All About Beds

This is the first of my blogs. They’ll range widely over archaeology, history and related subjects, from, of course, my books to controversial issues in archeology and even obituaries of recently departed, colleagues.

            I thought I’d begin with my latest book, written with my colleague and friend Nadia Durrani, for it‘s a good starting point, which came about by accident. I was asked some years ago to give a talk on the history of beds to senior executives from two well-known and merging mattress companies. Bill Frucht, my editor at Yale University Press, promptly commissioned What We did in Bed as a result.

What did our ancestors do in bed? A conventional history passing from this bed to that, would be — forgive the pun — sleep inducing. Beds, after all, have been around for at least 77,000 years, and the basic design of the raised sleeping platform goes back at least five thousand. So we decided to write a sort of social history of beds instead. We’re happy to report that we now know more about our forebears’ bedtime activities than we thought possible, much to the amusement of some of our colleagues. 

If there’s one thing that we all do in bed it is to sleep, so we open with a juicy chapter on sleep. But how we slept, when and with whom, has varied widely depending on the time and place. It seems that before the Industrial Revolution, with its clocks and rigid timetables, many of us slept in two phases—enjoying two chunks of say, four hours sleep, with a chunk of wakefulness in-between. If you suffer from insomnia in the small hours, as many of us do, it may simply be that you need to return to this original relaxed ‘biphasic’ way of sleeping—though whether your timekeeping boss will agree is anybody’s guess. 

Next, we draw back the covers on sex. We discovered the truth about everything from the secrets of Ancient Egyptian sex to the inside story on Pompeii’s brothels, Melanesian sex huts, and Victorian S&M parlors. 

Sex, of course, sometimes leads to birth. For most of human history, women used to give birth on the ground, or in the arms of midwives, not lying back in hospital beds—a fashion that began in 17th century France. Alas, these beds were originally very unhygienic, sometimes containing more than one new mother. Many women perished from postpartum ‘childbed fever’. 

Death comes to us all, of course, and we dedicate a whole chapter to death beds and the strange rituals that once surrounded them—from the Ice Age to the carefully choreographed death bed of Queen Victoria and even Andy Warhol’s superstar, Candy Darling. 

The bed itself is today a pragmatic piece of furniture that we often hide away. But before the modern era, the bed was often one of the most valuable pieces of furniture a person might own—if you owned one at all. William Shakespeare, for example, left his ‘second best bed’ to his wife Anne Hathaway, which was not the snub we might imagine, but a thoughtful gift of their intimate shared bed (their best bed was displayed in the front of the house, for guests to admire).

The bed was indeed once so important, and so worthy of public appreciation, that King Louis XIV of France ruled from his. His rising and going to bed were elaborate ceremonial occasions, witnessed by those in high favor. Royal beds were symbols of authority and power. And in World War II, Winston Churchill often governed Britain from his bed. In a way, his bed, like Louis XIV’s, was a public place.

Today, we have fairly rigid views on privacy and who we allow into our beds. Yet in the past we had plenty of bedfellows, often complete strangers, and sometimes many of them, who platonically snuggled up for the night without a second thought. The ultimate expression of the shared bed was the famous Great Bed of Ware in Central England, which was a celebrated tourist attraction. In 1765, a newspaper report claimed, apocryphally, that 26 butchers and their wives (fifty-two people) frolicked in this vast bed. You can see it in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. In pre-modern times it was often was quite typical for whole families, or kin groups, to bed down together. Only the rich would sleep apart. Perhaps that’s why one anonymous observer, on hearing the tattle that Donald Trump and his wife have separate beds, declared ‘how very royal of them’.

We learnt about grand four-poster beds that might fill whole rooms and of Indian charpoys, the ultimate in lightweight, portable beds. We admired artist Tracey Emin’s disordered mattress and visited with John Lennon and Yoko Ono on their “peace bed”. We explored the world of camp and mobile beds—Tutankhamun had a camp bed; so did Napoleon. We delved into Murphy beds, which fold into walls (James Bond was shot in one and recovered),  and we were both awed—if slightly disturbed—by various futuristic beds that you can move around the room at the touch of a button. Water beds, rumored to originate in Mesopotamian times, may also be making somewhat of a comeback. 

We also discovered how great advances are taking place in mattress technology (arguably making modern mattresses as good for one’s back as, ahem, sleeping on the floor). Electronic advances also mean that you can now sleep duly monitored, hour-by-hour; or lull yourself to sleep in a cozy pod with a full media center or the web to amuse you. 

Lie back and think of your bed! For our beds, and all we do on them, truly reveal a great deal about ourselves, our values, and our society. As Groucho Marx once joked: “Anything that cannot be done in bed isn’t worth doing at all.” Perhaps he’s right, we certainly think so. 

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