When we fall into bed at the end of a long, hard day, we relax into the most private and personal place in the house. But that wasn’t always the case.
If we had been the master or mistress of a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century household of some substance, we would have slept in the only bed in the house. It would have been a tall four-poster and its curtains would have afforded us some privacy, which we would have needed, because our bedchamber might have been quite heavily populated.
Its population could include a servant or two, a baby or even a five-year-old in a cradle and a nursemaid, and we might even have found one or more of our older children in bed with us. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the bedroom became private space, devoted only to sleeping and sex.
Personal servants often slept in the master bedchamber on a truckle bed. Truckle beds were low frames on casters, called “trundles,” that rolled under the great bed in the day time.
A 1611 inventory lists “a greate posted bedsteadle, a trundlebedsteadle to it;” and an inventory of 1660 explains further: “little trundle beds under the greate beds, which were for the gentlemen’s men.” Few truckle beds have survived: they were of no use in later households. We must surely, however, regret the passing of the tongue-twister “trundlebedsteadle”!
Sleeping with Others
In these crowded homes space was short and privacy a non-issue, so sharing a bed with others was the norm. An English etiquette book, Stans Puer in Mensam, written in the late fifteenth century, shows the role played by social rank when sharing a bed:
“Any tyme that you schall lie with Any man that is better than you Spyre hym what side of the bedd that most best will ples hym, and li you on the tother side…Ne go you not to bedd before thi better cause thi [before your better asks you].”
Social rank determined who went to bed first, and who picked the best side to sleep on.
Half a century later, in his book De Civilitate Morum Puerilium (1530), Erasmus also gave advice for bed sharing, advice that might still seem pertinent today, “If you share a bed with a comrade, lie quietly; do not toss with your body for this…can inconvenience your companion by pulling away the blankets.”
“A bed Royall, the vallance, curtaines (turned about the posts) and counter pane laced and fringed about, with a foote cloth of Turky worke about it: the tester adorned with plumes, according to the colours of the bed.”
Randle Holme, 1649/1688
Children in the Bed
An amusing example of a couple sharing their bed with their children is given by Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of the Royal Palaces: “Abigail Willey of Oyster River [later Durham, New Hampshire] would stop her husband ‘coming to her’ when she didn’t feel like it by making her two children sleep in the middle of the bed rather than taking their usual position at the sides.”
We must infer, however, that on good nights when she allowed him to “come to her,” he did so with the children also in the bed. A more striking example of the irrelevance of our modern notion of privacy would be hard to imagine.
Inns provided no privacy: sleeping in them was almost always a communal affair. The most famous communal bed of all is the Great Bed of Ware, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is 10 feet 8 inches square and 8 feet 9 inches high.
On seeing the bed in 1596, Prince Ludwig of Anhalt-Kohten, was moved to write:
Four couples might cosily lie side by side,
And thus without touching each other abide.
The bed was probably made for Sir Henry Fanshaw in the early1590s, and in 1612 he sold it to the White Hart Inn in Ware, Hertfordshire, where its size could be turned into profit: in 1700, for instance, Sir Henry Chauncey records that “six citizens and their wives came from London and slept in it.”
Twelve people! Did they sleep head to toe, like sardines in a can, we wonder?
Samuel Pepys recorded a night in an inn in his diary for June 11, 1688:
“[We] came about ten at night to a little inn, where we were fain to go into a room where a pedlar was in bed, and made him rise, and there wife and I lay, and in a truckle-bed, Betty Turner and Willett.”
The absence of privacy is underscored when we remember that Pepys and Deb Willett, his wife’s maid, had engaged in a long running affair that caused many marital arguments.
Edited extract from John Fiske, When Oak Was New: English Furniture & Daily life, 1530-1700. Available at http://www.fiskeandfreeman.com