Pillows were for girls, lying down was dangerous and invalids should nap standing up!
MS images of the Birth of Louis VIII of France in the 1180s
According to medieval and Tudor beliefs about beds and sleeping, modern practices are opening us up to all sorts of spiritual and physical dangers. Between seven and nine hours of sleep were recommended but this depended upon individual body types; with all people categorised according to the Galenic four humours, too much or too little sleep could cause dangerous imbalances and lead to illness. Nor did children require more sleep: one late fifteenth century manual suggested seven hours was sufficient. This would roughly equate to summer time daylight hours, with an extra hour in the winter. In the mid Sixteenth century, physician Andrew Boorde was recommending two periods of sleep at night, with people rising briefly between them. This was also supposedly the best time to conceive children. Sleepers should lie first on one side then the other, in dry rooms to which snails, spiders, rats and mice had no access. All windows should be closed and a fire should be kept burning to drive away the pestilence and foul sleeper’s breath. Those who were ill or unable to sleep well at night should try to nap during the day, according to Boorde but this was best done standing up, leaning against a wall or cupboard.
Medieval beds were comparatively simple. Peasants would literally “hit the hay” wrapped only in a cloak or single blanket; nor did most people have separate rooms for sleeping in. Actual bedframes were cause for much pride and passed down in wills to family or friends. In 1540, Margery Wren left her son Geoffrey a red and green bed canopy; apparently he already had the bed. But this in itself was a sign of wealth, when the bed would have been the largest and most expensive possession in the house. Rich and poor alike took pride in this expression of their status and might save up for a bedstead for years. The Elizabethan traveller William Harrison reflected on past practices:"... straw pallets, covered onelie with a sheet, under coverlets … and a good round log under their heads in steed of a bolster, or pillow. If it were so that our fathers or the good man of the house, had within seven years after his mariage purchased a mattress or flockebed, and thereto a sacke of chaffe to resh his head upon, he though himself to be as well lodged as the lord of the town, that peradventure laye seldome in a bed of downe or whole feathers; so well were they contended, and with such base kind of furniture..."
Four poster beds developed during the Tudor period. Before then, canopied and half testers were known in upper class circles, with their richly embroidered hangings made out of warm velvets and taffetas. Curtains were hung from the ceiling and beds were raised up on platforms or legs. The medieval merchant’s house in Southampton contains an impressive example of such a bed with hangings attached to the ceiling. All sorts of colours and combinations were used in the outer bedding and drapery; rich reds, greens, yellows and blacks being popular, along with cloth of silver and gold and many coloured tassels and fringes. Joanna of Castile’s book of hours of around 1500 includes a picture of a large bed draped and covered in emerald green. Edgings of fur were common to keep in warmth; ermine for the King and squirrel for the middle classes. Quilts were made from linen and padded with wool like the white and brown Tristan Quilt in the Victoria and Albert Museum, dating from 1360-1400. Full scale tales and legends as well as Biblical and heraldic images were often depicted in embroidery as on this work. Wooden headpieces were elaborately carved, often with the owner’s coat of arms and personal motifs: the finest examples, made for royalty took months to make, such as the one Henry VIII commissioned for his bedroom at Whitehall in the 1530s. An inventory of wealthy gentleman Thomas Offley’s bedroom, made in 1582, listed a plain bedstead dressed with wool mattress, feather bed and bolster, white and red blankets, a green coverlet embroidered with letters and flowers, canopy and curtains of yellow and blue dyed canvas as well as a trundle or truckle bed for his servant.The late Elizabethan Great bed of Ware
Mattresses were stuffed with whatever material was available, from feathers or wool, down to moss and rags; these were laid across a framework of tightly knotted ropes, which needed to be retied regularly as they were prone to sagging in the middle. Hence the expression “sleep tight.” The poorest slept on mattresses of straw on the floor; servants had simple wooden beds on wheels which were stored away out of sight during the day, often under the beds of their masters. Beds were warmed by placing a hot brick or stone from the fire among the sheets or copper saucepans full of coal, which evolved into the more familiar bedpan. Pillows or beres were considered unmanly, reserved for the old, young girls and pregnant women, yet there was also a belief that it was necessary to sleep propped up to prevent devils entering the open mouth and stealing away your soul. Real men rested their heads on logs!
Clean white linen from Rennes was the most desirable material for sheets but this would need a lot of care. The usual method was “bucking”- soaking it in lye, made from ashes and urine to cleanse and whiten it. It was a lengthy and physically hard process, to scrub and wring out all the sheets several times over. For the richest, laundry women were employed but levels of hygiene would decrease significantly the further down the social scale. Washing was spread out flat to dry rather than hung, pictured lain out on Goodman’s field and Tower Hill on old maps of London. Lice were a common problem and only removable by regular washing and combing. Many people from all ranks of society were used to sharing their beds with lice but fleas were unthinkable and carried the stigma of uncleanliness and immorality.The public occasion of Henry VII's death at Richmond, 1509
Beds were social places. The richest met guests and conducted meetings from them. Key events of birth and death had far greater public significance for royalty and the wealthy, often being witnessed by friends, family and interested parties, with privacy being far less common. Co-sleeping was very common, especially in inns where travellers were expected to share beds with strangers, each lying on their own half, with rules existing for being a considerate bedfellow. In the poorer establishments, sleeping arrangements consisted of a simple wooden bench with a rope hung horizontally about chest height. Travellers would cram along the bench and hang their arms over the rope for support; in the morning they would be cleared out and the area washed down. Other inns and monasteries offered simple straw mattresses with sheets, raised off the floor on boards or woven rushes. The most famous example of a large bed is that of the late Elizabethan great bed of Ware, designed to attract customers to the inn where it stood, referred to by Shakespeare and Jonson. Sleeping fifteen people at once, it is typical of four poster beds of its time in everything but its size. The most lowly servants slept communally in the Great Hall or in large servants dormitories, with men and women usually separated, although this did not stop determined wooers, such as Catherine Howard’s history proved. Beds were also places of courtship, with some communities allowing unmarried couples to practise “bundling”- spending time together in bed whilst separated by a bolster placed down the middle! Beds were often portable too, with those of royalty being dismantled and transported between palaces as they travelled, ensuring a good night’s sleep when they arrived. Who they might be sharing it with though, was quite another matter…