The bedroom, quite a story!

This article is taken from the monthly n ° 203 of Sciences et Avenir “Les Indispensables”, dated October / December 2020.

At song V of theOdyssey, Ulysses, stranded on the island of Schérie, falls asleep exhausted under two intertwined olive trees: he is preparing “a large bed” by hiding entirely in a thick pile of leaves. What a lesson in survival! More than a bed, it is even almost a room that he improvised, the room being this closed space, this “box, real or imaginary” according to the definition of historian Michelle Perrot, whose form and functions will vary over time, but whose essential vocation is to constitute a refuge, a place where one can, ideally, withdraw in all confidence in order to to rest there.

The bedroom: a partitioned division of a house that provides protection

In its ingenuity, the makeshift layer of Odysseus is comparable to the oldest “bed”, dating back 200,000 years, which has just been found, fossilized, at the Border Cave site in South Africa by an international team. archaeologists, especially French. These are vegetable litters made up of grasses and insect repellents covering a layer of ash. Placed at the bottom of a cave, and although still placed on the ground, they already respond to the major concerns of humans concerning their place of rest, which must ensure their protection, hygiene and comfort.

Since Antiquity, it is the room, partitioned division of a dwelling, which ensures this protection. The term kamara, the “vault” in ancient Greek, in fact designates any room in the house, while thalamos corresponds more precisely to the bedroom, in particular the conjugal one. The domus Roman does not include a fixed place attributed to sleep. For rest, “time in parentheses” in a social life that is played out in ceremonial rooms, we retreat into the cubiculum, “closed room, narrow, often dark and without window, without furniture and without defined function or occupant”, according to the latinist Florence Dupont. It suffices to provide it with a bed, during sleep, so that this cubicle becomes a bedroom ( cubiculum dormitorium).

The Roman bed is narrow and inclined, raised at the level of the head like that of the Egyptians, but its feet are higher because it could serve as a table. From the Neolithic era, efforts were made to ward off the cold, insects and predators by detaching themselves from the ground. For archaeologist Nadia Durrani, “This elevation through the addition of feet is certainly the most striking development in the history of the bed. Sleeping on a raised bed was a sign of social standing.” The feet are already on the statuettes found in the hypogeum of the Hal Saflieni temple in Malta (4 millennium BC): the “Sleeping Lady” represents a woman asleep on a bed resting on two stocky feet. An alternative to litter covered with animal skins, these mats foreshadow the mattress, whose shape (a canvas bag stuffed with balls) will then remain unchanged. But the richest will superimpose them and the quality of the filling (grass, leaves, hay, straw, then cotton, feathers or wool) will be gradually improved in order to give them more softness and to avoid pests.

With his feet and his box spring, this bed unearthed in the tomb of the Egyptian architect Khâ (c. 1440-1350 BC, 18th dynasty) seems contemporary (PHOTO12 / ALAMY)

A bed of 4 by 3.5 meters which is accessed by a stepladder

In Europe, the “full bed”, consisting of a wooden bedstead, lined with a bottom of planks or corded and padded with a straw mattress, appeared in the 12th century in castles, then among the rich bourgeois. Huge, since it can reach 4 by 3.5 meters, it is placed on a wooden platform near the fireplace; it is accessed by a stepladder or a step. It is a very valuable object, explains Nadia Durrani: “Until recently, the bed was the most coveted and expensive item of household furniture. It was a major investment, and having an extra bed was a great luxury.” Even in poor households, which will give it an increasing share of their income. Sleeping on simple straw mattresses placed on the floor or on bad planks in the Middle Ages, a large part of the rural population invested between the 16th and the 18th century in four-poster beds, upholstered and provided with a complete filling, which then represent almost half of the total value of the property it owns. It was only in the 19th century, with the manufacture of the iron bed, that the bed ceased to be a symbol of wealth.

In the aristocratic households of feudal France, the bed occupies the center of the bedroom (camera or thalamus), place of “deprivation”, which is sometimes not separated from the room (aula) – where the public part of the common life takes place – only by a thin wooden partition, even a simple hanging. Thus in the 13th century Saint Louis instituted a private sphere built by concentric circles, within which members of his entourage were admitted according to their degree of intimacy. “The most secret place is the wardrobe, isolated inside the bedroom: Louis IX sleeps there, watched over by a single servant, prays in meditation, [… ] also hides his body there “, writes the medievalist Dominique Barthélemy.

