Beds, marital sex, and adultery

In our last post Angela and I talked about the different functions of the early modern bed and how it literally shifted its uses from the marital bed to the child-bed, to the sick-bed, to the death-bed as family needs dictated. In my post on the different nature of the understandings and experience of privacy in the past, I pointed out that people often shared rooms at night. As the ubiquity of the truckle bed indicates, children and servants frequently shared the chambers in which spouses slept and it was not uncommon for visitors to be put up for the night too (read Sasha Handley’s great work on sleeping for insights into this).[1] So in this post we talk about the marital bed and its uses and meanings in relation to marital affection and marital sex.

Jan Steen bed with curtains

Jan Steen, The Morning Toilet, 1663 (Wikimedia Commons)

Married couples shared a bed, which was seen as the prime site for the sustenance and negotiation of marital relations. After all, conjugal affection and sex were seen as building a harmonious relationship. So how was this achieved in a small or busy household with shared rooms? We think that the bed hangings and curtains were crucial because they acted as a boundary or a ‘threshold.’ In other words, opening or closing the curtains on a tester bed, or indeed the doors on a bed that was built into the house, marked a transition between different types of spaces. It made the space of the bed part of the room or closed off from the room. You can see this above in the Jan Steen painting where one of the curtains is partially closed. The drawn curtain therefore indicated that the bed-space was closed to view – ‘locked’; whereas the open curtain (or absent curtain) allowed an open view – and therefore a different use. This was meaningful enough for early modern people to be used in the theatre for dramatic ends with the curtains of the stage bed signifying ‘secrecy, surprise, revelation, and dramatic irony’.[2]

This notion of the marital bed as the site for legitimate sexual relations was so strong that it shaped people’s language and actions. As the paramount site for beneficial ‘good’ sex, ‘bad’ sex – in other words adultery – was a betrayal of the marital bed. Indeed ‘forsaking the marital bed’ was used as a metaphor for a failed marriage in separation cases. The main bed of the household was so fundamentally associated with marital relations that any other kind of sex in it seems to have been taboo.

Interestingly, cases of adultery that came before the courts reveal that adultery was rarely described as occurring in the marital bed. I recorded where witnesses or defendants claimed that it occurred and the most common places were on chairs, on floors, against doors, and out of doors. The engraving below of a couple using a chair for their dalliance is an example from the Trials for Adultery published in the late eighteenth century. Thus the most common sites of infidelity were the boundaries of legitimate spaces – or ‘liminal’ spaces as scholars call them. Essentially, this means that adultery was rarely committed in the marital bed. You might point out that the marital bed was too overlooked for any suspicious activities. But adultery often occurred in the family home, when husbands were away, so this can’t be the only cause of the reluctance to use this site! Indeed, when beds were cited in adultery trials, they were multi-use, household-neutral beds e.g. lodgings, inns, and not those that were emotionally or physically bound to the household.

Mrs Draper 1771

The bed was also a primary space in which emotional as well as physical bonds between spouses were cultivated, strengthened and maintained. Diaries show that spouses used the bed as a space for sociability, because its enclosure allowed couples to talk away from view. Given that the marital bed facilitated spouses’ discussions, it is not surprising that popular culture saw the bed as the place for wives’ nagging. This was encapsulated in the notion of the ‘curtain lecture’. Pamphlets such as Curtain Lectures: Or, Matrimonial Misery displayed (2s 6d, or 3s in calf) were published in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, portraying wives nagging husbands. This common motif lasted well into the nineteenth century as the Victorian image below indicates. Husbands adopted the same conventions in court. In 1766 Charles Allison claimed that ‘after he had got into Bed … [his wife] still continuing to Provoke him with her opprobrious language he did cause and oblige her to get up and go down Stairs’ or to the maid’s bed. He also locked other rooms and pocketed the key to keep his wife out of them. These actions signified a reduction of his wife’s status – moving her out of the marital bed to a servant’s in lesser accommodation.


As these examples indicate, since beds were where married couples talked, it is no wonder bed were also where tensions led to quarrels and in some cases, sadly, violence, which will be discussed in the next bed-post.

[1] More more on sleeping and dreams see: and

[2] Sasha Roberts, ‘”Let me the curtains draw”: the dramatic and symbolic properties of the bed in Shakespearean tragedy’ in J G Harris and N Korda, Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama, Cambridge, 2002.