- Beds and Chambers in Late Medieval England: Reading, Representations and Realities by Hollie L.S. Morgan
In Beds and Chambers in Late Medieval England, Hollie Morgan argues that beds and chambers are laden with associations and symbolism that make them much more than simply staging areas for sleep. Focusing predominantly on medieval English romances, and hence the beds and chambers of elites, Morgan situates her work between material cultural and literary studies. She arranges her book around the proscriptions for living a moral day laid out in the Middle English poem "Arysse Erly" (Arise Early), where the male protagonist starts and ends his day in a bed. Because the day, not the life-cycle organizes this book, death and the deathbed is not addressed by this study. It is an organizational conceit that works well enough, but does give rise to some thematic overlaps in her chapters.
In the first chapter, "Fyrst Arysse Erly" (First Arise Early) Morgan explains the components of a medieval bed and chamber both ideally and in practice. The quality and the quantity of linens and the ability to sleep in chamber rather than a hall were privileges of wealth, as the elite's retinue would have slept in the hall on pallets with minimal coverings. Her second chapter "Serve Thy God Deuly" (Serve Your God Diligently) argues that [End Page 586] medieval people understood the bed as a place to encounter God. Prayer, meditation, and dreams all happened in bed and sanctified the bed and its chamber. Pious bequests of bedding to churches furthered the connection between the sacred and the domestic. The third chapter, "Do Thy Warke Wyssely/[…] And Awnswer The Pepll Curtesly" (Do Your Work Seriously and Answer People Courteously) argues that English society understood beds and chambers as places that promoted honest advice and good council between couples or the occupant and those working in the space. Having shed their clothes and their public persona for bed, Morgan argues that people were more truly themselves, and the communication that happened in bed was more honest and equal. This extended to husbands and wives and the king and his advisors, making the king's bed a metaphor for his heart, and his chamber his kingdom. In chapter four "Goo to Thy Bed Myrely And Lye Therin Jocundly" (Go to Your Bed Merrily and Lie There Happily), Morgan presents the bed and chamber as spaces for fun, relaxation, or serious discussion, a relationship that she argues helps explain the long association between beds and books. Chapter five "Plesse and Loffe Thy Wyffe Dewly/And Basse Hyr Onys or Tewys Merely" (Please and Love Your Wife Properly and Kiss her Once or Twice Merrily) addresses the bed as the place for both licit and illicit sexual encounters. As a sanctified place to encounter God, illicit sexual encounters in beds and chambers violated not only marriage vows, but the bed itself. Here Morgan's strict distinction in this and the previous chapter between sex and entertainment becomes blurred, but not explored.
The last chapter "The Invisible Woman" departs "Arise Early's" framing to consider the ways in which the bed, chamber, and domesticity were associated with women. The association of women with beds and houses starts with the childbed, a place from which men were largely excluded. Morgan is not arguing for a medieval version of separate spheres, but rather that the house was associated with women because of their presence in it. Others have made this argument, but it is one that could be improved with more research into how people actually lived in houses.
While Morgan does use some instructional literature, wills, and inventories for evidence about real beds, this is largely a literary study. As a result, some of her readings of legal records and proscriptive sources lack a pragmatic approach. For example, her argument for women's close association with beds comes in part from their frequent appearance in women's wills. While there is evidence for...