Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Curling Up With the Rats...Sleeping Arrangements in Medieval Castles

Have you ever wondered about where everyone in a medieval castle sleeps? Medieval castles were a lot different than castles of today or even castles of the Regency period. There weren’t an abundance of bed chambers. In most cases there was only one bed chamber, and that may even double as the solar, where the noble family could entertain guests, take a bath, do their business and get away from the hustle and bustle of the castle. In the solar, their bed would serve not only as a place for sleep and *wink* play, but as a seat as well.

In the early middle ages, and some cases the later middle ages as well, the family would sleep at the upper end of the great hall, separated only by a curtain from the rest of the castle folk. In some instances the noble family would be lucky enough to have a permanent wooden partition to give them more privacy than the curtain.

The noble family would have a bed, its posts made of wood. Ropes would be woven from one side to the other of the bed frame to form what we now use a box spring for. On top of the rope would be the mattress. The mattress could be a fine cloth usually stuffed with feathers or down. The bed was usually a four poster bed, draped with a canopy for additional privacy and in the winter months, warmth. In addition they often had fur coverings as blankets to keep warm. Servants often would have rough woolen blankets or their capes to curl up in.

In some instances the noble family’s bed would be very short. I remember when I visited a castle in Ireland the bed was extremely short, and I wondered if the people were lacking in stature back in the middle ages. The tour guide explained to us that for superstitious reasons, they would sleep sitting up in the bed, for lying down was a position of the dead.

In some cases if the castle was a little larger there would be a second chamber in which the eldest son and his family could sleep, or it would be used as a guest room or sleeping chamber for the steward of the castle.

In the early middle ages, the family wasn’t the only one you might find sleeping in the great hall. In fact you would find a great deal more people sleeping there, servants, knights, squires, guests. You might also find these people sleeping in the towers, lower levels (basement), on the tables or benches, in lean-to buildings, the kitchen, and when in such a case as a garrison or mess hall had been built, there as well. Also later in the middle ages a separate building would be build for the servants, and in some cases the servants would often have their own little huts or hovels built around the castle where they would sleep. Most however preferred the great hall, where it was safer and warmer.

If the noble family had a separate private room, they may have had their personal servant sleep in the room with them. The servant would sleep on a pallet or trundle on the floor. If the servant were especially important, and an antechamber was attached to the private chamber of the master of the house, the servant may find themselves sleeping in such a room.

Most of the servants and military folk would sleep on pallets or trundles, if they were lucky. These were mats of either woven straw and rushes or mattresses stuffed with straw that were laid on the floor. Nobody was assigned a private sleeping area or spot on the floor. It was every man, woman and child for themselves.

Important guests would be given a feather mattress to sleep on in the great hall, or if luxury provided they’d be able to sleep in the guest room.

If you were a lucky servant or important you got to wrap yourself up in a blanket near the fire, if not, well good luck sleeping in the winter months. You’d probably spend more time shivering and quaking on the cold dirty floor, scooting as discreetly as possible to the closest body for warmth.

Sleeping in a medieval castle wasn’t as romantic as we all dream of, especially if you were a servant. Castles were cold, drafty, damp, loud, smoky, and most of the time a little stinky. Have you ever turned your heat off because it is a beautiful day out, and you forget to turn it back on when you go to sleep? When you wake up in the morning it is 54 degrees in your house… Well imagine if it was 10 degrees outside… your bedroom might be the same way. You may wake up, lick your lips and feel the moisture freeze in place as your breath forms a cloud of mist around your head. ***Shiver*** The nobles would keep tapestries on the walls to keep out most of the drafts. They had shutters or oiled skins and furs to cover the windows and in some instances glass was used, however their seals on the window trimmings were not as good as ours are today. They also had brass pans that would be filled with heated rocks and put under the covers to keep them warm at night.

Could you imagine living in this time period? Absolutely no privacy. Everybody knew what was going on, and I mean they knew EVERYTHING. No privacy for making woopee. No need to tiptoe, everyone knows you need to pee. Got gas? Everyone will smell it…although the odors of the castle could be strong enough to cover up your flatulence… Rushes would cover the floor to give the room some fragrance. Every so often the rushes would be swept up and disposed of. In the rushes you could find bones, vomit, fleas, lice, rats, animal excrement, rotting food, etc… you get the point, its not so sweet smelling. We do have to remember though that this was normal, it wasn’t odd to them. Everyone just minded their own business, and if a few blankets moved at an erotic pace in the great hall, well such is life.

Although I do admit, even though I know all this, I would still love to live in that time! I never get over the rush of the fairy tale life of a lord and his lady living the rest of their lives happily ever after in their utterly fascinating castle. I might even be okay with some of the hard work for a few days, then of course I would long for the modern conveniences I love so much.

What about you? Would you want to live back then, sleep on the floor, curled up with the rats?


*Images from Bunratty Castle, Ireland & Gainsborough Old Hall, England*


Poll: Where would you rather sleep?

The trestle table in the great hall 66%
The tower Stairwell 11%
The lean-to in the bailey 22%
The rushes in front of the fire, curled up with the rats 0%

22 comments:

Georgie Lee said...

Great post on the less than glamorous side of history. I imagine back then the odors must have dulled everyone's sense of smell. Or at least I hope it did. I think the lice would have bothered me more than the rats.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank Georgie! I agree about the lice, just thinking about it has my skin crawling!

Kris Kennedy said...

Eliza,
You have such illuminating, fun posts!

I always struggle to imagine rushes or straw (wintertime) on the hall floor, and how you wouldn't just drag it with you everywhere you went. Tunic/robe hems dragging it along behind you. 'Course, if it was weighed down with bones and spit and vomit, I suppose it might stay put a little better. LOL.

