Old time beds sizes so people don't die

I was recently in Germany, where castles are abundant. In a room of one of the castles was a medieval-style bed. It may have been an illusion, but it seemed like it was pretty short, lengthwise. As if a 6 foot tall person could not lie down on it without several inches of his legs hanging off. The bed was wide, though, like a kingsize width probably.

One of the people I was with “informed” us that this was common in the old days, to make shorter beds. Not because people were shorter, but because everyone was afraid of being buried alive, and that if you were forced to sit up to sleep, it would somehow make that less likely. I guess if you did die in your sleep, you would maybe slunch over or something to make it obvious.

Anyway, the person who said this is known for stating little known “facts” that are completely wrong. (According to her, pizza was invented in Connecticut.) This sounds sort of like another one of her stories. Plus I don’t really understand how sitting up while you sleep would prevent you from being misdiagnosed as dead. I haven’t been able to find anything on Google about this, so I’m wondering:

Were beds typically shorter hundreds of years ago? Maybe this particular bed was custom made for a short person?
What was the reason if beds were shorter?

I am not sure how wide-spread the belief was, but a couple of months ago, I was in what we lovingly, but perhaps incorrectly like to call “Captain Cooks Cottage” in Melbourne, and I read on one of the notices about furniture of the time that the beds were made short, because people of that time (1750-1800) believed that by sleeping in a sitting position you were less likely to die overnight.

I imagine that the beds you saw probably had quite a high headrest area?

So at least it’s some independent confirmation of your friends story. Unless she was the one that wrote the notes about the furniture here. :eek:

Three points.

  1. A grand four-poster bed, viewed from the foot end (as is common in such situations) doesn’t look very big.

  2. AFAIK, there was a greater tendency to sleep ‘half-seated’, with lots of cushions propping one up. No cites, sorry. WAG is that it was partly a status symbol, simply affording so many pillows at once.

  3. People were shorter. That’s the most definite one of my three comments.

She wouldn’t happen to be from New Haven, would she? I’ve also heard that the hamburger (you know, from Hamburg) was invented at a little place downtown called Louie’s Lunch.

People were a lot shorter hundreds of years ago.

The explanation that I heard was that due to virtually nonexisting heating in the colder seasons, people usually slept with their legs tugged up. So any extra space on the foot would have been wasted most of the time - and in summer people simply didn’t expect anything else.

As Peter Morris said - people were shorter then.

I believe this was due to poor nutrition back in those days.

Well, I should use my dictionary more often, but you get the idea…

From what I have seen of reconstructed 16th-19th century North German farm houses the small bed thing does not seem to have been confined to castles - these houses typically had small cubbyhole sleep berths built into the wall that even today’s smaller-than-average-sized persons could not stretch out in, and they did not have the headroom to make this up by propping up on cushions. I imagine the only way people could sleep in such beds was to fold up their legs and sleep in a fetal position.

Perhaps there were some periods when people did not expect to be able to stretch out in bed?

BTW I’ve never heard of the buried-alive theory before.

Visit Monticello, and see Thomas Jefferson’s bed. Jefferson stood a full six feet tall. His bed is only four feet long. It is tucked in between two walls, in a narrow opening that connects two rooms. His feet could not have hung off the end of the bed, because the end of the bed is up against a wall. It is only big enough to fit one person (you can’t imagine him accommodating Sally there; they must have had their fling elsewhere), and then only because he slept sitting up. It looks impossibly uncomfortable, but he designed it for himself that way on purpose. Why, I can’t say.

It’s a myth that people were appreciably shorter in the past.

Better nutrition has added a few inches to the average heights of both men and women, but even in Medieval times the average height for men was five feet, six inches, which is the same average height as the 17th century.

People were not all that much shorter in the past. Average height may have been a couple inches shorter, but there were still plenty of people 6 ft tall or taller. These people were not stupid. If they wanted a longer bed, they would have built a longer bed, and at least some of those beds would have surivied (Jefferson’s bed, as mentioned earlier, is a good example of a bed built specifically for a tall man to the specifications he desired, and it still seems unbelievably short today)

People did have tendency to sleep at least partially sitting up. (At least here in the states, that tendency does not seem to be related to class boundaries or wealth, all the bed are short).
The reenactors that I work with have offered the possibility that the upright sleeping posture may have helped to mitigate breathing problems caused by a life time of inhaled smoke. Anyone who has ever lived in a house heated primarily by fireplaces, or cooked over an open hearth can testify to how much wood smoke is inhaled daily. Over a lifetime of this, black lung, emphesma (sorry for the spelling), lung cancer, and other diseases that today are associated with recreational smoking were not uncommon. It’s easy to imagine that our ancestors could breathe easier sleeping in a partially upright position. Note: we have no proof of this reasoning (as far as I am aware, no scholar has real proof of any reason for the “tradition” of sleeping in a semi-upright position). It’s just a theory, put forth by people who spend a lot of time studying and attempting to reproduce the lifestyles of the past.

I have bad allergies and often sleep in a sitting position. It makes breathing much, much easier.

Nope. You can see a picture of Jefferson’s bed here:


It is certainly longer than 4 feet in length. It is built into the walls separating his study and bedroom, and was done to save floor space. His mantle clock is built into a recess at the foot of his bed, and he got out of bed everymorning when it was light enough for him to be able to read the face of the clock.

I recently read the book Buried Alive by Jan Bondeson, and I don’t recall any sort of sitting-up-while-sleeping-to-prevent-misdiagnosis-of-death theory in there. Also not everyone was afraid of being buried alive, and public hysteria about the fear didn’t really pop up until about the 18th century. Beyond which, no one would be presumed dead and immediately buried just because they were slumped over in bed, if they had been sleeping in a sitting position. There were doctors and such to inspect seemingly dead people, plus by the 18th century there were waiting periods between apparent death and burial (usually 12 or 24 hours).

“Shut-beds,” AFAIK, were built mostly for warmth. Back then, people would bank the fire so the coals would just smoulder overnight, and the main hall would get cold until somebody built up the fire in the morning. The smaller the compartment, the warmer it would be.

I dunno :dubious: , on my screen it’s about an inch. How can you tell from a photo? I inferred that *Jomo has been there though not explicitly stated.

I’ve been to Monticello and I’ve seen it myself. In fact, I asked the exact question and I was told that in those days, it was believed that it was bad for your health to lie flat.

Jefferson, Washington, etc., were quite tall. So it has nothing to do with smaller people in the past.

I know that it isn’t 4 feet long because I’ve been to Monticello about 25 times and I’ve seen it every time I take the tour.

The bed is 6’3" long.