A popular email hoax has spread all sorts of misinformation about the Middle Ages and "The Bad Old Days." Here we look at the use of canopy beds.
From the Hoax
There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.
In most castles and manor houses and in some town dwellings, materials such as wood, clay tiles, and stone were used for roofing. All served even better than thatch to "stop things from falling into the house." Poor peasant folk, who were the most likely to suffer the annoyances brought about by an ill-kept thatch roof, commonly slept on straw pallets on the floor or in a loft.1 They did not have canopy beds to keep out falling dead wasps and rat droppings.
Wealthier people didn't need canopies to keep out things that dropped from the roof, yet wealthy people such as noble lords and ladies or prosperous burghers did have beds with canopies and curtains. Why? Because the canopy beds used in medieval England and Europe have their origins in an entirely different domestic situation.
In the earliest days of the European castle, the lord and his family slept in the great hall, along with all their servants. The noble family's sleeping area was usually at one end of the hall and was separated from the rest by simple curtains.2 In time, castle builders constructed separate chambers for the nobility, but though lords and ladies had their bed(s) to themselves, attendants might share the room for convenience and security. For the sake of warmth as well as privacy, the lord's bed was curtained, and his attendants slept on simple pallets on the floor, on trundle beds, or on benches.
A knight or lady's bed was large and wood-framed, and its "springs" were interlaced ropes or leather strips upon which a feather mattress would rest. It had sheets, fur coverlets, quilts, and pillows, and it could be fairly easily dismantled and transported to other castles when the lord made a tour of his holdings.3 Originally, curtains were hung from the ceiling, but as the bed evolved, a frame was added to support a canopy, or "tester," from which the curtains hung.4
Similar beds were welcome additions to townhomes, which weren't necessarily warmer than castles. And, as in matters of manners and dress, prosperous town-folk emulated the nobility in the style of furnishings used in their homes.
1. Gies, Frances & Gies, Joseph, Life in a Medieval Village (HarperPerennial, 1991), p. 93.
2. Gies, Frances & Gies, Joseph, Life in a Medieval Castle (HarperPerennial, 1974), p. 67.
3. Ibid, p. 68.
4. "bed" Encyclopædia Britannica Accessed April 16, 2002; verified June 26, 2015.