The sleepwalker

On somnambulismThose who have first-hand experience of somnambulism will know that sleepwalkers are often capable of surprisingly complex tasks. While most may do nothing more than get out of bed and walk into the next room, others can hold conversations or even drive cars before they regain consciousness. In 1856 The Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathology published an article on somnambulism which includes the remarkable story of Signor Augustin,

an Italian nobleman, dark, thin, melancholic, and cold-blooded, addicted to the study of the abstract sciences. His attacks occurred at the waning of the moon, and were stronger in autumn and winter than in the summer.

The case of Signor Agustin was first published in 1745 in Delle forze della fantasia Umana, (‘On the force of the human imagination’), a treatise by the historian Ludovico Antonio Muratori.  The author quotes an eyewitness who saw Agustin in action, Vigneul Marville. This is what Marville had to report:

One evening towards the end of October, we played at various games after dinner; Signor Augustin took a part in them along with the rest of the company, and afterwards retired to repose. At eleven o’clock his servant told us that his master would walk that night, and that we might come and watch him. I examined him after some time with a candle in my hand. He was lying upon his back, and sleeping with open, staring, unmoved eyes. We were told that this was a sure sign that he would walk in his sleep. I felt his hands and found them extremely cold, and his pulse beat so slowly that his blood appeared not to circulate.

Signor Marville and his companions played cards while they waited for the ‘spectacle’ to begin.

It was about midnight, when Signor Augustin drew aside the bed-curtains with violence, arose, and put on his clothes. I went up to him and held the light under his eyes. He took no notice of it, although his eyes were open and staring. Before he put on his hat, he fastened on his sword-belt, which hung on the bed-post: the sword had been removed. Signor Augustin then went in and out of several rooms, approached the fire, warmed himself in an arm-chair, and went thence into a closet where was his wardrobe. He sought something in it, put all the things into disorder, and having set them right again locked the door and put the key into his pocket.

They watched as Augustin went to the door of the room, opened it and stepped out on to the staircase.

When he came below, one of us made a noise by accident: he appeared frightened, and hastened his steps. His servant desired us to move softly and not to speak, or he would become out of his mind; and sometimes he ran as if he were pursued, if the least noise was made by those standing round him. He then went into a large court and to the stable, stroked his horse, bridled it, and looked for the saddle to put on it. As he did not find it in the accustomed place, he appeared confused. He then mounted his horse, and galloped to the house door. He found this shut; dismounted, and knocked with a stone which he picked up, several times at the door. After many unsuccessful efforts he remounted, and led his horse to the watering-place, which was at the other end of the court, let him drink, tied him to a post, and went quietly to the house.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the fact that Signor Agustin was still fast asleep. But there was much still to come:

Upon hearing a noise which the servants made in the kitchen, he listened attentively, went to the door, and held his ear to the keyhole. After some time he went to the other side, and into a parlour in which was a billiard-table. He walked round it several times, and acted the motions of a player. He then went to a harpsichord on which he was accustomed to practice, and played a few irregular airs. After having moved about for two hours, he went to his room and threw himself upon his bed clothed as he was, and the next morning we found him in the same state; for as often as his attack came on, he slept afterwards from eight to ten hours.

Amazing. It is still commonplace advice that one should not wake a sleepwalker. So how did those around Signor Agustin deal with these ‘episodes’? The answer is surprising.

The servants declared that they could only put an end to his paroxysms either by tickling him under the soles of his feet, or by blowing a trumpet in his ears.

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