose later, and were noted for their tardy start” here. Walter Map in De nugis curialium written around 1200 cynically remarked on this: “After some time the practice appeared too hard for them and as it was disgraceful to change their rule they preferred to change the midnight hour into that before dawn, so that the service might end with night, and the rule suffer no deviation!” Almost all monastic rules limited sleep duration but it was longer in winter than in summer. Saint Columba 6th century recommended monks sleep no more than 5 hours a day. John Cassian (4th century), underlined that the duration of sleep had to be sufficient to avoid daytime sleepiness and to this end he recommended a sleep of 7 to 8 h. To compensate for the shortened sleep in summer (4 h and 15 min) he recommended taking a siesta after Sext lasting up to 3 h.  Saint Peter Damian (11th century) in his chapter named “De somni ratione,” recognized that the use of the meridian siesta in summer allowed the Offices to be more correctly celebrated. In other orders, sleep time was split by the night time Office, also called Matins, and followed by the Lauds. The Psalms contained indications of time, such as: “At midnight I will rise and thank You.” Here the idea was again to obtain a more continual prayer, the monks being awake, so that the rest of the world could peacefully sleep. Other reasons for being awake in the middle of the night included the benefit  of total silence to read the holy texts the belief that that most divine messages had been delivered at night, and, hence, one should be awake to receive them, asceticism, and the avoidance of sleep-associated nightmares and unwanted dreams, which are uncontrolled and possible sent by the devil.In the Irish abbey of Bangor (6th century), the daytime and night time organization included seven different teams of monks, who relayed each other to continuously pray and sing all night long. The Coptic monks in Egypt still follow a 4- to 5-h long night Office with one monk singing the Psalms and another one reading holy texts, while the other monks come and leave the church at any time during the night. (Isabelle Arnulf, Agnès Brion, Michel Pottier & Jean-Louis Golmard (2011) Ring the Bell for Matins: Circadian Adaptation to Split Sleep by Cloistered Monks and Nuns, Chronobiology International, 28:10, 930-941, here) These earlier descriptions differ from that of Abbot Gasquet’s description of the medieval day given in, English Monastic Life (London, 1905); here which states that “At seven o’clock in the winter, and eight in the summer, the tolling of the bell called the community to Compline”. Thus  “Before half-past seven, then, in winter, and an hour later than this in summer, all would have been in bed, and the busy round of duties, which so completely filled the working day of every mediæval monastery, would have come to an end”. In writing about Matins Gasquet states that “The night Office in most monasteries began at midnight, although in some places the time varied according to the seasons of the year, from that hour till half-past two or three o’clock”. Once Matins is over “immediately the bells began to ring for Lauds” which “In ancient days the Office of Lauds was called -Matutinæ Laudes-“the morning praises”--because they were supposed to be always celebrated at dawn of day. In mediæval monasteries, however, this canonical Hour was generally said or sung, with only a short interval between it and Matins”. Once Lauds had finished “the community retired once more to the dormitory and to bed. It would have been probably some time about half-past one or two in the morning before the monks found themselves once more in bed for their second period of repose”. Gasquet writes that “It is somewhat difficult to say exactly at what time the Hour of Prime was generally said in a mediæval monastery. It is possible, however, to assume that it was not earlier than six or later than seven o’clock in the morning”. Therefore “At seven o’clock, then, or thereabouts, after the monks had been allowed five hours for the term of their second repose--making with the rest they had had previous to the midnight Office, about eight hours in all”. Night Vigils were still observed in the medieval ages, Alan of Lille (12th Century) stated that night vigils "were not instituted without reason, for by them it is signified that we must rise in the middle of the night to sing the night office, so that the night may not pass without divine praise." (Alan of Lille, The Art of Preaching, Gillian R. Evans, trans. Kalamazoo, Mich., 1981). Ekirch writes that “Best known for advocating this regimen was the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, author of The Dark Night of the Soul”, however I can find nothing to support this assertion. here, here. However their observance lead to some rather extreme behaviour, for example the blessed Benvenuta in the 13th Century was said to spend “the greater