Most of us were created in one, many were born in one, and many died in one. Most of us spend a third of our lives in one, where we read, chat, make love, sip an evening glass of wine or a morning cup of coffee. It is a hospice of health and restoration, a refuge where the anguished can cry alone, a protective castle where little children flee in the middle of the night to escape terrors and specters shrouded in darkness. It is both a stronghold and a battleground for husbands and wives. It is the vehicle that transports us from light, lucidity and reason to a land of dreams and nightmares.
I refer, of course, to the bed.
This often overlooked piece of furniture often serves as a backdrop for literature and art. Indeed, in the fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea” and the classic “One Thousand and One Nights”, the bed takes center stage. In paintings from around the world, one finds artists depicting sleepers, lovers, children, the dying and the dead, each lying on a bed.
And if we expand the definition of culture beyond the realm of the arts to include the customs and social practices of a society, we find that the bed is not only a means of sleeping but also sometimes a stage for comedy, drama and tragedy.
A brief flashback
Early humans were less concerned with 40 winks than becoming a midnight snack for predators. anthropologists speculate that these ancestors often made their resting places in the branches of trees.
The first known deposits are estimated at 77,000 years old, shallow pits dug into the soil of South Africa and lined with grasses and plants that are said to repel insects. As communities grew, the crude huts included sleeping spaces shared by kin and anyone attached to the clan.
In companies like Egypt and China, while most people continued to sleep on mats or grass – “to hit the hay” as a euphemism for bedtime clearly has a long lifespan – beds over time have become more sophisticated, both in terms of comfort and status. Some Chinese, for example, built brick platforms that could be heated in cold weather. Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun slept under a sheet of gold, and other rulers of that country also had similar elaborate beds adorned with intricately worked images and precious metal statues.
The bedrooms of the “domus” or upper-class Roman house were called cubicula, from which we get our word cubicle. Like those spare workspaces in our modern office buildings, these quarters were sparsely decorated and designed for sleeping. For guests and family gatherings, the Romans preferred the garden or the triclinium, a dining room made up of three sofa squares, one side of which remained open so that slaves could bring food to the table. The Romans lay down while eating, much like those moderns who have a late-night snack in the sheets.
In many societies, bedrooms were often large shared spaces, even the sleeping quarters of kings. Poor families, for example, throughout the centuries have slept together in one room, partly to save fuel costs. Moreover, for much of our history, the cultures of many countries had a very different sense of privacy and community living than we moderns have in our age of nuclear families and individuals. living alone.
The epic poem “Beowulf”, for example, begins in a great hall, Heorot, and with a feast of meat and mead. King Hrothgar eventually takes his leave of the festivities, but the newly arrived Beowulf, his men, and the king’s servants all lie down in the hall, where Beowulf will fight the monster Grendel that night. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for these large halls to provide this double service, with men sleeping at the same tables where they had eaten.
King of France Louis XIV conducted daily business from his luxurious bedroom every morning. Surrounded by servants, scribes, courtiers, and members of the nobility, and with the strictest royal protocols in place, Louis sent orders and letters, consulted his advisers, and engaged in lively conversations.
During World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sometimes did the same, albeit in a more democratic style, meeting various military and diplomatic personnel and writing or dictating memos and instructions, all from the comfort of his bed. His companions at these meetings were often his cigar and a glass of whiskey and water.
…And Shared Spaces
Until after the Civil War, traveling for many Americans also meant sharing rooms and sometimes the beds themselves with acquaintances or even strangers, a circumstance totally alien to today’s culture.
In the fall of 1776, for example, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin shared accommodation one night in a New Jersey hostel. The room was tiny, “a little bigger room than the bed”, according to Adams, and with a small window. When Adams, fearful of the night air, closed the window before going to bed, Franklin implored him to leave it open. He was going, he told Adams, to introduce him to his “cold theory.” Adams opened the window, climbed into bed, and fell asleep listening to the older man tell him about the benefits of fresh air.
Unlike the bed shared by Adams and Franklin, some beds in hostels and private homes were enormous. One of the grandest of these, which visitors can see today in the Victoria and Albert Museum, was the Large bed of dishes, based in Ware, England, at the Crown Inn. Mentioned in the writings of several poets, including William Shakespeare, this monstrosity is 11 feet long and as wide as two modern double beds, and can comfortably accommodate four couples.
As the railways opened up lands like Britain and America to extended travel, and with an emphasis on greater privacy in the Victorian era, the inns and hotels that followed these developments began to offer single rooms as we know them today.
Restless nights? It’s not just the bed
In his short but delicious book “On Going to Bed”, novelist Anthony Burgess not only discusses the role of the bed in our culture, but also brings us some colorful anecdotes about sleep: our dreams and night terrors, the insomnia, sleepwalking and the sensation of sleeping in various types of beds, from ship’s berths to army cots. Dozens of images of beds and reproductions of famous paintings of scenes around a bed enrich Burgess’s writing.
After a description of the elaborate beds of the Egyptian queen Hetep-Heres I and Tutankhamun, Burgess writes: “We can guess that kings and queens slept no better on their ornate machines than peasants on their dirt floors (Shakespeare always talking about this), but crafting a bed had nothing to do with sleepiness.
Even today, in our age of memory foam mattresses and soft baby sheets, many of us have trouble sleeping. That this is obvious can be inferred from our thriving sleeping pill market, the constant stream of articles on how to sleep better, and our own frequent complaints of insomnia or not getting eight hours of sleep. One could take comfort in the fact that, according to rumors to the contrary, recent to research showed that previous generations slept no better than us.
The slippery definition of “bed”
At the end of “On Going to Bed”, Burgess, despite writing such a book, tells his readers that he himself hasn’t slept on a bed in his own house for years, but on a mattress on the floor. He has, he writes, a tendency to fall out of raised beds, plus he likes to spread stacks of books, “a tea maker,” a record player, and even a small refrigerator around his mattress.
Now for my own confession. For the past 18 months, I’ve been drifting at night in a La-Z-Boy, a recliner that tilts backwards as far back as possible. After my daughter and her family moved north for work and school, I in turn left the basement and laid down on the first floor in this mechanical chair rather than establish my quarters to sleep on the second floor. I feel more comfortable and secure knowing that I would have access to three exist.
Is the Burgess mattress considered a bed? Given that so many humans have spent their nights on mats or straw, that would certainly seem so. And the La-Z-Boy? Despite its silly name, I would still say yes. Anyway, like those cowboys who once claimed that months of lying on the floor made a featherbed impossible to sleep in, I’ve come to prefer my somewhat cramped chair to the beds upstairs. . To add a twist to an old adage, “I made my unbed and now I have to lie in it.”
As Burgess writes of his mattress: “This, being a place for rest, sleep, love, writing, reading, listening to music, and other activities or non-activities which do not directly contribute to the wealth of the world, could well be considered a bed as we have hitherto understood it, without boredom or definition.
Perhaps, like our predecessors – the peasants who slept on dirt floors under thatched roofs or the nobles who snored in four-poster beds in mansions – we could simply call the place where we sleep a bed. go to bed regularly and seek respite from sleep.
And with that vague definition, good readers, I wish you good night. Sleep well.