Thursday, February 17, 2011

Medieval Beds

In the 14th century, peasants slept on straw mats, covered with anything available, while the rich slept on featherbeds and linen sheets. A nobleman’s bed had canopies with rich hangings, sometimes embroidered with his shield. Beds were a gathering place in wealthy homes, and were used not only for sleeping but to receive guests, who, if very important, might be invited to sleep in the bed, even if they had to share. Thus, beds were the most important piece of furniture, a place to display wealth as evidenced with fine textiles.

Birth of Louis VIII

A head sheet, as shown in the Birth of Louis VIII image, was placed over a pillow that rested against a sheet-draped bolster. Around the 16th century, these head sheets were replaced by pillowcases.

The best beds in the late Middle Ages had fabrics draped from a frame suspended from the ceiling. The frame sometimes had additional support from a bedhead. The bed itself was not usually attached to the bedhead. Beds were often set on platforms to extend the elevation, making a step up necessary.
From the 14th century on, beds were mentioned in wills. A fairly well-off family might pass down a featherbed and feather-filled bolster, but a noble family might give several beds to his descendants, along with the expensive hangings and a woolen mattress.

In later centuries, as people became better-off, they wanted better beds, and soon beds were a standard in most homes. Except for the head sheet, beds themselves have not changed that much. What has changed is the way we use them. We would never invite a guest, no matter his social standing, to share our beds, and instead of a gathering place for guests, our beds have become the most private piece of furniture in our homes.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Joyce,

I didn't realize that people demonstrated their wealth through their bedroom display in the Middle Ages and later. However, I remember reading that one of the King Louises (XV?) conducted affairs of state from his mistress's boudoir.

Michelle Black said...

Joyce--your blog is fascinating and so informative. I will definitely become a regular visitor.
--Michelle Black

Margaret Mallory said...

Great piece & I love the pictures!


Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Michelle: Glad you stopped by. I snooped around your site and blog, finding the post by Sarah Johnson. Signed up as a follower. Interesting stuff there!
Also, glad you like my blog. Do come back.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Margaret: Thanks for coming by! I learn a lot from images like these, when sometimes the explanation can be confusing, like the "bedhead". Glad you enjoyed.

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

I enjoyed the the tidbit of history. I had no idea beds were a social gathering place. How things have changed.

Thanks for sharing.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Joyce
Interesting and entertaining blog. I didn't relize beds were for socical gatherings either.



Joyce Elson Moore said...

Hi Jacqueline: Maybe it was the Louis who was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine. She would have said Yeah, bring 'em on in!
Thanks for stopping by. You always ad to the discussion.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Karen: I know, and now they're the most private place in a household--the complete opposite of their status in medieval times. Thanks for stopping by.

Joyce Elson Moore said...

Margaret Tanner: Good to see you again. History never ceases to amaze me, I mean the way traditions and norms have changed through the ages. Thanks for stopping by.

Brantigny said...

Quite interesting.

Iskander said...

Nice piece. I do however note that your last comment on how modern people do not invite guests to share their beds and sit on them does not go for certain groups of people. Among Dutch students it is perfectly natural to have guests sit on your bed as it takes up most of the space in your room, and having people sleep over in your bed is also not uncommon.

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Hollie said...

Hi Joyce,

I'm writing my PhD thesis on medieval beds. It's reassuring to see that people are interested in the politics and etiquette of the medieval bed and chamber!

I think, though, that it's important to point out that it wasn't just anyone who could gather in a chamber. It was a great honour to be invited into the host's chamber, or a great scandal if it was an unaccompanied woman's chamber.