Arts & Tradition

Bed Time: Mats, Four-Posters, Sleep, and Culture

BY Jeff Minick TIMEJuly 12, 2022 PRINT

Most of us were created in one, many were born in one, and many have died in one. Most of us spend a third of our lifetime in one, where we read, converse, make love, sip a glass of evening wine or a cup of morning coffee. It is a hospice of health and restoration, a refuge where the anguished can weep alone, a protective castle to which small children flee in the middle of the night to escape the terrors and specters cloaked in the darkness. It is both bastion and battleground for husbands and wives. It is the vehicle that carries us from light, lucidity, and reason to a land of dreams and nightmares.

I refer, of course, to the bed.

This often unremarked piece of furniture is frequently a backdrop for literature and art. Indeed, in the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea” and the classic “The Arabian Nights” the bed is center stage. In paintings from around the world, we find artists depicting sleepers, lovers, children, and the dying and the dead, each of them lying on a bed.

And if we broaden the definition of culture beyond the realm of the arts to include the customs and social practices of a society, we find the bed not only a conveyance to sleep but also at times a stage for comedy, drama, and tragedy.

A Brief Look Back

The earliest humans were less concerned with a full 40 winks than with becoming a midnight snack for predators. Anthropologists speculate that these ancestors often made their resting places in the branches of trees.

The first known beds are estimated to be 77,000 years old, shallow pits dug into the soil of South Africa and lined with grasses and plants that would repel insects. As communities developed, rude huts included sleeping spaces shared by kinfolk and whoever else was attached to the clan.

In societies like Egypt and China, while most people continued to sleep on mats or grasses—“to hit the hay” as a euphemism for bedtime clearly has a long shelf life—beds over time became more sophisticated, in terms of both comfort and status. Some Chinese, for example, built brick platforms that could be heated in cold weather. Egypt’s pharaoh Tutankhamen slept beneath a sheet made of gold, and other rulers of that country also owned similar elaborate beds adorned with finely wrought images and statuary made of precious metals.

The bedrooms in the upper-class Roman “domus,” or house, were called cubicula, from which we draw our word cubicle. Like those spare working spaces in our modern office buildings, these quarters were sparsely decorated and designed for sleeping. For guests and family gatherings, the Romans preferred the garden or the triclinium, a dining area made up of three sofa squares with one side left open so that slaves might bring foodstuffs to the table. The Romans reclined while eating, much like those moderns who take a late-night snack to the sheets.

Gathering Places …

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Even public courtyards could be used for sleeping. “The Women of Amphissa,” 1887, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Oil on canvas. Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass. (Public Domain)

In many societies, bedrooms were often large shared spaces, even the sleeping quarters of kings. Poor families, for example, throughout the centuries fell asleep together in a single room, in part to save the costs of fuel. Moreover, for much of our history, cultures in many lands had a very different sense of privacy and communal living than we moderns do in our age of nuclear families and individuals living alone.

The epic poem “Beowulf,” for example, begins in a great hall, Heorot, and with a feast of meat and mead. King Hrothgar eventually takes his leave of the festivities, but the newly arrived Beowulf, his men, and the king’s retainers all bunk down in the hall, where Beowulf will that night do battle with the monster Grendel. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was not unusual for these great halls to perform this double service, with men slumbering on the same tables at which they had eaten.

France’s King Louis XIV daily conducted business from his luxurious bedroom every morning. Surrounded by servants, scribes, courtiers, and members of the nobility, and with the strictest royal protocols in place, Louis dispatched orders and letters, consulted with his advisers, and engaged in lively conversations.

During World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sometimes did the same, though in a more democratic style, meeting with various military and diplomatic personnel, and writing or dictating memos and instructions, all while in the comfort of his bed. His companions during these meetings were often his cigar and a glass of whiskey and water.

… And Shared Spaces

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“The Dream,” 1888, by Édouard Detaille. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. (Public Domain)

Until after the Civil War, travel for many Americans also meant sharing rooms and sometimes the beds themselves with acquaintances or even strangers, a circumstance utterly foreign to today’s culture.

