Beds Bequeathed, Linens Lost

Take a moment to imagine something special that you own, something that you’d like to pass along to someone close to you after you’re gone. Is it a precious piece of jewelry or a fine watch? Is it an antique car or unique collection that took you years to build? Well, if you lived in the Renaissance, one of the things at the top of your list would have been your bedding

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I have a bed sheet that’s just worn through from regular wear and washing, gaining a large rip beyond repair. In this case, what can be done but to put it on the shopping list that a new one is needed. This got me thinking about some research I’d been doing lately…

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As I’ve been doing a little writing about settings within noble Renaissance homes, I needed to be careful not to assume that the beds looked anything like the fancy ones I would dream up for a wealthy lord and lady of the 16th century, or the humbler nests I’d assume their household slept upon. I had to ask, what were beds really like?

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If you were indeed very wealthy, a large and sumptuous bed might have been a reality. Mattresses filled with downy feathers, soft sheets and a bolster (liken to our pillows but a long tubular one to be shared). Richly fabrics might have hung around it (used to keep out the cool draft and give the sleepers some privacy).

These beds however, and the linens and hangings around them, would have been considered one of the finest things you owned. Further, the area where this bed would have been displayed was far more likely to be viewed publicly, in a room where your guests might look upon it. You would have been proud for others to see these luxurious furnishings. Further still, an honored guest might even sleep in it so that they would be comfortable during their stay…with you. Further, further still, you and multiple family members might sleep in it altogether. And in your will, scribbled out with your quill and ink, you’d be certain to pass these goods on to the most beloved of those near to you. These items were regularly passed along through multiple generations.

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The household (servants) of those affluent families, had a different reality, one much like cottage dwellers. You might all find a place near the fire in the kitchen, sitting or laying where there was a spot to be found, on a handful of grasses or hay. You might have had a pallet (thatched grasses and hay). Or quite often, you may have simply slumped where you could find a seat, snoozing upright. You were fortunate to own a good cloak, or covering of that nature, for you weren’t likely to own a coverlet and it would act as one.

This would of course, not have been very comfortable at all. Vermin were rampant (and historically speaking, this was even true for the nobles’ bedding, no matter how fine). So, you’d have fleas, bedbugs, little mice too. If you lived in a cottage, leaks and bird excrement and insects would drop on you as you slept (and at all hours of the day), for all of nature would have lived in your grassy roof. Things would have been damp, drafty, dirty, uncomfortable…

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Knowing my own temperament, I can say that I would have been miserable living during the Renaissance as concerns this topic. My need for 8 hours of undisturbed, comfortable, quiet sleep each night, would have been foiled. I’d have been one grouchy lady.

Researching the topic has been fascinating however, even looking back at different centuries. For instance, during the 18th century in Europe, affluent people regularly treated their bedrooms like meeting rooms. Sit in bed, have your meal, with all your visitors hanging around. Venice’s treasured 18th century artist Pietro Longhi documented such scenes on canvas…The Morning Chocolate:

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I was very intrigued too, when I read Casanova’s memoirs. They told of his day-to-day dealings and during these memoirs, you see how quickly people fell from money into complete destitution. People commonly sold their belongings as a means of survival and when bill collectors came calling, there was always the possibility that they’d act upon the law to collect a few of your furnishings to settle what was due. Casanova repeatedly sold his belongings, regularly linens, for his own survival.

Nowadays, I couldn’t get hardly a dime for my bedsheets if I needed to. Things have changed. Unless you own priceless art or gilded furniture, in most cases the public doesn’t look upon your furniture (and especially not your bed and linens) as a part of your ‘estate’. No, it is more likely land/house/cars, that show what you’re *worth*.

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If I lived during the Renaissance, I’d march my butt upstairs right now and pull out a needle and thread and start fixing that sheet! There would be no tossing it out, and running down to the store for a new one. For its worth, would have been viewed very differently.

Check out my previous post about people’s relationship with their things in history. I twitter about how acutely different our reality is from those people of the past, as regards to our stuff. It makes you think a little differently about why and how we value what we own.

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When I lay my head down on my pillow tonight, and snuggle up beneath the soft sheets and blankets, I’ll be taking a moment to remember how very rich I am, for once upon a time, these items were considered the greatest of luxuries. Even to sell them during hard times, might have delivered me and put food on the table, when I needed it the most. I may not live in the tempestuous times of the Renaissance, but for all the comfort these items give me today, I value them still…even if they’ll only give me a penny for resale!

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