Sleep, Insomnia and Wellbeing: Historical Perspectives

poster 1 sleep network event 27 02 24

Photo on the left:© Getty Open Content collection, photo on the right: © President and Fellows of Harvard College


Sleep, Insomnia and Wellbeing: Historical Perspectives

Speakers: Brigitte Steger and Megan Leitch

Part of the Sleep and the Rhythms of Life Network Seminars

Thursday 29 February 2024, 5.15pm

Online and In-person event

No booking required for in-person attendance

Register via Eventbrite to join the seminar online


Watch here:



Brigitte Steger (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 (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.  



dr brigitte steger

Brigitte Steger (PhD Japanese Studies, Vienna) is Associate Professor in Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge. She studies the social and cultural embeddedness of seemingly natural, bodily aspects of daily life, such as sleep, time, cleanliness, gender, waste disposal and shelter life, both historically and in contemporary Japan. Her PhD research on sleep led to the publication of the award-winning monograph (Keine) Zeit zum Schlafen? Sozialwissenschaftliche und Kulturhistorische Erkundungen japanischer Schlafgewohnheiten (Lit, 2004) and Inemuri: Wie die Japaner schlafen und was wir von ihnen lernen können (Rowohlt, 2007; Japanese 2013; Italian 2022), as well as the edited volumes (with Lodewijk Brunt) Night-time and sleep in Asia and the West (Routledge 2003) and Worlds of Sleep (Frank & Timme 2008). Recently she has returned to the subject of sleep and is currently working on a monograph on Heian-period Japan and a chapter on sleeping in tsunami shelters. She is the editor (with Rafał Matuszewski) of the six-volume Bloomsbury Cultural History of Sleep and Dreaming (forthcoming 2025) and will contribute a chapter on medieval sleep patterns.



Dr Megan Leitch is currently Reader in English Literature at Cardiff University and President of the International Arthurian Society British Branch, and from August 2024 she will be the Professor and Chair of Medieval Literature and Culture at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Her published monographs focus on treason in the literature of the Wars of the Roses, and on sleep in Middle English literature, and she is working on a new book project entitled The Medieval Middlebrow: Romance and the Body Politic, c.1300-1534.




For online registration closes 15 minutes before the start of the event. You will be sent the joining link within 48 hours of the event, on the day and once again 10 minutes before the event starts.

The seminar will be followed by a drink reception with the speakers.


If you are interested in the Network, please contact Professor Sally Shuttleworth (

Find out more about the Sleep and the Rhythms of Life Network here.