The past is an unlit country

At the height of the recent storms, early one evening, our electricity went off, leaving us in the dark and cold for three hours. This was enough time to panic about finding suitable torches, candles, and (thanks to my mother’s foresight and her memories of a post-war childhood and a 1970s winter of discontent) a hurricane lamp. Enough time to light them all (where do lighters, matches, and batteries hide in the dark?) and to realise that landlines don’t work in power-cuts and mobile phones choose that precisely that moment to run out of charge or credit. What then? Can’t work, play, or read. My son struck lucky with a charged iPad on which he played games. Well, what would any self-respecting historian do but attempt a micro-historical re-enactment of the dark and its insights into life in the past?[1]

night

 

 

 

First off, yes, there is no doubt that candlelight is beautiful and mesmerising. You only have to see Amanda Vickery’s reconstruction of a Regency ball, or the Tudor Farm at Christmas, or Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 Jane Eyre to see its charm. Yet candles were costly and unlikely to be used in large quantities for ordinary people on ordinary days. So surely many people’s experience of darkness was much more intense than these gorgeous evocations; didn’t many of them travel the night-time with only small flickers of light to accompany them? People do seem to have pottered about in the night time. Most obviously, perhaps, children slept in rooms with their carers –no doubt to facilitate feeding them, comforting them, or talking to them in the dark hours without having to wander far.

What about that much longer ‘night’ itself? My encounter with the ‘early’ advent of darkness reminded me of Roger Ekirch’s ground-breaking findings in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, a marvellous history of night-time activities and patterns of behaviour. His findings on changing patterns of sleep were so startling they even made the press. Essentially he proposes that in the pre-industrial world sleep was broken up into two blocks of about four hours. So when you don’t get your full eight hours sleep, don’t be surprised or worried – you are probably following your ‘natural’ sleeping pattern. Ekirch argues that industrialisation, efficiency and clock-watching eradicated this segmented form of sleep (leaving many of us as ‘insomniacs’). For more on sleep see the project Sleep Cultures.

Those of us lucky enough to read accounts of everyday lives in the past find much illumination in Ekirch’s findings about the dark. I begin to wonder how far the dark was shaped by class and gender. Men were perhaps least hampered by darkness when travelling abroad, although it remained a dangerous time for everyone in the night as fears of robbery and banditry reveal. Certainly servants and women seem to have patrolled darkened rooms and corridors more frequently at home. I recall the accounts in matrimonial litigation of times when household members saw and heard what they weren’t intended to see or hear. Indeed being kept in the dark was no distant metaphor where secrets were concerned in the pre-electric age. Servants on their duties or in precious ‘spare’ time often discovered the adulterous affairs of their employers.

It wasn’t only servants who took advantage of the dark evenings. In January 1788 the vicar of Alnham in Northumberland left home for a couple of days. The young husbandman and plasterer who were doing building work on his house were suspicious about his wife Eleanor. They went to the highest part of the Smiths’ garden and looked in through the kitchen chamber which held the press-bed in which the couple slept. They saw Eleanor reading by the firelight and chatting with the person in the bed. She undressed to her shift and go into bed. The dark and the distance stopped the men’s spying, so unable to find a ladder they got a hand barrow and stood it up at the window. Each climbed in turn onto the barrow (a health and safety nightmare there, surely) and peeped in to see Eleanor lying in bed with a fellow husbandman.

In fact, servants and lower classes have been snootily written-off by historians for their propensity to pop-up with incriminating evidence about their masters and mistresses. Yet when I look again at their testimony and accounts, in the context of their darkened environments, I notice with fresh eyes their use of all their senses as they made their rounds. Hearing sighs and shuffles, encountering by touch surprisingly closed doors, and discern odd goings on in the dimmest of dim lights. Rather than household members in the contempt in which some historians have held them, I admire their quiet use of a darkened house to assert their own control over its occupants.

