What people did in bed – History of bed culture in Medieval and Early Modern times

A bed was the most expensive single item of the Medieval and early modern household.

In the history of bed culture, the bed made the family. Marriages were made there, children were born, people were nursed, and eventually died in its warmth and protection.

English men and women generally postponed marriage until their mid to late twenties when they could afford to set up a household and purchase a bed.

Beds and bedding were so valuable and highly prized that it’s not unusual to find them mentioned in wills from the 14th century onward.

In 1540, Margery Wren left her son Geoffrey a red and green bed canopy; apparently he already had the bed.

Even woollen mattresses were important enough to be passed on as a bequest in some families!

History of bed : In a narrow bed, get thee in the middle

Families in the lower ranks routinely slept two, three, or more to a mattress, with overnight visitors included.

Advised an Italian proverb, “In a narrow bed, get thee in the middle”. The English said “to pig” to describe sleeping with one or more bedfellows.

In inns, 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 (like a subway!).

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.

History of bed : A 16th-century bed to sleep fifty-two

Great Bed of Ware, 1590-1600 V&A Museum no. W.47:1 to 28-1931

Every bed has a story but the Great Bed of Ware has rather more than most. The bed is large even by modern standards – twice the size of a double bed.

The bed passed through the hands of numerous inns in Ware including The White Hart, The George, The Crown, The Bull and The Saracen’s Head.

It was probably created as a tourist attraction for Medieval pilgrims. Then, it was publicised as being fit for 12 travellers.

Apparently, 26 butchers and their wives spent the night in it for a bet in 1689. That’s 52 people!

That’s a story good enough to be apocryphal.

What is certainly true is that it attracted the rich and famous. In 1596 Prince Ludwig of Anhalf-Kohten visited Ware and slept there, and in 1610 Prince Ludwig Friedrich of Württemburg stayed in it.

People liked to mark their night by carving their initials in the wood. In fact, it’s riddled in graffiti.


That’s a ‘DL’ and ‘WC’ next to a date of 1729.

Others even left wax seals by dropping molten wax onto the wood and imprinting their signet rings into it.

The Bed of Ware also has a rather more respectable literary history, too. Shakespeare mentioned it in Twelfth Night. Byron gave it a nod in Don Juan.

History of bed : Three wise men in a bed

The Dream of the Magi, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-20. (British Library)

The gulf between medieval and modern views of bed-sharing becomes even clearer if we consider Medieval images of the Magi.

According to St Matthew’s Gospel, three wise men from the East came to visit the infant Jesus at Bethlehem.

Herod asks that once they had found the child, they should tell him of its whereabouts, for he too wanted to worship Jesus. In a dream, God warned the wise men not to trust Herod.

The Dream of the Magi was a popular image during the later middle ages, and was shown in a variety of settings, from psalters to stained glass windows, sculptures and wall-paintings.

The trio is always to be found to be sharing a single bed; in some images, they even appear to be naked.

Except, of course, for the crowns, which always remain on.

History of bed : Makes the body fatter, the mynde more quiete and clere

A sleeping man in a medieval manuscript – from British Library Royal 19 D III f. 458

In 1539, Sir Thomas Elyot, the lawyer, humanist scholar and ambassador to King Henry VIII, sounds quite modern in his belief that perfect sleep made :

‘the body fatter, the mynde more quiete and clere’

Elyot wrote this in his best-selling healthcare guide “The Castel of Helth”, which was echoed well into the eighteenth century.

Most healthcare guides advised people to sleep ‘well bolstered up’, or with their heads slightly raised with the aid of a pillow or bolster.

The gentle slope that this position created between the head and stomach was believed to speed the process of digestion and to prevent food being regurgitated during the night.

It was just as important for sleepers to rest first on their right side of their bodies, before turning onto their left side during the second half of the night.

Resting first on the right, which was judged to be hotter than the left side of the body, allowed food to descend more easily to the pit of the stomach, where it was heated during the initial stage of digestion.

Turning onto the cooler left side of the body after a few hours released the stomach vapours that had accumulated on the right and spread the heat more evenly through the body.

Rising on the right side of the bed was considered to be an unlucky omen for the day ahead. Possibly the origin of “getting up on the wrong side of the bed”?

In an astrological text of 1652, the Church of England clergyman John Gaule criticised this belief as folly :

‘to bode good or bad luck, fortune [or] successe, from the rising up on the right, or left side’.

Even more dangerous than sleeping on the wrong side of the body, was sleeping flat on the back.

This was believed to flood the base of the brain with excessive moisture, trigger nightmares, invite the visit of an evil spirit known as the ‘incubus’, or even to herald the sleeper’s early death!

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 safe from snails, spiders, rats and mice. 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.

This nap was, however, best done standing up, leaning against a wall or cupboard!

History of bed : Pillows are for women

Around 1580 the clergyman William Harrison grumbled about the soft new generation, so self-indulgent with their feathers and pillows. In his day :

“If in seven years after marriage a man could buy a mattress and a sack of chaff to rest his head on, he thought himself as well lodged as a lord. Pillows were thought meet only for sick women. As for servants, they were lucky if they had a sheet over them, for there was nothing under them to keep the straw from pricking their hardened hides.”

Pillows or beres were considered unmanly, reserved for the old, young girls and pregnant women.

How did they resolve this with the belief that it was necessary to sleep propped lest devils enter the open mouth and stealing away your soul?

Real men rested their heads on logs!

History of bed : Social life in beds

Pierre Salmon, Réponse à Charles VI et Lamentations, France (Paris), 1409 Paris, BnF, département des Manuscrits, Français 23279 fol. 19.

The richest houses had large elaborate beds, with ornamented canopies, richly-embroidered hangings, and soft featherbeds under the fine linen sheets.

They were among the most splendid pieces of furniture in a large house, and noblemen often had their emblems embroidered on the hangings.

The richest met guests and conducted meetings from them, as in the scene above from 1409.

They could be social gathering places at night too, as visitors of high status would be invited to sleep in a bed even if they had to share.

Leave a Reply