Watching: an opera for children about sleeping
Tobias Venner's portrait

Top Ten Sleep Hints in the Renaissance


These tips are taken from a book written by a seventeenth-century doctor called Tobias Venner, Via Recta ad Vitam Longam (The Right Way to a Long Life), published nearly four hundred years ago in 1637. Venner talks about what we should eat, how we should exercise, and even how we should arrange our thoughts. But he’s particularly interested in what he calls “the true use and effects of sleep” – as you’ll see!


Have a nightcap

Try some soup made of almond milk, barley, lettuce, violets and sugar. If you prefer a laxative, pulped prunes work well.


Draw the curtains

Don’t fall asleep in the moonlight or you’ll end up with a cold.


Stay cool

Make sure you don’t fall asleep anywhere too hot or you’ll faint when you wake up. But don’t get too chilly either! Wrap up well, especially your head.


Belly trouble

Avoid sleeping on your back or you’ll have nightmares and get cramps. If you’ve got wind, try sleeping on your belly. Keep your head propped up on a bolster so that your supper will find its way down to your stomach.


Keep turning

Go to sleep first on your right side, then after a while turn over onto your left. Curl up nicely to keep your bowels warm.


Stay fresh

Keep your mouth open to prevent bad breath, slimy gums and foul teeth. When you wake up, gargle with vinegar mixed with sage and cloves.


No catnapping

Don’t fall asleep at midday or your brain will end up full up of moisture and “vaporous superfluities”. The only people who may sleep at noon are old men. If you must go to sleep during the day, do it sitting up or you’ll get a headache – and don’t sleep for more than half an hour.


How much is enough?

Your dinner gets digested at night, so don’t stay up too late or you’ll end up with a terrible bellyache. Lack of sleep makes you dull and witless, makes your brain the wrong temperature, fills up your spleen with wind, hurts the eyes, damages the complexion, and makes you vulnerable to fevers.


Too much of a good thing?

Don’t have a lie-in, even at weekends, or your body will forget to “expurge its excrements”. Even worse, you’ll end up “sluggish, lumpish and unhealthful, heavy-headed, of no wit or memory.”


A tasty tip

If you can still taste last night’s supper when you wake up, go back to sleep!

Watching - Sat 21 March 2015 - Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh (photographer - Andy Catlin)

Plants used to treat sleep disorders

Plants to keep you asleep (and awake!)

You can download this poster containing images from a seventeenth-century encyclopaedia of horticulture, John Gerarde’s Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes  (1597).