Friday, 26 October 2012

Sleep tight! Going to bed in Medieval and Tudor England.


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.
 
                                          MS image of Philip IV of France in bed c1314

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..."

             Reconstruction of beds c1465 at the Walraversijde medieval village in Belgium
 

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!
 
 Green canopied bed from the Book of Hours owned by Joanna of Castile c1500, British Library

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
 
                                           Henry VIII on his impressive death bed, 1547

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…

34 comments:

  1. Very interesting. Wouldn`t care for the soaking in lye (ashes, urine) ewwww.

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  2. Glad you enjoyed it Lori. Yes, the old urine solution ! It seems to get used a lot in these times and worse still, they used to use it to cleanse their faces in before applying makeup !! Double ewwww !

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    1. Note to women: being coddled in sheets that smell of urine, or having it on your face, pretty much replicates the sensation that we men experience as we bury out faces between your thighs to make sure you enjoy your time in bed with us. We've learned to deal with, you would too.

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    2. I'm leaving that comment up as it's so hilariously random.

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  3. I'm just glad I was born in the 20th century.

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  4. Hi Amy - very interesting post. Do you have a reference for the sharing of beds in medieval inns - and the rules for being a considerate bedfellow? Would love to see them!

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    1. Hi Su, sorry for the delay, I was trying to track the reference down. It's actually something my tutor told me, a few years back; as part of my MA course, we had a tour round Canterbury, looking at all the medieval sites. The Chequer of the Hope Inn still stands in the city- where Chaucer's pilgrims were headed- now converted into shops and my tutor told us that titbit about it. I can't find a paper reference but I'll keep looking. I did find lots of instruction manuals about sharing food- not dipping your fingers into it and wiping your mouth etc. I have also come across accounts of bedsharing among servants in court records which teach by negative example, usually after a maid has fallen pregnant!

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  5. G'day Amy, I came across this while researching beds for my medieval re-enactment group. I can't find anything too specific, but was bed construction of a slat variety or rope? I was looking to make something in a double size and I noted your picture (1180) seemed quite large. My character in the medieval group is a wealthy knight so I guess I can go for something a little up market. Any assistance would be useful.

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    1. Hello, thanks for your interest, fascinating to hear about your re-enactment group. I've found that most beds, doubles and singles, were knotted ropes, tightened every so often (hence sleep tight.) There are some lovely examples of these at the Weald and Downland museum if you're in the UK- Historian Lucy Worsley spent the night in one and found it quite uncomfortable as the ropes tended to make both people on the double roll into the middle. It also depends what specific time you're doing, as things like 4 posters don't come along until early Tudors etc. Here's a link to a lovely resource; you may find the whole site interesting generally for re-enactment details:

      http://www.larsdatter.com/beds.htm

      best of luck with it, Amy

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    2. Hi Amy,
      I'm a member of the History Re-enactment Workshop and we have a double rope bed, which coincidentally have had erected in the Pendean farmhouse at the Weald and Downland Museum. The secret is keeping the ropes tight, but also a rush mat placed across the ropes, before the palliasse is placed on top. We also used to explain the phrase 'sleep tight' with regards to the ropes, until it came up in conversation with the Oxford Dictionary. They have no example of the phrase being used till well after the rope bed has disappeared. I can dig out the response they gave me if you wish, but it must be buried in emails from many years ago. They say it is purely from the an alternative meaning of 'tight', being 'sound.'
      http://www.historyreenactment.org.uk/headstone.html shows a picture of our bed.
      Cheers Peter Barnett

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    3. Hi Amy,
      I found the emails from June 2005. Another 20C one to join the two fingered salute!
      -----
      The OED has a slightly different use on record in 1898: 'She had been so tight asleep'. But the conventional formula 'good night, sleep tight' is recorded only from 1933 - which is much too late for strung bedsteads, I think.

      Margot Charlton
      OED

      -----Original Message-----
      From: Peter Barnett [mailto:hrw@historyreenactment.org.uk]
      Sent: 13 June 2005 00:57
      To: CHARLTON, Margot
      Subject: Re: ETIQUETTE, ETC.

