Object Biography

How we as historians can understand and appreciate people in the past can be connected with the everyday objects they interacted with. Some objects were tools of necessity that improved quality of life or others were intended to entertain people and bring them happiness much like our own contemporary lifestyles. Still further some objects can be symbols that tell a story about the nature of life itself. One such item that symbolizes the story of life in Early Modern Europe could be a bed. A bed could symbolize the progression of life in Early Modern Europe, as it was literally the place where people were born and died. The bed also displayed how small life was in Early Modern Europe. Most people did not move away from the place they were born, and rarely left their homes in the primarily agrarian landscape.

Beds across early modern Europe followed a simple design but differed by accessories. All had four legs and a headboard, and a footboard. Generally the mattress differed, in their materials. Lower classes often sufficed with straw, or some other more accessible material for filler, while upper class beds were more comfortable. As the eighteenth century progressed and wealth increased, the idea of privacy developed amongst more people. This resulted in the spread of the four post bed becoming more popular for those who could afford it. One example of this was that at the Frontier Culture Museum, the Yeoman English cottage had a four post bed, while the German farm only had a regular bed.

Beds served purposes in Early Modern Europe that they also serve in our own modern times. All the things that come to mind when someone mentions a bed today, also came to mind in Early Modern Europe. Birth, death, resting, sex, sleeping, and recovering from an illness all took place in beds in Early Modern Europe. It seems that even the most basic of human necessities still happen in the same places centuries apart.

Yet, despite the diversity that existed amongst styles of beds in Europe, almost everyone had them, historical author Robert Jütte, quotes an essayist of everyday French life, Sebastian Merrcier “A whole family occupies a single room, with four bare walls, wretched beds without curtains, and kitchen utensils rolling around with the chamber pots.”[1] It seems that only the poorest of the poor had no bed, the lowest members of society.

To understand the role of the bed in European households in early modern European history, we must understand how the households across Europe operated. As social historian Phil Withington argues the concept of a nuclear family developed during this time period.[2] The nuclear family was one in which the father ran the household with help from the mother, and together they had children who they themselves raised. The mother was often the one responsible for the child rearing, and their well-being. Indeed as Alison Rowland points out in a chapter of Early Modern Europe “However, patriarchal authority was more absolute in theory than in practice. Sixteenth-century court records show that peasant women had the power to disrupt household harmony and to make their husbands’ lives miserable by scolding them or by cooking them inadequate or irregular meals…”[3] It was the women of early modern Europe who often ran the household. Concurrently, it was also the adults who often slept in beds in early modern Europe; based on information provided by a historical translator at the Frontier Culture Museum, children often slept in mattress on the floor together. Often in extremely cold conditions, or in the case of a serious illness, children would sleep in the bed with their parents.

When a member of the family got sick, the bed was the place where they recuperated. The bed came to symbolize both the happiest and saddest aspects of life. A baby could be born in it, or a beloved member of the family could die in it. In her book Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, Merry E. Wiesner provides an account from a midwife in the Netherlands in 1711, of how important the bed was in the actual birthing process she recounts “When I came there her husband and friends were weeping a great deal. I examined the case, suspected I had a chance to deliver [her]. The woman was very worn out. I laid her in a warm bed, gave her a cup of caudle, also gave her something in it; sent the neighbors home, so that they would let her rest a bit. An hour after her strength awakened again somewhat.”[4] This complete reversal of fortune for this particular family was because of both the skill of that particular midwife, and the fact that there was a warm bed for which the mother could recuperate.

This idea that the bed was a central facet of life was growing in the cities of Europe. As the cities of Europe grew in terms of population, more and more people began living in more concentrated areas, as opposed to the vast farms that separated them during the medieval era. This vast increase in the volume of people now living together, created a need for privacy. This can be seen changes in the way people built their houses, people began to have closets, and bedrooms that they slept in.[5] This concept of privacy was taken up most notably by the nobility. The most notable example of a bedroom for one person, is of course the bedchambers at Versailles. Only the king slept in his bed, in his bedroom in his palace, it was an honor even to be in the bedroom to begin with. At Versailles and other palaces across Europe, the idea of a bedroom, where one could have ultimate privacy, and dress and undress, and go to sleep alone was very obvious by the size of the rooms themselves. As Rowland puts it in Early Modern Europe “Regardless of geographic location, the poorer the peasants were, the more likely they were to live in small and simple households. Peasant households also incorporated in addition-and often in close and malodorous proximity-to its human inhabitants.”[6] The idea of someone having a whole room dedicated for sleeping would be laughable to most Europeans in early modern Europe. And the notion that someone would sleep in the same room as their farm animals would be laughable to a king in early modern Europe.

In conclusion, items can tell us a lot about the lives our ancestors lived. Everyday items, in particular can tell stories that from a modern perspective, we can sometimes barley even being to fathom. Some items from the past can transcend into our own times, items that throughout the ages had a purpose that continues to be filled by that item. A bed is one such item, that people have been familiar with throughout time. But, on a deeper level, the items that have always been around, and fill our houses and our workspaces today, are the ones that really show how that as much as things have changed since early modern Europe, people still have the same needs, they still need to eat with utensils, play instruments to be entertained, and lie down on a bed to rest.

[1] Robert, Jütte. Poverty and deviance in early modern Europe. Vol. 4. Cambridge University Press, 1994. 62

[2] Phil, Withington, Social History. Vol. 32, No. 3. Company and Sociability in Early Modern England, 2007, 296

[3] Alison Rowland, Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History (Oxford University Press, 1999) Chapter 1, page 34

[4] Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 83

[5] Mary Thomas Crane, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1.  Illicit Privacy and Outdoor Spaces in Early Modern England. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009, 5

[6] Alison Rowland, Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History (Oxford University Press, 1999) Chapter 1, page 32