Tag Archives: Medieval Bedchamber

How to Read a Book in the Fourteenth Century

Following last week’s little foray into historical inaccuracies in novels set in the fourteenth century, I thought I’d look at another example. This time I am (to an extent) one of the guilty parties. This particular error is something I’ve come across in more than one novel set in the fourteenth century, so I’m far from alone. The main character, often the daughter or son of a minor lord, reads a book alone in their bedroom. There are a few things wrong with this, but we’ll start with the mistake that I’ve made in at least two of my novels, just to get it out of the way.

No one had a bedroom in which they slept alone and those people who were able to afford a bed usually shared it. I’d like to be able to say that I got this wrong for artistic reasons, that is that I knew what the historical reality was and changed it for the sake of the plot, but the truth is that I didn’t know and hadn’t done enough reading about the fourteenth century at that point to know what did happen. There were undoubtedly exceptions to the general rule that no one slept alone. An elderly, widowed lord might sleep alone in his bed, but there would still be servants and dependents sleeping in his bedchamber, and male dependents were as likely to share his bed as not. On the whole, though, there just wasn’t enough space for anyone to have their own bedroom. If the family was wealthy enough to be able to afford a separate bedchamber, they all slept in it. In all cases, the servants and other members of the household, almost entirely male, slept in the hall, the room in which meals were eaten and guests received.

We’ll move on to the question of the book. Books were expensive, so it’s unlikely that a minor lord would be able to afford one. If he did own such an object, it would probably be kept under lock and key in a chest or strong cupboard. It certainly wouldn’t be something that a son or daughter would be able to remove without permission and take somewhere else to read.

Books were mostly very big and heavy, and they weren’t generally read by someone holding them in their hands, not for long, anyway. They would usually rest on some kind of support. Think something the size of a church Bible on a lectern and you’ll be close. Books were written by hand on calf or sheepskin that had been scraped both to remove hair and flesh, and stretched to make it thinner. Despite this processing, velum was still quite thick, so books were thick.

Unless you were a monk or looking up something specific, reading wasn’t something you did on your own. It was a social activity: someone read aloud and everyone else listened. This didn’t just apply, as you might think, to works of fiction and poetry. It also applied to non-fiction, such as histories and hunting treatises. In a world where the main forms of entertainment were what could be provided by the members of a household in terms of singing or telling stories, almost any book would interest almost everyone.

Just as minor lords wouldn’t be able to afford books generally, they definitely would not be able to have a library, something which, again, I’ve come across in more than one novel. Libraries were for monasteries and the royal family. It took an immense amount of wealth to be able to afford enough books to make it necessary to dedicate an entire room to them. Books in libraries were often chained to prevent them being stolen, as in the photograph at the top of the post, making the initial premise of someone taking a book away to read it even more unlikely.

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Entertainment, Medieval Life

A Bed Is Not Just For Sleeping


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





Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Interiors

The Medieval Merchant’s House – The Bedroom



The front bedchamber of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton


The tour of the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton moves upstairs.

Above the ground floor passage is a gallery. It runs between the two bedchambers on the first floor. Only one, at the front of the house, is furnished.  In The Winter Love this is the room I gave to Eleanor and her friend, Isabelle, while Isabelle’s brother, the merchant, sleeps at the back.

The bedchamber is furnished with two beds, complete with bed hangings, a cradle, a stool and three chests.



The gallery of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton


The beds each have a canopy, bed hangings and a counterpane.


Bed coverings

Bed hangings in the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton


The bed hangings provided privacy, both from other occupants of the room and from neighbours. There were no curtains at the unglazed window, although there might have been shutters.

One of the useful things I learned in the bedchamber is that the canopy of a medieval bed did not rest on four posts, as I had imagined (influenced by too many beds from later centuries), but it hung suspended from the ceiling by ropes. I already have some ideas about how such an interesting fact could be used in a future novel.


Bed canopy 2

Bed canopy in the bedchamber of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton


The bedchamber was open to the ceiling and did not originally have a fireplace. As well as being decorative and providing some privacy, the bed hangings also helped to keep the occupants of the beds warm.  These have been made using medieval techniques.

The bedroom contains two more garishly decorated chests:


Chest in front bedroom

Chest in the bedchamber of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton



Other chest in bedroom

Chest in the bedchamber of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton


This pretty little stool is also in the bedchamber.


Stool in front bedroom 3

Stool in the bedchamber of the Medieval Merchant’s House, Southampton





Filed under Fourteenth Century