A few weeks ago I read Beds and Chambers in Late Medieval England by Hollie L.S. Morgan. It was illuminating on many counts, especially on the, sometimes unexpected, uses of a bed and bedchamber.
Religion affected everything in the fourteenth century, despite the perceived failure of the church during the Black Death. It’s not surprising, therefore, that there should be a religious aspect to the bed, to waking and sleeping, and to the bedchamber.
For many, the bed was a place where one meditated and encountered God. The chamber was not necessarily a private place, nor, for that matter, was the bed. Few people had bedchambers and those who did rarely occupied them alone. In rooms like the solar we visited last week the lord would sleep with his family. This might not just be his wife and his children, but possibly a widowed mother or an unmarried sister, or more. Despite this, it was here that people expected to meet God as individuals. It’s not clear what those without a bed or a bedchamber were supposed to do.
Apart from active meditation, there was also the expectation that God could and would speak to someone who was sleeping. The Bible is full of stories of God speaking through dreams or to sleepers. There was another side to sleeping, however. God was not the only one who could come to you while you slept. When you were asleep you were no longer in control of your thoughts and that might open you up to the devil’s influence. On the whole, the night was more to be feared than welcomed. It was a dangerous time.
It was the part of the day beloved of ghosts and demons, who could do harm to anyone coming across them. Then, as now, Christian teaching spoke of the contrast between light (good) and dark (bad). Beings and people who were abroad in the dark, who might even consider the darkness their natural environment, were not usually out to do good.
The night was not only full of spiritual dangers, there were physical dangers too. Your enemy, or a criminal, could creep into your chamber at night and harm you or kill you, since you would not know they were there if you were asleep and you would not be able to protect yourself. Even if you woke, there was probably little you could do. Unless your attacker brought a light with him, or a fire still burned in the bedchamber, you were in darkness. You couldn’t just flick a light switch or strike a match to see him. You had to find or make fire in order to light a candle. The odds were not in your favour.
There was a very real fear that you could go to sleep at night and not wake up in the morning. It was, therefore, sensible to pray for protection before you slept and to give thanks when you woke.
Since the bed was a place for praying and meeting God, it was also a place where other devotional activities took place. It is probable that those who were wealthy enough to own devotional books read them in the bedchamber, although they could also read them aloud to the household in the hall. Devotional reading included commentaries on the Bible, sermons, psalters (books of Psalms), works of the Church Fathers and breviaries. A breviary is a book containing all the readings from the Bible and prayers for each liturgical season and each part of the day. It could be used in communal worship in a chapel or a church, but also in private worship in the bedchamber.
Beds and Chambers in Late Medieval England by Hollie L.S. Morgan
The Time Traveller’s Guide to the Medieval England by Ian Mortimer