Main content

Sleep: A Third of Human History

Sarah Dunant examines sleep throughout history discovering how, from medieval wet dreams to overworked Victorians, this most human of acts has proved a perpetual source of worry.

Sarah Dunant presents a monthly dive into stories from the past that might help us make sense of today. This month, she examines sleep as a source of preoccupation and worry throughout history.

Are you feeling tired? How many hours did you get last night? Feeling foggy with exhaustion? What about the leaders whose punishing schedules have them running up sleep debts of mammoth proportions? William Gladstone's detailed diaries recording his insomnia and its effects, are now historical artefacts. How might historians, fifty years from now, make use of Theresa May's crammed itinerary?

These questions and a raft of other anxieties have plagued people throughout history, as they grappled with the necessary but infuriatingly mysterious phenomenon of sleep. From the medieval theologians struggling with the implications of wet dreams to the overworked, up-all-hours lifestyle of the emergent professional classes in Victorian Britain, the quest to understand sleep - or even just to get it - has always been an illuminating insight into the mind and body.

Sleep, and its absence, has a huge effect on human rhythms and behaviour, as well as the epoch-making decisions of the past, and through the study of it, historians are uncovering the hidden story of a third of our lives - a third of human history.

Sarah’s guests are:
Professor Sasha Handley, University of Manchester
Professor Jonathan White, Christopher Newport University
Dr William MacLehose, University College London
Professor Sally Shuttleworth, University of Oxford

Presenter: Sarah Dunant
Producers: Natalie Steed and Nathan Gower
Executive Producer: David Prest
Readers: Matt Addis and Karina Fernandez
A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

Available now

28 minutes

Last on

Mon 7 Jan 2019 23:00

Further Reading from Contributors

Professor Jonathan White, Christopher Newport University

Midnight in America: Darkness, Sleep, and Dreams during the Civil War


Professor Sally Shuttleworth, Oxford University

The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science and Medicine, 1840-1900


Professor Sasha Handley, University of Manchester

Sleep in Early Modern England


Dr William MacLehose, University College London

‘Sleepwalking, violence and desire in the middle ages’ in Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry


Dig deep with extra sources

The True Relation of Two Wonderfull Sleepers (Anonymous 17th century pamphlet)


  • Mon 7 Jan 2019 23:00