I always imagine the hard, echoing cold of a castle. Did you ever see the movie w/ Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter? Won an Academy Award the year it came out, back in the 1968. One scene always brought home the cold realities--pun intended!--of medieval castle life. Henry II (Peter O'Toole) wakes up, and as a rousing start to his day, plunges his hands into a basin of water THAT IS COVERED IN ICE and washes his face.
Hmm.
:-)
Kris
www.kriskennedy.net

Pat McDermott said...

Eliza, The more I read your posts, the more I love my gas heat (remote control fireplace included) and central air conditioning! But everyone who lived back then was accustomed to the way things were, I guess. Harder, shorter, and itchier lives. Thanks for the great info!

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Kris! I will have to check out that movie, I haven't seen it yet, thanks for the tip.

I imagine the rushes maybe even stuck to the floor a bit with all the nastiness covering them :)

Thank you Pat! I know what you mean, we have so many conveniences these days that we just can't imagine living without them, and if we do we think it would be horrible, but you're right they didn't know any better, and having a BED or a BLANKET were seen as luxuries!

Amazing isn't it?

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Eliza, The Lion in Winter (original version with Katherine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole) gives you a pretty good idea of what it must have been like as does the Robin Hood series on BBC America. I confess I still much prefer the Regency era to the Medieval. The lice, the rats, and the extreme lack of privacy would have gotten to me.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you Elizabeth, I've heard that about the movie The Lion in Winter, and I've been trying to see Robin Hood, even marked it on my calendar, but have yet to glue myself to the couch to watch it. Does anyone know if Robin Hood is on demand, or on dvd?

Julia Templeton said...

YES, I would love to live back then! If given the choice, I'd certainly like to be lady of the castle and have my own bedchamber vs. sleeping in the great hall with everyone else.

Eliza Knight said...

I'm with ya Julia!

Renee said...

Thanks for the vivid imagery. I would love to peek through time, to get a glimpse of life.

I'm not sure if I could give up the conveniences of modern plumbing. And I like my *playtime* to be kept between Mr. Scott and I.

The image of bodies sprawled all over the place, moaning and groaning. I wonder how many children actually knew who their biological fathers were.

I think bedding down with vermin would be...eeewwwww!

Eliza Knight said...

Lol Renee! Me too!!!

Amanda Elyot said...

Eliza, this is a perfect blog post for the research I'm currently doing!

I just re-watched The Lion in Winter last week. It's a classic, not to be missed, mainly becuase of the performances, which are uniformly brilliant; this is what good acting is -- NOT the sorry excuse for it you see on something like "The Tudors". Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn seem to have defined Henry and Eleanor for all time. "The Lion in Winter" isn't historically accurate in terms of the events of the film, BUT the screenwriter (it's based on his play) did do his homework in terms of the family dynamic, the personalities (all spot-on) and the kinds of events that occurred with Henry II, Eleanor, their 3 surviving sons, and King Philip of France.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Eliza, the first series of Robin Hood is available on DVD and probably on BBC American on demand. Its worth it watch for the Sheriff and Sir Guy of Gisbourne (the dreamy Richard Armitage) but not for Robin who is a bit of a wimp in this version.

I would also rent Becket with Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton. If you watch both back to back, you can see Peter O'Toole grow in the role of Henry II. Whenever I read fiction or biographies of Henry, I can't help but picture him.

Eliza Knight said...

Amanda, I'm so glad I could help! Thank you for your comments!

Elizabeth, thanks for letting me know I will definitely be checking them out :)

Holly Greenfield said...

Great post, Eliza! I would like to live back then, but in the altered state of romantic history that I imagine inside my head. LOL! I don't do vomit covered rushes or unwashed servants doing 'the nasty' even remotely near me... LOL! Although for the all nastiness, there was a simplicity, I think to life then that doesn't exist now. A more straightforward appreciation for clean rushes after the old are swept away. :-)

Eliza Knight said...

I am in complete agreement with you Holly! I might actually have to forbid my stinky servants from doing any coupling in my presence...shudder

Laura said...

I am pretty happy living in the here and now, actually - especially after reading your post!

Have you ever come across the book about the couple who bought and restored Gwydir Castle (can't remember their names) - it came out about 5 years ago. They had to rough it a fair bit as they renovated, and your post made me think of them...

Gerri said...

Another great post, Eliza. I love the idea of living back then. The idea, mind you.

Chicks of Characterization said...

Hey Eliza, when I was touring a town in England which has been set up to portray life back in the 1800's called Beamish, I was told the same thing about the beds and how they sat up becuase of the "death position." The bed in this particular manor house was so tiny, it even had a door on it. If I can dig up the photo I will send it to you!!! Uh, sleep with the RATS- NO WAY!!! lol, I would have had to be someone special to have lived back then!!! Ugh, the lice, makes my skin crawl too! But like you said, its what you are used too!!!! Sorry I am a week late reading, just been busy!!! Again, another wonderful post!

Eliza Knight said...

Hi Laura,

I have not read that book, I will have to check it out, it sounds fascinating!

Thank you Gerri! Me too, in my mind it is much grander :)

Thank you Chicks! I would love to see that photo! Hope everything slows down so you can get a break!

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating stuff. It makes me wonder why they lived with so much foul and disorder compared with the Japanese for instance. Constant warring perhaps?

SarahRain22 said...

Great article and great blog. If I had to choose I'd choose the rats and the fireplace. Hey, rats are living beings and therefore generate some warmth. Well many of them will anyway. Lol.

That or the stable on top of the hay with the horses. Horse stalls have always looked so cozy to me. Stench be damned, I'd probably have smelled just as bad if not worse back then. Lol!