part of the night in watching; and, when she felt herself overcome by sleep, she would rub her eyes with vinegar, thus rendering it impossible for her to close them”. Ekirch writes “By the High Middle Ages, the Catholic Church actively encouraged early morning prayer among Christians as a means of appealing to God during the still hours of darkness” so ‘encouraging’ were they that an, albeit small, part of the accusation of heresy against the first Protestant martyr, William Sawtry, was that he was said to have stated “That a Deacon and every Priest is more obliged to preach the Word of God, than to say Matins and other canonical Hours”, and furethermore it was allaedged that “He also said, that he had many Days omitted Matins and the other canonical Hours, when he was in Health, because of different Occupatians, viz. hearing Confessions, and Study, and, that on those Days he celebrated Mass; and said further, that a Priest in such wise occupied in conffessions, Prayers, or Study, is not obliged to say Matins and other canonical Hours”. here  In discussing the ‘night Service’ of the primitive church Cardinal Newman writes that it ‘was intended for the end of the night, when it was still dark, but drawing towards day; and, considering that the hour for rest was placed soon after sunset, it did not infringe upon the time necessary for repose. Supposing the time of sleep to extend from 8 or 9 p.m. to 3 or 4 in the morning, the worshipper might then rise without inconvenience to perform the service which was called variously by the name of Nocturns, or Matins, as we still differently describe the hours in which it took place, as night or morning’ . (Tracts For The Times. Members Of The University Of Oxford. Vol. Iii. 1835-6.  New Edition. London: Printed For J. G. F. & J. Rivington. here) Ekirch asserts that “in England voices within both the Catholic and Anglican churches still prescribed late night vigils in the eighteenth century” however these ‘voices’ would appear to be contrary to the prevailing Protestant orthodoxy. Palmer 1832 says “In later times, when the discipline of the clergy and of monastic societies relaxed, the custom of rising in the night for the purpose of celebrating public worship became obsolete in most places; so that the nocturnal service was joined in practice to the matin lauds, and both were repeated at the same time early in the morning”. This relaxing of monastic observance is described by Pilkington Bishop of Durham in 1561 who wrote that  “In Paul’s and abbeys at their midnight prayers were none commonly, but a few bawling priests, young quiristers and novices, which understood not what they said; the elder sort kept their beds, or were worse occupied. A prayer not understand in the heart, but spoken with the lips, is rather to be counted prating and bawling, than praying with good devotion. The elder sort, both in cathedral churches and abbeys, almost never came at their midnight prayer: it was thought enough to knoll the bells, and make men believe that they rose to pray: therefore they have not so much to crack of this their doing”. The reason for this change is described by Palmer 1832 “The church of England, at the revision of our offices in the reign of Edward the Sixth” i.e. the introduction of the Archbishop Cranmers’ Book of Common Prayer 1549, “only prescribed public worship in the morning and the evening; and in making this regulation she was perfectly justified: for though it is the duty of Christians to pray continually, yet the precise times and seasons of prayer, termed canonical hours, do not rest on any divine command; nor have they [205] ever been pronounced binding on all churches by any general council: neither has there been any uniformity in the practice of the Christian church in this respect”. Given that the Book of Common Prayer represented the official doctrine of the Church of England there was thus no ‘official’ church instruction to the laity as to the need to perform late night vigils herehere. It is perhaps for this reason that a hundred or so years later the Protestant clergyman and scholar Anthony Horneck (1681) writes that “This Zeal’ to perform midnight prayers “in these latter ages is grown cold” and describes the “lukewarmness of the present times” to these nightly devotions, which he says that are now “much out of fashion”. Although Ekirch claims that segmented sleep was the norm and while there are a number of accounts of people carrying out midnight prayers, descriptions imply that even very pious individuals found it hard to do so. For instance The Rule of St. Columbanus c. 590 described a harsh ascetical regime here “Let him come weary and as if sleep- walking to his bed, and let him be forced to rise while his sleep is not yet finished.” A description of the nocturnal devotions pf Princess Louise, a French Carmelite nun between 1771-1787 explains that “All the time in the night she could not sleep, she employed in