Saturday, August 1, 2015

Medieval beds

Everybody likes a nice, cozy bed, and people in the Middle Ages were no different.  As I noted in a previous post on medieval night, since most people then went to bed and got up with the sun, one would spend an awful lot of time in bed in the winter.  (For one thing, it was warm.)

So what kind of beds did they have?  Not innersprings and memory foam, of course.  The simplest bed was a pile of straw, not very comfortable because it was prickly, but one could throw a sheet or blanket over it.  Anyone who could afford it had a real bed.

A bed started with a bed frame, as it does now and indeed has since classical antiquity.  One would string ropes back and forth for the "springs" (as we would now call it).  This was standard through the nineteenth century.  On top goes the mattress.  This would be a linen bag stuffed with straw (worst), or grass (better), or bedstraw (a herbaceous plant widely gathered for stuffing beds in Europe, hence the name), or wool (pretty good), or feathers (best of all).  Bedstraw is illustrated below.

On top went pillows (smaller versions of the "mattress"), linen sheets if possible, wool blankets, and quilts.  In the stories, elegant nobles had silken coverlets.  Beds would normally have curtains to help hold the heat in and provide a modicum of privacy.  In some cultures beds would be in cupboards, for even more privacy and freedom from drafts.

In a medieval castle or manor house, the lord's bed was placed in the middle of the great hall.  Most of the rest of the castle's male inhabitants slept on pallets on the floor around the bed, which certainly emphasized solidarity and togetherness.  During the late Middle Ages, the lord's bed slowly retreated into a room of its own, then into a smaller room off the lord's private room.  By the seventeenth century, a powerful lord's bed was at the end of a long string of rooms.  A castle's few women (other than the lady of the castle, who shared the lord's bed) would always have had a private room.

As now, a bed was considered an appropriate place for sex--newly married couples were tucked in together, and a priest would bless the bed.  But people also slept together with nothing sexual involved. For one thing, someone else in the bed makes it much cozier, important in an era without furnaces.  Monks each had their own, individual bed, to assure nothing naughty could happen, but adult men routinely slept next to each other without anyone assuming anything might be going on.

For one thing, sharing a bed was a sign of friendship.  Henry II of England was encouraged that peace might be achieved between France and England when he heard that his son, Richard the Lionheart, was sharing both a dinner plate and a bed with Philip II, the young king of France.  Henry's pleasure at the news was in no way diminished by thoughts of homosexuality, even though he had, very recently, enforced a whole lot of anti-gay laws.  He just assumed that nothing like that was involved, because twelfth-century men routinely slept next to their friends.  (Click here for more on medieval attitudes toward gays.)

© C. Dale Brittain 2015

For more on medieval sleeping arrangements and so much more, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages, available from Amazon and other on-line bookstores.


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