Beds: the beating heart of the household

Bed were the most valuable object in the early modern household, often making up one-third of the total value of domestic assets. This is a huge amount! And, as the sixteenth century went on, more and more people were owning them, as the increasing presence of beds and their bedding in wills and inventories show. Despite the ubiquity of beds in the household, social and economic historians have only just begun to look in detail at the role they played in the household. And there is a key question to ask, after all, given the costs of beds: why did early modern people concentrate such a large proportion of household expenditure in one piece of furniture comprising the bedstead and its dressings?  Why not sleep on something cheaper, and wear the expensive textiles that were lavished on the bed? Well, from our research, Angela McShane and I have concluded that it is because the marital bed would become the public site for family ceremonies and festivities following weddings, births and deaths; displaying the families’ wealth and legitimacy.

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We have found that households invested heavily in beds, and especially the marital bed, because they embodied and conveyed powerful meaning about the household with marriage at its centre. In effect, the marital bed literally made the household. Thus the highly irregular and disreputable nature of the marriage of Isabel and William in our last post was symbolised by the material inadequacy of the bedding ceremony. The bed was not just a metaphor for a marital household; it was a key object around which that household was formed. As historical demographers have shown, English men and women postponed marriage until their mid to late twenties, when they had the economic wherewithal to set up a household and the purchase or acquisition of a bed, and its dressings, marked this moment of maturity. The ideal bed was a tester bedstead, with mattresses (ranging in comfort and expense from straw and flock to feather), sheets, bed covers, such as quilts and counterpanes, and curtains.

In the same period, of course, we know that for many in England the bed they slept in was by no means as grand as this ideal. Lesser members of the household such as servants, apprentices, and children slept in truckle or trundle beds and other less formal beds such as press beds. This was because they were unmarried and so not economically able to create their own households. Poorer people, including those who had married, also might sleep in a much meaner affair – a mattress positioned precariously on a movable board, or perhaps on the floor. The bed was so representative of the marital household that to be without somewhere to lay one’s head, was in England a marker of the most abject poverty, often cited in pauper letters. The prison reformer John Howard also noted that this was an indicator of utmost misery for prisoners. Husbands who had abandoned their wives were ordered by magistrates to provide their wives with bed and bedding as part of their support.

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In fact, the bed carried numerous meanings about the household through a range of media over the period. There are lots of depictions of beds in popular literature, all of which placed the tester bed at the centre of the ritual life cycle of the household. Trial pamphlets and titillating accounts of household breakdown depicted the ideal form of bed, often to show how disorderly the family and household had become. Frequently, the bed served a didactic function in moralising or satirical images, where the form of the orderly bed corresponded to the moral worth of the female at the centre of the household. You can see this in the Hogarth’s Modern Moral Series. A Harlot’s Progress. In Plate 3 above, Moll is now reduced to the status of common prostitute and her decline is clear in the bed, with its hangings in a knot and its tumbled bedding.

A_Harlot's_Progress5

The disorderly bed, and in turn the household it inhabited, lacked all form and structure. This is clear in plate 5 of Moll’s descent, where she is back in the garret, dying of syphilis. The bed hangings are closed, the space inside secret.

It is the power of the bed that the next posts will explore: a heart keeping the household functioning successfully as an orderly unit of authority, reproduction, production, and consumption.

Image 1: Mark Bailey; Images 2 and 3 Wikimedia Commons.

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