Mary Collier certainly saw the dark and its labours as profoundly gendered, in her 1739 poem defending women’s employment against the slurs of Stephen Duck in his The Thresher’s Labours. Resentful descriptions of the dark litter her poem.  After women’s long labours in the field for example, she tells her reader:

We must make haste, for when we Home are come,
Alas ! we find our Work but just begun ;
So many Things for our Attendance call,
Had we ten Hands, we could employ them all.
Our Children put to Bed, with greatest Care
We all Things for your coming Home prepare :
You sup, and go to Bed without delay,
And rest yourselves till the ensuing Day ;

She emphasises the never-ending nature of women’s labours by the repeated references to the dark. On days of washing and charring for others, Mary continues, women’s paid labours also necessitated them working through the night. After an interminable day washing for a mistress:

NOW Night comes on, from whence you have Relief,
But that, alas ! does but increase our Grief ;
With heavy Hearts we often view the Sun,
Fearing he’ll set before our Work is done ;
For either in the Morning, or at Night,
We piece the Summer’s Day with Candle-light.
Tho’ we all Day with Care our Work attend,
Such is our Fate, we know not when ‘twill end :

Look at all those allusions to time passing and night as burdening women still further. Again, after cleaning pewter, or making ale for the employer:

Once more our Mistress sends to let us know
She wants our Help, because the Beer runs low :
Then in much haste for Brewing we prepare,
The Vessels clean, and scald with greatest Care ;
Often at Midnight, from our Bed we rise
At other Times, ev’n that will not suffice ;
Our Work at Ev’ning oft we do begin,
And ‘ere we’ve done, the Night comes on again.
Water we pump, the Copper we must fill,
Or tend the Fire ; for if we e’er stand ſtill,
Like you, when threshing, we a Watch must keep,
Our Wort Boils over if we dare to sleep

It is SO striking that the natural rhythms of day and night, light and dark, shape Mary’s view of women’s work.

Finally, my unlit hours reminded me of people’s encounters in the dark which unsettled and frightened them, and made them think of ghosts, banshees and devils. Catherine Ettrick junior, for example, told the clerk of Durham Consistory Court in the 1760s that when her mother left the marital bedchamber (to escape her husband’s violence), the servants thought they’d seen a ghost. Her brother had his very own banshee when he grew up. Thomas Bewick, for instance, recounts in his memoir how he was scared of the dark when he was growing up in the 1760s.[2]

Among the worst [of his ‘prejudices], was that of a belief in ghosts, boggles, apparitions, &c. These wrought powerfully upon the fears of the great bulk of the people at that time, and, with many, these fears are not rooted out even at this day. The stories so circumstantially told respecting these phantoms and supernatural things, I listened to with the dread they inspired, and it took many an effort, and I suffered much, before it could be removed. What helped me greatly to conquer fears of that kind was my … father … would not allow me to plead fear as any excuse, when he had to send me an errand at night ; and, perhaps, my being frequently alone in the dark might have the effect of enabling me greatly to rise superior to such weakness.

Nevertheless Thomas went on to recall his horrors when as a teenager he set off home in the dark across the fell, after playing cards with his friends. Suddenly:

to my utter amazement, I saw the devil ! It was a clear moonlight night ; I could not be mistaken his horns his great white, goggle eyes, and teeth, and tail his whole person stood fairly before me ! As I gazed, I thought the hair lifted the hat on my head. He stood, and I stood, for some time ; and, I believe, if he had then come up to me, I must have dropped down. … I slipped off my clogs, made a start in a bending direction, and at full speed ran home. He pursued me nearly to the door, but I beat him in the race. I had always understood that any person who had seen a ghost, or evil spirit, would faint on coming into a house with a fire in it. I feared this, but I fainted none ! and when my father asked me what was the matter, I told him I had seen the devil. He, perhaps without thinking, gave me a slap on the head.

That slap on the head amuses me – a father lashing out instinctively at the fright his son got. Don’t worry, his father then went on to find out who it was that had impersonated the devil, tracked him down in Corbridge and gave him a sound beating for terrifying his son!