prayer. If she awoke a little before midnight, she prayed till the clock struck, and as soon as it did, she arose, prostrated on the floor, and said a prayer to honour the mystery of Jesus Christ entering into the world to redeem mankind. As I represented to her one day that such a practice was not very easy and comfortable, she answered me, that, " Truly it cost her much, especially when the cold was very severe: but, what is all that," said she, " to testify our love to him who has shed the very last drop of his blood for our salvation ?"here. Horneck The happy Ascetick; or the Best Exercise …; to which is added, A Letter to a Person of Quality concerning the Holy Lives of the Primitive Christians,’ 1681 provides an extensive guide to the practice of midnight prayers in the late 17th Century and says that he is writing his rules “to see, how far this Exercise may be revived among us”. He believes that “rising at midnight to devotion” may “easily be performed, and practised every night, especially by Men and Women, who are single, and have nothing to take care for, but the things of God; and there can be no great difficulty in it, if we will but force our selves, and push nature forward where it is loath to go. This would make us awake as duly about that time, as we do at seven or eight of the Clock in the morning. Nature is a very tractable thing, especially where people are healthy, and will yield to modest violence, and the Scepter of Reason” this passage clearly implies that for Horneck there is nothing natural about waking at midnight as we have to ‘force our selves to do so and that this requires that we ‘push nature forward where it is loath to go’. Indeed he even says that this practice may actually be harmful to some “These Vigils, or Watchings at night to acts of devotion may be prejudicial to persons, that labour under weakness of body, nay and to such as work hard in the day time, whether the Work be Preaching or Servile labour”. He also describes the situation that “sometimes people, that have work'd all day cannot sleep, and had not they better consecrate that time to the praises of that God, who neither slumbers, nor sleeps?” indicating for some at least that it was an occasional occurrence rather than a nightly habit. More than this he also explains that “This Exercise at night may lawfully be neglected, if the evil that may ensue upon it, be greater, than the good which can be expected from it” for example if doing so will lead to ‘quarrelling about it’ with your wife.  “This Exercise at night may lawfully be neglected, if the evil that may ensue upon it, be greater, than the good which can be expected from it”. “for a man may find upon frequent Tryal, that it either indisposes him for nobler Duties, or discomposes him in his Health, whereby he is hindred from doing God farther service, and in such cases it may without sin be laid aside” “a weak Christian may sink into great perplexities, because his strength will not bear this Exercise” “or a man may have a Wife, that is exceeding tender of him, and upon his exercising himself in this manner, may either lead him a very unquiet life, or make herself sick with vexing and grieving at his austerities, upon a fancy that it will shorten his life, or cast him into some dangerous sickness, and consequently by her continual, and importunate, quarrelling about it, cause great disorders in the Family, and by that means put a stop to the free course of some greater Duties; and in both these cases, it may lawfully be omitted” The difficulty in observing nocturnal vigils is still seen in monasteries today, a study of monks published in 2011 showed that “Six monks never woke before Matins and four monks were occasionally awake before Matins, but none were almost often or often awake before Matins”. Furthermore all the monks questioned “used several (two to six) alarm clocks” in order to wake them. The monks “reported that it took them between 6 mo and 5 yr to adapt to the rhythm when they entered the community” and four of them claimed to still had difficulties with the rhythm, even after having spent 20 to 46 yr of their life in the monastery, (Ring the Bell for Matins: Circadian Adaptation to Split Sleep by Cloistered Monks and Nuns. Isabelle Arnulf, Agnès Brion, Michel Pottier, and Jean-Louis Golmard Chronobiology International, 28(10): 930–941, 2011). People carrying out midnight prayers would appear to be a significant minority, with for instance many of Horneck’s contemporaries seem to be asleep at midnight for he writes ”In the dead of the night, while other people sleep, to get up and to converse with God, is to be truly ambitious of His favour, and it is his Rule”. (Indeed he sees that the Christian getting up to pay at midnight is in fact a service to the community in offering some form of protection to ones neighbours “To rise thus at midnight to praise God is an act of Charity to our Neighbours ; for Thieves, and Purloiners finding us up at a time which they pitch up on for their Robberies , may be afraid of making attempts upon a Neighbours house for fear of being discover'd by us, who are awake, and engaged in devotion. Not to mention, that such Exercises of singing praises unto God , may strike the Robber, if he hear them into fear and trembling, and oblige him to go away without his intended Prey, as much as the innocent Infants smiles did the Turk, that came with an intent to Murder it ; so that this Watching at night is to contribute in part to the publick Good, and to be instrumental in our Neighbours Preservation” . The mediaeval parent, quoted by Ekirch (Danielle Régnier-Bohler, "Imagining the Self," in Revelations of the Medieval World, Georges Duby, ed., Arthur Goldhammer, trans., vol. 2 of Ariès and Duby, History of Private Life) “I believe, my dear daughter the most profitable hour for you and us might be in the middle of the night after going to sleep, after digesting the meat, when the labors of the world are cast off and set aside, and when the neighbours will not see you and no one will look at you except for God." Note that the middle of the night only ‘might’ be the best time for prayer and that once again this passage indicates that most other people are asleep at this time., who instructed her daughter The parent is female not male as Ekirch states that the best time for them to pray “might be in the middle of the night after going to sleep” one of the reason for which was that this was “when the neighbours will not see you” presumabaly because they were asleep at this time. The same is true fro early morning prayer, Ekirch uses the following quote from 1690—"Why People are not so Religious of late, To break their Sleep to serve Heav'n"—“reflected the early decline of segmented slumber generally, not just the infrequency of midnight devotions”. However this is not a servant’s query as Ekirch claims but a line from a play, spoken by the character at 5am. In the scene Guzman, the servant, is scared of being discovered out at that time and Farmosa tells him not to worry as he will not be discovered because people are not that religious to ‘break their sleep’ to worship. Act I Scence III Guz.Well I must be gone, The Morning's nimble and gets ground of us,' Adieu ! Far. Why in such haste?. Guz. My Master will want me, hark, the Bell Ririgs to Morning Exercise, shall be discover’d."Far. Why People are not so Religious of late, To break their Sleep to serve Heav'n. Guz. Tis the 5-a-Clock Bell. Far. Why let it be-the 6-a- Clock Bell, it Rings not for you, you are eager at every Call but mine. Guz. Nay Farmosa, ‘tis Reputation. Far. 'Tis your Uneasiness ; but go and you will ; here  Baxter, in 1673  (A Christian directory, or, A summ of practical theologie and cases of conscience directing Christians how to use their knowledge and faith, how to improve all helps and means, and to perform all duties, how to overcome temptations, and to escape or mortifie every sin : in four parts . London: Printed by Robert White for Nevill Simmons ..., 1673.here) talks about how “those that wake in the night, do wake unwillingly” rather contradicting Ekirch idea that midnight waking was normal §. 20. Direct. 20. When you compose your selves to sleep, again commit your selves to God through Christ, and crave his protection, and close up the day with some holy exercise of Faith and Love: And if you are persons that must needs lye waking in the night, let your meditations be holy, and exercised upon that subject that is profitablest to your souls. But I cannot give this as an ordinary direction, because that the body must have sleep, or else it will be unfit for labour, and all thoughts of holy things must be serious: and all serious thoughts will hinder sleep: and those that wake in the night, do wake unwillingly, and would not put themselves out of hopes of sleep, which such serious meditations would do. Nor can I advise you (ordinarily) to rise in the night to prayer, as the Papists Votaries do. For this is but to serve God with irrational and hurtful ceremony: (And it is a wonder how far such men will go in Ceremony; that will not be drawn to a life of Love and spiritual Worship!) Unless men did irrationally place the service of God in praying this hour rather than another, they might see how improvidently and sinfully they lose their time; in twice dressing and undressing, and in the intervals of their sleep, when they might spare all that time, by sitting up the longer, or rising the earlier, for the same employment. Besides what tendency it hath to the destruction of health, by cold and interruption of necessary rest: when God approveth not of the disabling of the body, or destroying our health, or shortning life (no more than of murder or cruelty to others), but only calleth us to deny our unnecessary sensual delights, and use the body so as it may be most serviceable to the soul and him.
© Dr. Neil Stanley 2013-2019