Big House, Short Beds

A short story about some popular misconceptions

The Yellow Bed Chamber (2010) by Jens MohrSkokloster Castle

One of the most common questions during a guided tour of Skokloster Castle is: Why are the beds so short? Sometimes the guide instinctively – and erroneously – answers “they slept sitting up in bed because they believed that they would go mad otherwise” or someone volunteers to say, “they were shorter in those days”. But is the answer really so simple? Let us look into that.

A Red Bed (1660/1700) by unknownSkokloster Castle

The beds at Skokloster are mostly 2 metres long. The shortest beds in the guest rooms have matrasses 180 centimetres long. Count Wrangel’s and his wife’s beds are 210 centimetres. If you compare that with the standard IKEA bed you will find that they are approximately 200 to 210 centimetres long. Then, why do we think the 17th Century beds are shorter than ours?

The Alcove (2010) by Jens MohrSkokloster Castle

It is an optical illusion, no less. The enormous canopy and curtains hang on a frame that towers some three metres above the floor. You would seldom find an IKEA bed higher than 70 centimetres. So, the answer is that the beds were not shorter, but their proportions make them look shorter.

A Field Bed (1640/1670) by unknownSkokloster Castle

Of course, there were “smaller” beds in the 17th Century as well. But even Count Wrangel’s campaign bed, made of a simple wooden structure and canvas, is still 210 centimetres long. “I accept that the beds were not short”, you now protest, “but surely people were shorter in those days?”

Josef and his brothers (1657) by Gerbrand van den EeckhoutSkokloster Castle

Over time the average height has been fairly constant, in fact. About 170 centimetres for men and 160 centimetres for women. The late 20th Century in Northern Europe is the abnormality, largely due to advancements in medicine and abundance of food. A person’s height is chiefly dependant on genetics, health and nutrition. That also means that height usually is class related. Rich people are, and have always been, generally – but not always – taller than poor people.

The Count's Court Jester (1651) by David Klöcker EhrenstrahlSkokloster Castle

“Does this mean”, you might uneasily think, “that people in the old days did not sleep sitting up in bed? Did they not think that they could go mad if they slept lying down? Could such common knowledge about our forefathers’ habits be wrong?”

A Field Bed (2010) by Jens MohrSkokloster Castle

Well, both yes and no. The claim that people in the 17th Century sat up in bed could be dissected into various parts. We must first acknowledge that most people slept wherever, whenever and however they could. The elite, on the other hand, could, if they wanted, follow the experts’ advice. We find a good example in the Royal Physician Andreas Sparman (1609–1658).

Doctor's Advice (1642) by Andreas SparmanSkokloster Castle

A good night’s sleep, Sparman explains in his book The Mirror of Well Being from 1642, is primarily achieved by drinking and eating moderately, certainly before bedtime. Sleeping on your left side with your upper body somewhat elevated will enhance your sleep.

Doctor's Recommendations (1642) by Andreas SparmanSkokloster Castle

The reason for keeping elevated is not related to a fear of insanity because of “mixed bodily fluids”. No, the reason is more prosaic according to Sparman: Your innards will pressure against your diaphragm and cause shortness of breath if you are lying flat. Lying elevated on your left side would also prevent leakage from the cardia.

Field Marshal Wrangel (1662) by Matthaeus MerianSkokloster Castle

Sparman’s advice is understandable when we look at the habits and bodies of the well-to-do. Imagine, if you will, an obese Count Wrangel wallowing towards bed after a ten hours booze-up with his friends. Already standing up his cardia is leaking like a sieve, causing him severe heartburn. Wrangel will first probably follow Sparman’s other advice, to relieve himself of excess matter by oral purging, before landing heavily on his imposing bed. With the aid of his footman he wobbly reclines on his pillows, panting for air. 

The Count's Bed Chamber (2010) by Erik LernestålSkokloster Castle

You would also try to sleep sitting up if you were him. How tall is your bed, by the way?

Credits: Story

Text: G. Sandell, SHM.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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