No wonder, as Sasha Handley, that excellent historian of ghosts, darkness and sleep, reminds us, people sought bedfellows to make the dark less isolating and frightening, to make it more amenable and companionable by sharing the ill-perceived shadows, the too quiet moments which no doubt they filled with chat, as well as snores.

This sociability began to appeal to me as I sat on the bed surrounded by candles and torches and a radio with batteries that I rediscovered, and listened to my son tell me about his day at school once he decided to chat rather than play Modern Combat. Then the lights came back on and my re-enactment was complete. By God I was pleased! Respect to our forbearers.

 

 


[1] Seriously, for an eye-opening account of historical reconstruction and its value, have a look at Pamela Smith’s ‘Making Things. Techniques and books in early modern Europe’ in Paula Findlen (ed), Early Modern Things. Objects and their Histories 1500-1800 (2013)

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.

reduced _MAB0475_6_7_8_9_tonemapped

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.

A_Harlot's_Progress3

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.

What went on in beds?

Historical beds are very much in view at the moment. There is an exhibition at Hampton Court Palace called ‘Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber’ with an accompanying BBC4 TV programme with Lucy Worsley called ‘Tales from the Royal Bedchamber’.

What is probably the Paradise State Bed, Henry VII’s bed, jas just gone on display at Bishop Auckland Castle until the end of September 2014. Jonathan Foyle revealed the wonders of this 572 year old bed on BBC4 in the documentary, Secret Knowledge: The King’s Lost Bed.

St_James's_Palace,_Old_Bed_Chamber,_by_Charles_Wild,_1819_-_royal_coll_922165_313724_ORI_2

This interest in the fantastic and fantastical beds of our monarchs is wonderful. But my good friend and colleague, Dr Angela McShane, and I have been looking at the meaning of more mundane beds from the past. We have been fascinated by the meaning of something that was fundamental to so many homes and families in early modern England.

As an item of furniture, the bed was at the centre of the domestic sphere. It was the most expensive single item of the household and many of the family’s key events happened in the marital bed. Marriages were made there, children were born, and people were nursed, and eventually died in its warmth and protection. Thus, the bed literally made the household.

DV IMAGE

But as a household space, it was not only a zone of domestic comfort  – we realised it was also a battle-ground for family tensions and breakdowns. Angela and I have brought our combined knowledge of the history of design and social historical approaches to a wide range of sources on beds, including popular literature, inventories and wills, beds and textiles, and court records covering theft, property dispute and family breakdown, in order to uncover some of those stories.

We’d like to share these stories with new readers, so please follow Joanne on this blog and on twitter to see our stories unfold.

First we’re opening with the story of a problematic marriage. In 1742 13 yr old Isabel Lowee, a fatherless heiress, and 12 yr old William Cashin were wed by marriage licence in a church with closed and locked doors on the Isle of Man. After the ceremony, there was a wedding dinner and dance at Isabel’s guardian’s house and then Isabel and William were taken to the guardian’s barn to be ‘put to bed’, the traditional ritual for fixing the marriage.

There were lots of signs already that this union was a wrong-un. The husband and wife were too young – the usual age of marriage was around the mid twenties. Instead of being a public ceremony, the church’s doors were closed to prevent publicity and the licence was questioned by Isabel’s family who accused the Cashins of coercing Isabel so that they could lay their hands on her inheritance. They claimed that William’s family took Isabel away from her friends and persuaded her to marry with fine clothes and a ‘babby’ or a child’s doll.

wedding bed

But a further concern, pointed out by witnesses, was the material inadequacy of the bedding ceremony. Where was their bed? The bedding had taken place in a barn on a straw ‘bed’ that was hastily made and set upon the ground. The crucial question for Angela and I: is why was this aspect noticed by the people of the time? The next post will explain more.

All images are from Wikimedia Commons:

  1. St James’s Palace, Old Bed Chamber,
  2. Bed photographed at Freilichtmuseum
  3. Woodcut from The Fair Melusina / 15th century: How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed / And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock