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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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