In this feudal castle, beds are made for the household every evening: folding beds in the living room and bunks in the bedroom are generously shared. Because collective sleep was the rule for most Europeans until the 19th century, even if the wealthiest families freed themselves from it earlier. “A bedmate provided warmth, security and friendship. In poor or modest homes, it reduced the number of beds, which were expensive and occupied. a precious space in small houses “, explains historian Roger Ekirch. For large families in rural areas, which generally have only one bed, the place is often allocated according to age and sex: girls next to their mother, sons of their father, daughter elder against the wall, visitors or strangers on the outer edge. It was above all a question of security, according to Nadia Durrani, because “the more we are, the more eyes there are to monitor what is happening” ; it was notably a way of protecting oneself from unwanted sexual assaults. Sharing the same bed, in particular with a stranger, for example during a trip, also required certain rules of courtesy to be observed.

Especially since until the Renaissance, we slept naked, not without having previously meticulously inspected furniture, bed linen, clothes, hair and body for the ubiquitous lice, fleas and bugs. For the sociologist Norbert Elias, this nudity was especially useful as a guarantee of good health: “It was rare for someone to keep his shirt on to sleep: and when he did he was suspected of suffering from a physical defect, because if he was normally conformed, why did he want to hide his body?”, he writes in Civilization of manners. It was not until much later, at the end of the 18th century, that physicians measured the epidemic consequences of this promiscuity when it was added to destitution. “The healthy were confused with the sick and the living with the dead”, then observed the doctor Louis Lépecq of La Clôture.

Eliminate promiscuity between adults and children

In order to create a space of intimacy, some popular homes were equipped during the 17th and 18th centuries with beds surrounded by curtains, the advantage of which was also to retain heat. The closed bed of the Breton countryside, which allows one to isolate oneself from the animals located at the other end of a rudimentary room, plays the same role. But these conditions are considered archaic and unhealthy by hygienists of the 18th and 19th centuries. The air volume becomes the essential criterion, and we count on ventilation and lighting to banish this mephitic air, vitiated by nocturnal breathing.

The architects of the end of the 18th century finally distinguish the “bedroom”, as Michelle Perrot says: “Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières, precursor, dedicates it primarily to sleep, recommends a green paint, favorable to rest. He proscribes alcoves and niches, where one breathes badly, and draws an isolated bed, ‘sanctuary of the temple’, in the back of the room. ” At the same time, in the name of decency, efforts were made to separate bodies according to age and sex. The parental room is enthroned by utopian architects and industrialists inspired by the philosopher Charles Fourier, anxious to organize workers’ housing by eliminating promiscuity between adults and children. It is this common marital room which occupies the central place of housing from the middle of the 19th century in bourgeois and popular homes, before imposing itself, thanks to the architects of Art Nouveau, in the interiors of the richest. which until then had been a separate room. Now conceived as a place of regeneration and intimacy, it has therefore taken many detours to rediscover the function of the Greek bridal chamber, the only one which allows Ulysses, back at home, to finally find rest: “Dear wife, let’s go to our couch now, and taste the sweets of sleep together “.

A night in two stages

It is up to the American historian Roger Ekirch to have discovered that before the Industrial Revolution and the generalization of public lighting, Westerners probably did not sleep continuously, but experienced a “segmented sleep “ or biphasic. A “first sleep” lasting from three to three and a half hours then a “second sleep”, until morning, were separated by an awakening period lasting from a few minutes to an hour, after midnight. What were we doing then? “Most often people prayed, meditated, reflected on a dream they had just had, used a chamber pot, or had sex. A minority stood up to do chores, look after sick children, take medicine or commit some crime. “ At the end of the 19th century, sleep shifted to an hour later and condensed into a single time. Our current sleep would therefore be “an artificial product of modernity “, according to Ekirch, who sees in the nocturnal awakening of insomniacs a possible vestige of this once interrupted sleep.


Michelle Perrot, History of rooms, Threshold, 2009

A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, Norton, 2005

Brian M. Fagan, Nadia Durrani, What We Did in Bed, Yale University Press, 2019

“Dreams of Alcoves: the bedroom over the centuries”, catalog of the exhibition at the Decorative Arts Museum, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1995

Nobert Elias, Civilization of manners, Calmann-Lév y, 1973

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