      Thanks for that. If this meaning of tight came over in late 16C, is it known when the phrase "sleep tight" started?

      In message <619C58CB037FE048815C45E6EC86E33A04BAC8CE@exc11.uk.oup.com>,
      "CHARLTON, Margot" writes > >Thank you for your enquiry, which has been forwarded to me at Ask >Oxford.
      >
      >The full 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary exists to answer questions >such as 'when did the word etiquette arrive in the English language?'
      >The answer is that it was adopted from French in the mid-eighteenth >century.  The OED is available online, but only to subscribers; if you >would like to see an electronic version of its entry for etiquette, >please let me know.
      >
      >As for sleep tight, the story you mention is what is known as a folk >etymology - ingenious, but untrue.  The adverb tight/tightly has been >in use since the late sixteenth century in the sense 'soundly, >properly, well', and the expression sleep tight is one of the few >remaining uses of this sense of the word.
      >
      >Margot Charlton
      >Ask Oxford

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  6. Hello,

    I am curious about William Shakespeare's early life. Am I to believe that in 1585, William lived in his parents' house along with his own wife and three children, as well as his four younger siblings?

    Where would they have all slept!?

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    1. Hi, sorry not to have got back to you sooner, I missed this one. Yes, it is quite likely they did all live under one roof, sharing beds but there are other possibilities. It was the custom among middle class families to send their teenagers off to be apprentices or to be trained in the households of great families, which alleviated some of the crowding. We know of stories of very crowded dormitories for young people and that servants and others slept on temporary beds, mattresses that were rolled away during the day. They also used truckle beds on wheels, that could fit under a larger bed and be pulled out at night. Many households had sleepers in every room, even the kitchen and parlour. No evidence survives for Shakespeare having been sent out to lodge, but then barely any evidence survives from his childhood at all. Once he married, his location is again unclear; if he was still living at home, with his wife and children, they would have utilised every space they could. There is a slim chance they lived with her parents but given his age, it seems unlikely he would have been able to afford a house of their own. One thing that has always struck me about studying this era is just how much we take our privacy for granted.

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  7. Hi, Amy. Well...I have a history booklet full of questions about medieval life in villages, as well as towns, and one question appears to be asking me what feather mattresses were stuffed with and i don't quite understand it. I've looked on the internet, but am hopeful that maybe you can help me, since you seem like a reliable source. Pleaseee help! Thanks :)

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    1. Hi, thanks for your question. Here are some ideas, taken from a longer piece I wrote about this very topic, hope it's helpful:

      Straw mattresses were the most common form of bedding, literally being a canvas sack stuffed with straw, leaves, rags or other available material. These sacks were made from a hard-wearing striped canvas material called ticking. With the constant struggle against fleas and lice, it was essential for these to be refilled regularly; a job that usually occurred at harvest time, when there was an abundance of ready material lying around. Deriving from the French word for straw, paille, they were the origins of simple pallet beds that could be laid on the floor and night and leant against the wall, out of the way, during daylight hours. Larger temporary pallets were also made for use during childbirth, sometimes as large as eight or ten feet wide. Typically a wealthy Lord or Lady would sleep on their feather bed with their servants stretched out on pallets in the same room. In richer households, feather mattresses and cushions were replenished with goose and duck down. The feathers were saved from birds plucked in the kitchen, aired and left to dry, as they could emit a pungent smell!

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    3. Hi Amy, we were just in the process of buying some ticking for some 1640's palliasses, when our clothing historian has just got back to us saying the stripes are much later. Do you have any references for it in the Tudor/ Stuart periods please?
      Thanks

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  8. Replies
    1. Because that is not my area of expertise.

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  13. what did they wear

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  19. Sleep tight, get ready for a flee fight!

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  20. In Latvian mythology a straw bag was a last resort to sleep on - for somebody who didn't have anything else. I guess mediaeval Latvians lived better than English :-)

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  21. I mean lower class, the upper classes were German barons obviously. They didn't have trouble to find what to sleep on, in their palaces!

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