In the fall of 1776, for example, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin shared accommodations one night in a New Jersey inn. The room was tiny, “a chamber a little larger than the bed,” according to Adams, and with one small window. When Adams, who feared the night air, closed the window before bedtime, Franklin implored him to leave it open. He would, he told Adams, acquaint him with his “Theory of Colds.” Adams opened the window, climbed into bed, and fell asleep listening to the older man lecture him on the benefits of fresh air.

Unlike the bed shared by Adams and Franklin, some beds in inns and private homes were enormous. One of the grandest of these, which visitors today can see in the Victoria and Albert Museum, was the Great Bed of Ware, installed in Ware, England, at the Crown Inn. Mentioned in the writings of several poets, including William Shakespeare, this monstrosity is 11 feet long and as wide as two modern double beds, and can sleep four couples quite comfortably.

As railroads opened up lands like Great Britain and America to extended travel, and with an emphasis on greater privacy during the Victorian era, the inns and hotels that followed these developments began featuring individual rooms such as we know today.

Rough Nights? It’s Not Just the Bed

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In the past, there were often more than one to a bed. “Story of Golden Locks,” circa 1870, by Seymour Joseph Guy. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain).

In his short but delightful book “On Going to Bed,” novelist Anthony Burgess not only discusses the role of the bed in our culture but also brings us some colorful anecdotes about sleep: our dreams and night terrors, insomnia, somnambulism, and the sensation of sleeping in various types of beds from ship berths to army cots. Scores of images of beds and reproductions of famous paintings of scenes set around a bed enhance Burgess’s writing.

After a description of the elaborate beds of Egyptian Queen Hetep-Heres I and Tutankhamen, Burgess writes: “We may divine that kings and queens did not sleep any better on their ornate machines than peasants on their mud floors (Shakespeare is always going on about this), but the elaboration of a bed had nothing to do with somniference.”

Even today, in our age of memory foam mattresses and baby-soft sheets, many of us have trouble sleeping. That this is evident may be deduced from our flourishing market in sleeping potions, the steady stream of articles on how to sleep better, and our own frequent complaints of insomnia or failing to get eight hours of shut-eye. We might take some consolation from the fact that, rumors to the contrary, recent research has shown that earlier generations slept no better than do we.

The Slippery Definition of ‘Bed’

At the end of “On Going to Bed,” Burgess, despite writing such a book, tells his readers that he himself has not slept on a bed in his own house in years, but on a mattress on the floor. He has, he writes, a tendency to fall out of raised beds, plus he enjoys spreading around his mattress piles of books, “a tea-making apparatus,” a record player, and even a small refrigerator.

Now for my own confession. For the last 18 months, I drift at night into a La-Z-Boy, a recliner tilted backward as far as possible. After my daughter and her family moved north for work and school, I in turn moved from the basement and bedded down on the first floor in this mechanical chair rather than establishing my quarters for sleep on the second floor. I feel more comfortable and secure knowing that I’d have access to three exits.

Does Burgess’s mattress qualify as a bed? Given that so many humans have spent their nights on mats or straw, it would certainly seem so. And the La-Z-Boy? Despite its silly name, I would say yes again. At any rate, like those cowboys who once claimed that months of stretching out on the ground made a feather bed impossible for sleep, I have come to prefer my somewhat cramped chair to the beds upstairs. To add a twist to an old adage, “I’ve made my non-bed and now must lie in it.”

As Burgess writes of his mattress: “This, being a place reserved for rest, sleep, love, writing, reading, listening to music, and other activities or non-activities which make no direct contribution to the wealth of the world, may well be considered to be a bed as we have so far, without tedium or definition, understood it.”

Perhaps, like our predecessors—the peasants who slept on dirt floors beneath thatched roofs or the nobles who snored in four-posters in manor houses—we might simply call a bed that place where we regularly lie down and seek respite in slumber.

And with that loose definition, good readers, I bid you good night. Sleep well.

Epoch Times Photo
“The Love Dream,” date unknown, by Franz Rösler. (Public Domain)
Jeff Minick
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.
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