Sleeping on it: using history to address today’s ‘sleep crisis’
An AHRC Follow-On Funding-backed project researching the value of sleep throughout early-modern history has helped to bring sleep and wellbeing into focus for the National Trust, both for the public and staff, and has strengthened the work of The Children’s Sleep Charity.
- Influenced the design of a new National Trust public programme and training for staff and volunteers.
- Changed the National Trust’s business strategy to prioritise research-led programming for the public with a particular focus on health and wellbeing.
- Strengthened The Children’s Sleep Charity’s efforts to encourage healthy sleep behaviours among under-15s.
The value of sleep is not just the kingpin in 21st century wellness culture. Professor of Early Modern History Sasha Handley’s research into sleep’s historic value has revealed the motivations that past societies had to regulate their sleeping practices and how they related to people’s physical, emotional and spiritual health.
The research has informed a series of events and outreach programmes, influencing the National Trust’s research-led programming for the public with a health and wellbeing focus, and strengthening work by The Children’s Sleep Charity.
Handley’s book Sleep in Early Modern England uncovered a world in which sleeping soundly was understood to be pivotal to physical vigour, emotional wellbeing, prosperity, personal reputation and spiritual health. Healthy sleep routines were also prized as a crucial part of the preventative healthcare culture that characterised 17th and 18th century medical practices. As a result, people took care to regulate their bedtimes, to prepare soporific tonics and foodstuffs, and to stuff their pillows and mattresses with sleep-inducing herbs such as lavender, hops and roses.
Attitudes to sleep in early modern England present an instructive toolkit for the present day, showing that the way people think about sleep and how they manage it have a critical effect on sleep quality.
Handley’s research brought historic sleep habits to life as part of a public programming project with the National Trust entitled ‘How we used to sleep’, contributing to the design of the programme and producing new training for the Trust’s staff and volunteers.
“This project established the importance of humanity’s perspectives within debates about today's global sleep crisis. ”
Professor of Early Modern History
The University of Manchester.
Positive impact on sleep behaviours
An AHRC Follow-On Funding award set in motion a year-long programme of sleep-themed exhibitions, workshops, outreach events, films, blog posts, and staff training exercises in partnership with the National Trust’s Tudor properties Little Moreton Hall and Merchant’s House. The project’s success also changed the National Trust’s business strategy to prioritise research-led programming for the public with a particular focus on health and wellbeing. Many visitors noted a positive impact on their own sleep behaviours.
The project even influenced the work of The Children’s Sleep Charity, whose CEO noted how it strengthened the charity's efforts to encourage healthy sleep behaviours among under-15s.
Endemic sleep loss and sleep disorders, particularly among young people, appear pervasive in many societies around the world and they have been linked to serious long-term physical and mental health problems. Handley’s research supported the provision of educational materials and engagement with school communities to raise awareness of sleep's history, and its importance for contemporary healthcare strategies.
Thanks to a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award, Handley’s research work is continuing, and its achievements can be followed via the project website.
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- Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, School of Arts, Lanugauges and Cultures