When it comes to sleep in the Middle Ages, then there are the wildest ideas out there. From claims that people in the Middle Ages did not have beds but slept on benches, to the idea that there were beds, but they were so short that people had to sleep sitting upright. And when it comes to medieval mattresses, then the first thing that comes to mind is an uncomfortable bag filled with straw. However, all these claims and ideas don`t represent the reality of the Middle Ages.
In the Early & High Middle Ages, wooden beds with slatted frames like the Gokstad bed were common. In the Late Middle Ages, rope beds in which the Paillasse (a straw-filled bed tick) was put on top of a lattice of rope became common. Poor people who could not afford a bed would sleep on a Paillasse on the ground. An own bedroom was seen as an ideal, but only wealthy people had bedrooms just for themselves.
Let`s take a closer look!
Bedrooms in the Middle Ages
Bedrooms are often depicted in medieval art and manuals. Most of the time they are depicted in the context of biblical scenes like the birth of the virgin Mary. These biblical motives were then transported into the environment of the medieval people who ordered the art/the manual. Because of that, they offer us a pretty good insight into the lives of wealthy medieval people and their bedrooms.
In the Middle Ages, private bedrooms at least for the head of the household and his wife did exist in the houses of wealthy families. However, separated bed chambers (one for the farmer and his wife, another one for the children, and the third one for the farmhands) can even be found in the houses of peasants. So in less wealthy families bedrooms were often shared by multiple family members.
It definitely seems like having a separate bedroom for yourself alone was seen as an ideal that was especially common in the upper class. However, the habit of creating several separate bed chambers in which multiple people would sleep seemed to have been pretty common even in the houses of medieval peasants.
And especially when it comes to children and inns it seems that the habit of not only sharing bedrooms but also the bed itself was pretty common.
Speaking of beds, that brings us to the next topic.
Beds in the Middle Ages, Ancient Greece & Ancient Rome
Beds are not a modern invention but actually date way back into Antiquity.
Beds already existed in Ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome. They consisted of a wooden or metal frame into which ropes or metal straps were strung so that the sleeper was supported by a lattice of ropes. Matrasses filled with straw or wool as well as a blanket were then put on the springy bed base for added comfort.
These beds were quite comfortable and not only used for sleeping. Especially the Romans were famous for eating lying down. Here you can find out more about that and the extravagant diet of rich Romans.
But when it comes to beds in the Middle Ages then there is the misbelief that beds in the Middle Ages either didn`t exist and everybody just slept on benches, or that beds did exist but were so short that people had to sleep sitting upright with their backs leaned against the headboard of the bed.
Both ideas are wrong. And while I will talk about the first misbelief in this article, I wrote an entire separate article on whether or not people in the Middle Ages slept sitting upright (spoiler, they didn`t) and where the myth that they did comes from.
However, beds developed over the course of the Middle Ages and throughout the 3 periods of the Middle Ages.
During the Early & High Middle Ages, wooden beds like the Gokstad bed which was found in a Viking grave had slatted frames in the shape of long laths of wood. In the Late Middle Ages, rope beds in which the mattress was not supported by wooden laths but by a lattice of rope became common. These rope beds were quite comfortable since they were springy, but the ropes had to be tightened with a bed wrench from time to time.
But not everybody in the Middle Ages could afford a rope bed. That, and the question of what was used as a mattress on a rope bed brings us to the next question.
What did people in the Middle Ages sleep on?
When somebody could not afford a bed in the Middle Ages then he would sleep on a so-called Paillasse. The Paillasse was a large bag made of tightly woven, strong, and stiff material that was filled with straw. And even when somebody could afford a bed in the Middle Ages, he would still use a Paillasse as a mattress.
Most people in the Middle Ages slept on so-called Paillasses, large bags made of tightly woven, strong, and stiff materials that were filled with straw. These Pailasses were put onto the beds as a mattress or – in case beds were too expensive – put on the floor.
Now the idea of sleeping on a bag filled with straw does not really sound that comfortable (and quite spiky). But unlike one might think these Paillasses were actually quite comfortable.
