“The Nightmare in Early Modern England.”

“The Nightmare in Early Modern England.”

The Early Modern Interdisciplinary Graduate Forum

Victoria College, University of Toronto, Canada

Janine Riviere (Department of History, Univerity of Toronto)


This paper was held at Victoria College by the Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies and dealt with the idea of the nightmare and its evolution from demonic possession to medical malady. 

The victim of the nightmare was oppressed, and invaded. Modern English ideas saw the nightmare as an incubus, spirit, or demonic possession. As late as 1753, it was still commonly believed that nightmares attacked people sleeping on their backs, a violent oppression of the breast occurred and lastly, a potential encounter with a demonic being. It was not initially seen as a medical disorder like it is in modern times. In the Early Modern period, there were two schools of thought –  that a disease of the body manifested itself through nightmares, and those who saw the nightmare as an assault by demonic beings.

Lay handbooks on health from 1550-1760 showed how slowly these medical ideas evolved. Incubus attacks could be caused by indigestion or a humoral imbalance. Blood letting, and a moderate diet were suggested as relief for this issue.

In the 18th century, there was a shift from the stomach to the brain, and focused on circulation. 17th and 18th century mediecal writers complained about the supernatural being the cause of nightmares. The majority of accounts of nightmares come from witchcraft trials. Demons crept onto their victim’s paralyzed bodies and rode them. This is why it was an assault by witches who ought to corrupt the bodies and souls of their victims and to propagate unholy children.

There were discrepancies between learned demonology and witchcraft. In 1595, Dorothy Jackson accused her attacker of witchcraft by  claiming she was being ridden in the night. On November 3, 1621 a girl complained a white cat lay on her and poisoned her. There were cases of animals attacking people as they slept; some of these were believed to be a witch’s familiar and descriptions of being laid upon suggested another form of the nightmare. The vulgar masses believed that the nightmare was supernatural. Medical theories coexisted with supernatural ones for a very long time. Some thought nightmares were also ‘an excess of melancholy that sent vapors to the brain’ and attacked the sleeper. The mind was deceived by the senses to believe what the mind experienced was real. The nightmare was a more dangerous malady of the brain. People were told to avoid the supine position and lie on one side when sleeping. Early 18th century works still used the 17th century treatises. Humoral theories were slow to disappear and weren’t replaced until the mid 18th century by the idea of the nightmare being a circulatory and nervous system problem. Not all medical practitioners embraced this new belief.

John Bond ‘…On incubus or Nightmare’  was considered the first true work on nightmares and the incubus as a natural disease. He was a chronic sufferer of nightmares which might explain his interest in the topic. He wrote that the best sleep was considered a dreamless one because dreams were a disease of the body. Although he believed in a purely medical reason for the nightmare, he included accounts of people who believed they were supernaturally attacked by devils and demons in their sleep. At the beginning of his work, Bond made sure to distance himself from hag riding, and supernatural causes of nightmares. Supernatural ideas still circulated in the mid 18th century. His work helped erode older ideas about the cause being humoral imbalances.

This is not to suggest no significant developments were made – men like John Bond set out to show new models that were based on empirical data. Continuity rather than change is the history of the nightmare.

~Sandra Alvarez

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