The bed seems like a trivial private thing. It is usually in the bedroom – the least public place. However, its cultural history shows that sleeping is only its most obvious function – even if you spend a third of your life asleep. You can also talk about dealing with giving birth, about conversation styles, about death – and of course about sex.
Nadia Durrani and Brian Fagan write that most humans have slept on the ground for most of their lives on earth: close together and near the fire. In their “horizontal history of mankind” they write that the oldest known beds can be found in a cave in South Africa: “About 70,000 years ago Homo sapiens carved them into the rocky ground.” different forms. There were depressions in the ground and raised platforms, camps padded with grass, and structures to which ropes and straps were attached. And there were mats that could be rolled up.
Durrani was editor of the journal Current World Archeology, Fagan Professor of Anthropology in Santa Barbara, California. The two have the knowledge to tell the story of human development from times when there are no written or visual sources.
Nocturnal cold and wild animals: they accompanied sleep for thousands of years. “There was no privacy: people found a partner, had children, nursed them, got sick or died – all of this happened in close proximity to the other members of the clan.”
The bed was the place where children were conceived and born – and where women contracted childbed fever until the rules of hygiene were invented. The passages about the 17th and 18th centuries are oppressive, when more and more women no longer gave birth to their children at home but in hospitals.
This was preceded by a kind of ideological struggle. The midwives had helped the women at home with the delivery on the birthing stool. The surgeons, on the other hand, described pregnancy and childbirth as an illness, and this became the norm in the 17th century. Because in the hospitals several women usually gave birth in the same bed and eager obstetricians went from one act to the next with bloody hands, epidemics spread. The infant mortality rate increased tenfold.
The cover of the book is adorned with a photo of the installation “My Bed”, with which the British artist Tracey Emin caused a stir in the late 1990s. She flaunted “her rumpled, messy bed after a breakup,” write Durrani and Fagan, “surrounded by bloodstained underwear, empty bottles, cigarette butts and used condoms.”
Emin brought the bed back into public view. Privacy, the seclusion of the individual or a couple, has only existed in the modern sense since modernity. Bedrooms did not appear in middle-class households until the 19th century: “Servants and domestic workers no longer slept with the householder’s family, nor did they lie together in the Great Hall or the kitchen rooms. Everyone now had their own quarters.” Until then, the beds were set up where they were needed.
Wealthy people had beds built for them, which stood on the lower public floors – and in which one also lay and chatted with friends and, very platonic, invited them to stay the night. Sleeping was not an intimate affair, but a collective affair for most of human time. At best, large curtains around the bed ensured a certain degree of seclusion. But anyone who went on a trip back then had to share their night’s lodging with at least one other person, not to mention a single room.
Above all, the bed was a political place. No ruler celebrated it like the French Sun King. Louis XIV is said to have maintained a whole dormitory. The beginning of the day, the “lever”, was just as ritually celebrated as the end of the day, the “coucher”.
Everything was precisely regulated and followed a fixed plan. “Louis made decisions from his bed, issued edicts and received those who enjoyed the privilege of being there before the semi-divine ruler,” say Durrani and Fagan. The Sun King thus carried to the extreme what all autocrats lived before and after him: an existence that had to get by almost entirely without retreat.
At best, behind drawn bed curtains, the queen or king was all to themselves at night. There were always subordinates in the room who did pretty much everything for the queen or the emperor.
The birth of heirs to the throne was at least palatial, and so was death. Even the consummation of a noble marriage took place under the eyes of important courtiers. It was the British who maintained one of these rituals well into the 20th century: until the birth of Prince Charles, the Queen’s bedside was the place where the Home Secretary dutifully attended the birth of an heir to the throne.
The book thrives on the rich detailed knowledge of its authors and their humorous approach to the subject. They draw a line from the Sun King Louis XIV to Winston Churchill. The British prime minister is said to have waged the Second World War from his bed, always with a cigar, surrounded by files and papers and employees whom he gave orders to.
It’s just a pity that Durrani and Fagan base their history of the bed on the banal thesis that, over time, people have “done almost everything in bed”. Where the book develops cultural-historical ambitions, for example at the transition of the bed from public to private space, one misses a little superstructure, as French cultural historians used to build it, for example Philippe Ariès with his history of private life.