Making the Bed


Over the last two weeks I’ve looked at medieval sleeping habits and the lack of nighttime privacy. This week I’m looking at the beds in which these activities or non-activities took place.

I write historical romance novels and, inevitably, at some point in the story, the hero and heroine will end up in bed, usually together, but sometimes apart.  Even if I don’t draw attention to it, it helps me to know what kind of beds they sleep in.

In the fourteenth century, as now, not all beds were equal, and many people simply slept on a blanket over the rushes that were all that separated them from the beaten earth floor. If you were a servant in a castle or great house those rushes might not be very clean. The household would bring in all kinds of dirt on their shoes from outside. There might be dogs in the hall who were less than housetrained. Food and drink might have been spilled on the rushes. One of the reasons why the owner of a great house or castle had a solar separate from the hall was so that he would be spared the smells associated with it. Some of the servants might be lucky enough to have a sack filled with straw as a mattress.

The next step up was sleeping on one or even two proper mattresses. At this level the mattress would be made of hemp or canvas and stuffed with straw. The mattress would not be very thick and would get thinner each time it was slept on. The straw would scratch the sleeper and would contain biting insects. The straw might not be very clean and might smell. Sleeping on such a mattress was only marginally more comfortable than sleeping on the floor.

On top of the mattress and the person sleeping on it would be a rough woollen blanket, more than one in winter if they were lucky. 

Wealthier people would have their mattresses on a wooden frame. The frame itself probably harboured creatures which would bite the occupant. The frame would be very basic and the mattress would be placed on ropes stretched across the frame. These had to be tightened each night. The ropes wouldn’t stay tight for long and the occupant or occupants of the bed would find themselves rolling towards the middle of the mattress during the night.

Above this level the frame design remained more or less unchanged. The quality of the wood might vary, as would the size of the frame and the mattress.

Very well-off people had curtained beds. This took the form of a canopy from which curtains hung around all four sides of the bed. The curtains could be tied back to allow exit or entry for the occupant, and possibly during summer nights. A blessing in winter, the curtains must have been stifling in the summer.

These beds would have thicker mattresses sometimes filled with feathers. They would also have linen sheets and better quality woollen blankets and bedspreads. The wealthy would rest their heads on pillows.

These kinds of beds were valuable possessions and would be passed on in wills. Those owned by great were so treasured that they would be taken down when the owner travelled and put up again when he reached his destination.


Filed under Fourteenth Century

10 responses to “Making the Bed

  1. This is one of the things that make me glad,of being born in the 20th century! Even the est best one sees in old houses and palaces look so uncomfortable compared to ours!

    Liked by 1 person

    • They do, but sometimes I wonder if that’s because they use very overstuffed mattresses for artistic purposes. Some of them seem very short. According to something I was reading this week there isn’t much of a difference between the average height of people today and medieval people – although that might not be true in the Netherlands where they all seem like giants to me – so I would expect the bed lengths to be comparable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So interesting April. I think beds are even more comfortable now than they were a few decades ago, let alone centuries. Even in the 1950s and 60s beds and mattresses were handed down from generations. Making the bed each day was a chore. Now there is memory foam with fitted sheets and a covered duvet that just gets thrown over – Blisszzzzzzz!

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I’m complaining to myself about changing the bed, I remember the bed I slept in as a child. It had sheets, blankets and a bedspread, all of which had to be firmly tucked in.
      I first came across duvets, or continental quilts as we called them then, when I went on a school trip to Germany in about 1975 and thought them weird, because I did liked to be tucked into my bed as tightly as possible and you couldn’t do that with a duvet. Even when I was a student in France in the early 80s we had sheets and blankets – although the bolster was a revelation. Now I love my duvet. I do, however, still use the mattress that came from my grandparents’ house. My next one will definitely be memory foam. I don’t get on well with fitted sheets, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Cathy

    Much better these days if you want a good snooze judging by your account. I encountered a duvet for the first time in 1964 when I went to a friend’s house for a sleepover and her German mum had duvets on all the beds – but not duvet covers, just a usual sheet. Very interesting blogpost – thankyou.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a difference to the lovely soft mattresses we have today. I’m sure if I’d lived back then I’d have been one of the unlucky ones sleeping on dirty rushes on the floor.

    Liked by 1 person

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