One popular idea about life in the Middle Ages is that people in the Middle Ages slept sitting upright with their backs leaning against the headboard because they feared death when they slept lying down. At first sight, it seems like that might be supported by several depictions and images in medieval manuals. But unfortunately, that idea of medieval people sleeping while sitting upright is (mostly) wrong.
So in the following, I would like to talk about why people in the Middle Ages didn`t sleep sitting upright and where the myth that they did comes from.
People in the Middle Ages didn`t sleep sitting upright and medieval beds were also not short. Instead, people in the Middle Ages slept lying down just like we do. The myth that people in the Middle Ages slept sitting upright comes from misinterpretations of medieval depictions that depict either dying, resting, or sick (but never sleeping!) people sitting upright in their beds.
Let`s get started!
Did people in the Middle Ages sleep sitting upright?
The whole idea of sleeping while sitting upright in way too short beds is closely tied to the topic of medieval beds in general. I wrote an entire article talking about the different types of medieval beds, what was used for mattresses, and how comfortable these beds were. Please feel free to check it out!
There is an abundance of medieval depictions of bedrooms and beds and none of them show short beds. All depicted beds are long enough to sleep in a normal, lying position! And these medieval depictions also show sleeping people in bed in a lying position. So people in the Middle Ages did not sleep sitting upright with their backs leaning against the headboards of their beds!
Speaking of medieval people, have you heard that medieval people were supposedly much shorter than modern-day people? Well, that too is a myth. If you want to find out more about the average height (and stature) of medieval peasants, knights, and Vikings then I would like to recommend you my article here.
But back to the myth of medieval people sleeping while sitting upright. By now we have established that that is just a myth. But where did that myth come from? And does it have a grain of truth in it?
Let`s find out.
Where does the myth that medieval people slept sitting upright come from?
Ok, we just established that the idea that medieval people slept sitting upright is a myth. But where did that myth come from?
I personally believe that the origin of the myth that medieval people slept sitting upright with their backs leaning against the headboards of their beds is a classic case of an unclean interpretation of medieval sources.
Yes, there are medieval depictions of people who are sitting upright in bed. But none of these depictions show people sleeping! Instead, these depictions oftentimes show childbirth, people in hospital beds or people dying. Just think of the last time you have been at a hospital. Even today patients who are bedbound are sitting up in their beds from time to time, for example for eating a meal. The same can be said about the Middle Ages. There as well patients would occasionally sit up in their beds. And that`s oftentimes what is depicted when medieval images show people in bed sitting up.
However, there are occasions where newly married couples are depicted sitting upright in extremely short beds. So does that contradict everything I just said?
Well, not at all.
Weddings in the Middle Ages were not that much held in a church. Instead, one of the most important moments of a medieval wedding (between nobles or even royals) was when the fully clothed newlyweds were put to bed by the entire wedding party and blessed while sitting in bed. But these beds were only used for the ceremonial part of the wedding, nobody slept in them! Do you want to find out more about that? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
I hope you found our trip into the Middle Ages and how people slept interesting.
Speaking of sleeping in the Middle Ages. Have you ever wondered whether or not knights slept in their armor? If so you might want to check out my article here.
And if you want to find out more about the surprisingly good diet of medieval peasants I would like to recommend you my article here.
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).