Fear the fairies

John Gallagher

  • Sleep in Early Modern England by Sasha Handley
    Yale, 280 pp, £25.00, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 300 22039 1

Of the thousands of people who visited the Buckinghamshire astrologer-physician and clergyman Richard Napier around the beginning of the 17th century, many were troubled by questions of sleep. The mother of 11-year-old Susan Blundell told Napier that her daughter was ‘now given mutch to sleeping’, and that two days before, she had slept ‘the space of 24 houres but that her sleepe was interrupted with her usuall fites & that very often.’ Margery Dayrell worried that her son Nathaniel could not sleep, though he was drowsy. John Windmill complained that he ‘cannot sleepe nor take any rest on his bed or up or Downe’. Hugh Thomson feared that his son, ‘who he supposeth to be taken or planet stroken’, had been unable to sleep the previous night. Broken and disrupted sleep could be a symptom of illness or a mark of being ill at ease: Thomas Bentley, of Turvey in Bedfordshire, consulted the astrologer because he found himself ‘Troubled in his sleepe with dreaming of Children’.

To draw the curtains around a bed and prop one’s body against a bolster was to court spiritual, medical and material danger. Sleep, Sasha Handley writes in her study of it in early modern England, ‘was understood as a state of transition between day and night, between degrees of consciousness, between the earthly and spiritual realms, and between life and death. The forces of nature moulded its boundaries, as did supernatural agents and human action.’ People ‘begged for divine protection by repenting of their sins at bedtime, by offering prayers in and around their bedsteads, and by filling their minds with holy thoughts, often with the aid of devotional texts, images and other meaningful objects’. The type of ‘sleep-piety’ you practised depended on confessional allegiance: Thomas Ken’s ‘White Paternoster’, a prayer to be said before bed, drew on a Catholic model but pruned it of saints, even though the bedchamber remained a place where Catholics and dissenters could follow their own practices in seclusion. Bedtime prayer was a necessary precaution in case of sudden death during the night, and guarded against demonic attack – fears that seemed real to many.

The site of sex, childbirth, sickness and death, the bed could also be a source of contagion. Hamlet plays with its less wholesome associations when he attacks his mother for living in ‘the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed,/Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty’. Thomas Tryon, a London merchant and the author of A Treatise of Cleanness (1682), warned that ‘beds suck in and receive all sorts of pernicious Excrements that are breathed forth by the Seating of various sorts of People, which have Leprous and Languishing Diseases, which lie and die on them.’ In a culture which thought the prospect of death should be kept in mind, the similarities between the linen sheets that clothed the body at night and those in which it would be wound after death did not go unnoticed. One clergyman mused that ‘[Not] always for my Rest shall I/A Bed and Blankets have./Soon shall the Moulds for Blankets serve,/And for my Bed the Grave.’ Morbid imaginings gave rise to material fears: before visiting Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill, one guest asked not to be put up in ‘your best chintz bed, as I am in the secret, and know Sir Robert died in it.’

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