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Night Narratives

Sleeping habits in the early modern era were a bit different from ours now. We are all led to believe that we need a solid seven to eight hours of consecutive sleep a night. This is the gold standard that so many of us strive for and, in the end, fail to achieve. A lot of modern day people wake for hours during the night, because of stress, our phones, or just being uncomfortable. However, there may be a biological reason as well. In early modern England, people slept in two shifts a night with a period of wakefulness in between. The first sleep shift lasted about two to three hours and would be followed by a waking period of about an hour or two. Eventually, once the sleeper dozed off again, the second sleep segment would last until dawn. What happened during that break in sleep depended upon the person—some did not get out of bed while others took the opportunity to complete tasks they had not gotten to during the day or, in some cases, commit a crime. Studies have shown that these sleeping habits were not just found in England, but also in Europe and throughout the world. It is believed that the Industrial Revolution, and with that, electricity, broke people of the habit of sleeping in shifts. While a person’s sleep was segmented before the modern era, they usually ended up getting about the same amount of sleep that is now recommended.

To continue our theme from the last post, the other bed currently on display at Agecroft Hall is a composite bed—a piece made up of three different beds from three different eras. This practice was not uncommon in previous centuries. Rather than throwing away an entire bed when it broke or went out of style, people often reused what they could and then updated or filled in sections with bits from other beds. The bed in the Lady’s Bedchamber was assembled in the nineteenth century. The headboard, so helpfully labelled with the date 1629, depicts the scene of Matthew 25:36: “I was naked, ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye came unto me.” The headboard is beautifully carved and features detailed inlay work as well.

There are two stories associated with this bed that fuel the imagination. The first is that the bed was built for a cleric, such as a priest or a minister. This is obviously because of the religious scene on the headboard, but religious scenes were commonly used in home furnishings because they were stories that everyone knew, so this piece could also have been made for a layperson. The second story is that the headboard was originally part of a bed used by James, Duke of Monmouth, the eldest illegitimate son of Charles II. The Duke is best known for leading Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1685 in which he led dissident Protestants in a failed attempt to overthrow his uncle, King James VII/II, a staunch Catholic. The bed’s provenance, at least that of the headboard, places it in a guest room at Bridgewater Castle in Somersetshire in 1685. The Duke stayed at Bridgewater Castle from July 2nd-5th of that year, and it is indeed possible he slept in the bed with this headboard. Unfortunately, we do have any definitive proof for either story, but we continue to conduct research in search of the answers In the meantime, the possibility of those stories being true inspires the imagination of visitors.

In conclusion, the beds at Agecroft are more than simply beautiful pieces of furniture; the details of their construction and decoration tell you much about daily life in the 16th and 17th centuries. Beds, for those wealthy enough to have one, offered warmth, comfort and a modicum of privacy. In an era with a high mortality rate and a short average lifespan, fertility was critical for ensuring the continuity of a family. The painted bed’s decorative symbols of fecundity reminded its occupants that beds are needed for more than just rest after a hard day’s work while the bed in the Lady’s Bedchamber reinforced how Christianity permeated every aspect of daily life. The headboard offered a visual reminder from the Gospel that God is always there to comfort one in moments of need. When one was awake during the natural break in sleep, the carvings provided solace for those contemplating the message while waiting to fall back asleep. Ultimately, these two beds offered both physical and spiritual comfort to those who slept in them.





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