Dr Trelawney's Cabinet of Historical Curiosities: This Month's Subject: Sleep

By Pollard, Justin | History Today, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Dr Trelawney's Cabinet of Historical Curiosities: This Month's Subject: Sleep


Pollard, Justin, History Today


Scottish engineer James Watt (1736-1819) was a 'Lunatick' (member of the Lunar Society). After their moonlit meetings he would often sleep late into the morning as he claimed he needed at least ten hours sleep a night.

Diplomat and Bishop of Chartres John of Salisbury (d. 1180) is the author of the Historia pontificalis, a series of memoirs concerning the papal court. In one episode he tells how Pope Eugenius III reconciled King Louis VII of France and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine by getting them to sleep together in a bed that he had decorated with his own tapestries and hangings.

William Blake (1757-1827) tended his dying younger brother Robert for his last two weeks, day and night, and on the boy's death fell into an unbroken sleep that lasted three days. He later claimed that Robert appeared to him in a vision and described the method of relief engraving that Blake then pioneered.

Following OPEC's tripling of crude oil prices in 1973, delegations from British companies seeking new contracts poured into Iran. British Ambassador Sir Anthony Parsons (1922-96) commandeered the ballroom of Tehran's Hilton Hotel for them to sleep in.

Anthony Trollope (1815-82) would often fall asleep at formal dinners and, according to journalist George Augustus Sala, could take '40 winks' seated, leaning on sideboards or even 'whilst standing erect on the hearth rug'.

Percy Toplis, aka 'The Monocled Mutineer' (1896-1920), handed round a bottle of laudanum to fellow pupils while at elementary school, causing a number of them to suddenly fall asleep in a geography lesson.

Painters George Carter (1737-94) and John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) got on so badly during their journey to Rome together that Copley later described Carter as 'a sort of snail which crawled over a man in his sleep, and left its slime and no more'.

Asked about his views on death, comedian Bob Monkhouse (1928-2003) commented: 'I want to die like my father, peacefully in his sleep, not screaming and terrified, like his passengers. …

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Dr Trelawney's Cabinet of Historical Curiosities: This Month's Subject: Sleep
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