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Sleep, Insomnia and Wellbeing: Historical Perspectives

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Duration: 0:15:31 | Added: 22 May 2024
The Sleep and the Rhythms of Life Network welcomed Brigitte Steger (Japanese Studies, Cambridge) and Megan Leitch (English Literature, Cardiff, and President of the International Arthurian Society British Branch) to present two papers.


Brigitte Steger (Associate Professor in Japanese Studies, University of Cambridge): "At night I lie in bed but cannot sleep" - Insomnia and loneliness in early Japanese literature

It is easy to think that the widespread problem of insomnia today is due to the stress of our hectic lives and the 24-hour nature of our societies, whereas in pre-industrial times people naturally went to bed when it got dark and got up with the sun after a sound night's sleep. However, Japanese literature of the Heian and Kamakura periods (9th to 14th century) depicts men and women of the nobility spending many hours awake at night-on duty at the palace, sitting on verandas admiring the moon, receiving visitors, taking turns to tell stories, playing music, travelling on pilgrimages and in a myriad of other settings. Besides such voluntary sleeplessness, the aristocratic men and women of the capital Heian (present-day Kyoto) suffered from insomnia. Complaints about sleeplessness due to uncomfortable beds, extremes of temperature, communal sleeping arrangements and houses that provided little protection against the weather and intruders, however, are all noticeable by their absence. The cause of their insomnia was overwhelmingly emotional. In this presentation I will demonstrate how it was the death of a parent, an emperor's illness, the absence of close friends and family and-above all-neglect by a lover that robbed people of their sleep, and how in poetry, novels and literary diaries, a reference to one's inability to sleep could also be employed metaphorically to express depth of feeling and aesthetic sophistication.

Megan Leitch (Reader in English Literature, Cardiff University): 'Sleeping it Off: Sleep, Wellbeing and the Emotions in Middle English Literature'

This paper explores the interrelations of sleep, wellbeing and the emotions in later medieval English literature. In the humoral theory of the body, in which health and well-being were determined by an individual's fluctuating economy of liquids with emotional attributes, sleep had a powerful role to play in generating balance by transforming food into the four humours during digestion. Thus, while sleep was important for physical health, sleep was also significant for mental health, offering relief from the 'unhealthful' humours of melancholy and choler. While medieval mentalities did not distinguish mental health from physical health in the same terms we do today, in pre-Cartesian conceptions of the interrelations of mind and body, holistic views of health meant that the implications of a bodily act such as sleep for emotional well-being were well recognised. Although this scientific paradigm was shared across medieval Europe, the literature of medieval England engages with it in distinctive ways.

As a form of sorrow-making and anger-management, sleep shapes subjectivities and judgements in English romances, cycle plays, and dream visions. Attending to the ways in which sleep parallels, as well as differs from, swooning as an expression of strong emotion in medieval English representations helps to deepen our understanding of the emotive scripts to which these two forms of unconsciousness contribute. Here, sleep both offers treatments and bodies forth truths about individuals that are culturally determined.

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