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Sleep in the Middle Ages

How people got through the night

By Gael Stirler
(February, 2009)

Old man sleeping in the garden

Detail from the Tree of Jesse by Geertgen (1500)
shows Jesse napping in a garden wrapped in
a cloak, wearing a wool cap and resting on
brocade pillows.

If you were middle class or wealthy in the Middle Ages you would have enjoyed a comfortable night's sleep in a bed with warm bed clothes and curtains. But if you worked as a servant, you may have had no more than your cloak to keep you warm.

We take sleeping in a bedroom for granted now, but in the middle ages, a separate room for sleeping was a luxury that only the most wealthy could afford. Cottagers slept on stone slabs covered with a thin mattress of hay or peat moss. Their one-room cottages were kept warm by an open fire in the middle of the room. In the winter, when all the windows were shuttered, the air was thick was smoke. Dew collected on the thatched roof would drip from the rafters in the morning and when it rained no one could sleep. Small birds, mice, and insects living in the roof would scatter debris down on those sleeping below. And if that wasn't enough, the wind would whistle and moan through the chinks in the walls all night long.

A wealthy landowner or town merchant could afford better accomodations for sleeping. A bed with a mattress, sheets, blankets, canopy, curtains, etc. was the most expensive piece of furniture in most homes and they were often mentioned in wills. Some were so sumptuous and impressive that they occupied a prominent position in the area we would call a living room. This room was the family gathering place, where the master and mistress slept, ate, and worked during the winter. The beds were often very large and the whole family could sleep together. Guests were sometimes offered a spot in the communal bed by the fire. It was not uncommon to visit with your friends while sitting, fully clothed in bed.

Chamber pot and basket under a bed

Detail fromby Jean Fouquet showing
a poor persons bed with camberpot underneath.
The bed is basically a crib filled with loose hay.

Queen Elizabeth had a large bed but her ladies in waiting slept on straw pallets on the floor of her chamber. Many of these ladies had fine beds in their own homes with featherbeds (a kind of down filled coverlet) laid over heavy canvas-covered mattresses filled with wool, straw, or moss. Henry VIII had a straw mattress that was changed every day, however most mattresses were only changed once a year.

Lice, fleas, and bed bugs made themselves at home in beds and most people just accepted it as a part of life. Tightly woven mattress covers called ticking helped to prevent the spread of insects as did keeping bedding in cedar chests. But other customs like using fur coverlets and feather pillows attracted pests. Even the King's chamber was plagued with these tiny guests.

Getting up in the middle of the night to go to the outhouse or privy was not always convenient, so most people kept a chamber pot under the bed. Some even had a special chair near the bed with a hole in the seat over a chamberpot. If they were lucky they had a lid for the pot to trap some of the fumes.

Not all beds were large, some were quite small by our standards and were designed with a slope for the back and support for the knees. To sleep in this kind of bed was akin to sleeping in a recliner chair. The Vikings made collapsible bed frames that could be folded into a trunk and stored during the day. The Scandinavians slept on beds in wooden closets that maintained the heat of their bodies.

This bed is in the front room. Note how the curtains
hang from a canopy suspended from the ceiling.
Detail from
Death of Mohamed © Bodleian Library,
University of Oxford

A well appointed bed included a canopy, suspended from the ceiling until the 15th century when four-post beds became fashionable. The canopy was an upolstered frame with a top and curtains that could be closed around the bed for warmth and privacy. These curtains were very expensive and sometimes embroidered with the owner's arms, initials, and mottos. When not in use the curtains were bundled and tucked up to keep them out of the way. They looked like bags hanging above the corners of the bed. Some beds had headboards but footboards were rare. The purpose of a head board was to provide support when sitting in bed, to keep pillows from falling, and most important, to insulate the head from the cold stone walls. If there was no headboard, then a heavy curtain or tapestry wall hanging called a dosser served that purpose. Since cold floors can suck all the heat out of your body, beds were usually placed on platforms that created an airspace between the floor and the bed. Raising the bed on legs and adding a very long bedspread or or bed skirts, called costers, also helped keep drafts from chilling the underside of the bed.

Most beds had one long pillow placed at the head called a bolster that was covered with a head sheet. Additional pillows were propped on the bolster for each sleeper. Sometimes the head sheet was draped over these pillows at bedtime to protect them from oils and sweat. Nearly everyone wore a cap or kerchief to bed to keep their heads warm. Women would braid their hair and tie it up to keep it from tangling. Most Medieval pictures show people sleeping in the nude, but there is evidence that by the 16th century, night shirts and night gowns were common.

On cold nights heated stones could be put into the beds. Smooth brass pans called bedwarmers with hinged lids and long handles were used to heat the sheets. A small amount of hot coals and ashes were scooped into the bedwarmer, then a servant would slide it between the sheets just before the master went to bed. If their was a fireplace in the room, the covers were "turned down" to allow the inside of the bed to warm up before retiring.

Napping during the day was common, especially in warmer climates. Soldiers and servants were expected to pull duties at night when the rest of the household slept and then they had to grab naps the next day. There are many pictures of people sleeping sitting up so it must have been a common way to nap. Waiting until needed was a large part of some jobs, so napping was a way to pass the time without getting in trouble.


Detail from the Legend of St. Nicholas by
Fra Angelico shows women sleeping three-to
-a-bed, while a man sleeps sitting on a stool.

Historian Roger Ekirch explains in At Day's Close: Night in Times Past that a straight 8 hours of sleep is a modern invention. He cites sources from Homer to Thomas Aquinas who wrote of sleeping in two segments with a wakeful break in between. They used this time to pray, make love, do security checks on the house, or just reflect. Then they would go back to sleep until morning. This was considered normal. In the monasteries and cloisters, rising for prayers in the middle of the night were part of the cycle of prayer and thought to protect not only the religious community from demonic attacks but also protect the surrounding parish.

We tend to think that night time was completely dark before electricity but that was not always so. Since a fire was needed all night to keep the room warm, there was a soft orange glow in the room. If you needed to move around the house, you could light a candle or rushlight for portable illumination. Some towns had street lamps that gave a little light. The moon also shed light that streamed in open windows.

But when the fire went out and the windows were shuttered, darkness was complete and scary for our Medieval ancestors. Creaky timbers and muttering voices from the streets conjured up fears of demons and other imaginary dangers. Concerns about real dangers like thieves, fire, bad weather, war, famine, and plague also made sleep difficult at times. To allay their fears they turned to prayer for comfort and protection. To people of the Middle Ages, the words "if I should die before I wake," held real meaning.

Nowadays we tend to take having a warm bed for granted. Tonight when you slip between the covers, count your blessings starting with a private room, a comfortable mattress, indoor plumbing, a secure home, pest-free bedding, and no birds in the rafters.


NPR Interview with Roger Ekrich

At Day's Close: Night in Times Past by Roger Ekrich, W. W. Norton, 2006.

Warm & Snug: The History of the Bed by Lawrence Wright, The History Press, 2004.

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