And that had to do with the straw that was used to fill them.
Today, straw is pretty short which makes it pungent and ill-suited for filling a mattress.
However, straw in the Middle Ages was much longer since wheat and other plants grew much higher. So the straw that was used in the Middle Ages to fill mattresses was almost man-high. So when it was bundled and stuffed into the mattresses the ends would not sting through the fabric and bother the sleeper. As a result, the straw-filled medieval mattresses were quite comfortable, and sleeping on them was common in both poor and rich households (even though the mattresses in rich households were put onto rope beds for additional comfort).
Speaking of almost man-high, have you ever wondered whether or not people in the Middle Ages were really so much shorter than us? If so, I would like to recommend you my article here.
So the next time somebody tells you about the harsh fate of medieval people who had to sleep on bags filled with straw you can now correct them.
Oh and just in case somebody might tell you that medieval peasants were permanently malnourished and had extremely poor diets, you might also want to check out my article here where I talk about the surprisingly good diet of medieval peasants.
But for now, I would like to briefly talk about 3 pretty common myths connected to sleep and beds in the Middle Ages.
3 myths about beds & sleep in the Middle Ages
There are basically 3 myths about sleep and beds in the Middle Ages.
Two-phase sleep in the Middle Ages – fact or fiction
First of all, there is the idea that people in the Middle Ages slept in two phases.
So they would sleep for a few hours, wake up, and – according to some sources – visit their neighbors, before then going back to sleep. Now while there are a few sources that state such kind of behavior it is impossible to interpret them in a way that everybody throughout the almost 1000 years of the Middle Ages slept in two phases.
I personally have a hard time believing that people who spent the entire day with hard work in the fields would regularly wake up in the Middle of the night, spend some time awake, and then go back to sleep for another couple of hours. That just doesn`t seem reasonable to me.
Speaking of working an entire day. Peasants also had some free time. Here you can find out more about how much free time peasants had in the Middle Ages and how they liked to spend their free time.
Additionally, there is also the problem of illumination when waking up in the Middle of the night. Yes, there were ways to illuminate the inside of a medieval house (although torches were not used for that). But would it have been bright enough to do any sort of activity? I think that is extremely unlikely.
There is however one part of medieval life in which the two-phased sleep was perfectly normal. Medieval monks and nuns did sleep in two phases since they prayed in the middle of the night. The prayer that divided the night into two phases of sleep was called „Matutin“ by Benedictine monks. So it seems like the idea that people in the Middle Ages slept in two phases has been wrongfully transferred from a minority to everybody in the Middle Ages.
Were medieval beds really that short?
Another popular myth about the Middle Ages that you can find everywhere is the idea that medieval beds were extremely short.
Beds that were too short for lying down did exist in the Late Middle Ages. But these beds were extremely rare and not for sleeping. They were wedding beds in which the newlyweds were blessed. The beds in which people slept in the Middle Ages were long enough to lie down and sleep like we do today.
The third and last myth for today is closely connected to the idea of extremely short medieval beds.
People in the Middle Ages slept sitting upright – Fact or Fiction?
The idea that people in the Middle Ages slept sitting upright is a direct result of the extremely rare short beds and medieval depictions that show people sitting up in bed.
The problem is that the short beds were not built to sleep in and the depiction of people sitting in bed did not show people sleeping. So the idea that people in the Middle Ages slept sitting upright with their backs leaned against the headboard of their bed is wrong. Here I wrote an entire article debunking that myth in more detail, please feel free to check it out!
I hope you enjoyed our trip to the Middle Ages.
You don`t have enough of the Middle Ages yet? Then I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about how medieval knights could be killed despite wearing their highly effective armor.
And here I talk about the 3 reasons knights often shied away from killing hostile knights.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Elisabeth van Houts: Married life in the Middle Ages, 900-1300 (Oxford 2019).
Norman John Greville Pounds: The culture of the English people Iron Age to the Industrial Revolution (Cambridge 1994).