One of the most important pieces of a furniture in the medieval home was the bed – it would not only be the place to sleep and have sex, but also where one would give birth and often where people would have their last moments.
During the Middle Ages the bed would become elaborate and expensive. Writing about medieval England, Roberta Gilchrist notes that there would be “bed curtains from as early as the 11th century, and by the 14th century, elite houses possessed beds with elaborate canopies. Middle-ranking people owned wooden bedsteads with simple headboards, to which were added feather mattresses, sheets, blankets, bolsters, coverlets, and pillows. Peasants had mattresses stuffed with straw, wool., hair, rags and feathers, which could be rolled up and tidied away during the day, while the poorest people slept simply on straw or hay.”
The following contract was made between Vincenzo Politi, who came from an upper middle class family in the Italian city of Pistoria, and Niccolo di Jacopo Onofrio Paoletti, a woodworker from the same city. Signed on January 12, 1488, it gives details how Niccolo would sell to Vincenzo “a bed with its chests and all suitable accessories, and a day-bed” . It begins with a description of what the main bed should look like:
The headboard [should be made] of white poplar wood, well seasoned, with a walnut veneer, surrounded by decorative frames with a carved inlaid spiral motif. In the middle panel of the said headboard [there should be] a garland, that is a marquetry swag made of spindle-wood, held by two putti, and in the said garland [there should be] the marquetry coat of arms of Vincenzo and his wife. All this should be smoothly planed, with a frieze, cornice and architrave, in the modern fashion as is the custom today. The board of the bed should be all white, that is white poplar, framed all round… The side facing inwards should be all white, and should be framed all around with walnut. The chests around the bed should be all veneered in walnut, with decorative frames, and a carved and inlaid spiral motif, all framed, all smoothly planed, with a base and skirting, with the usual inlaid spiral motif, all smooth, all round the bed.
The contract then turns to what the day-bed should look like, with the idea being that it should be similar to one by one of Vincezo’s family members:
The day-bed should be lined with white poplar and veneered with walnut, with decorative frames and inlaid spiral patterns, and with spindle-wood marquetry. It should have two armrests decorated in walnut, and it should be similar to the bed, with a large cornice and a frieze and an architrave at the same level as the bed’s. [Both should be] similar to the day-bed belonging to Master Lorenzo Politi, which is in the bedroom of the said Master Lorenzo, and with a similar work intarsia and marquetry, the difference being that the cornice is without brackets and does not turn like that one, but it is all on one plane.
All this work must be made well and finished, made in the right way according to the judgement of a honest and intelligent man, knowledgeable about art. It has to be delivered at the end of the next month of May, completely finished in the best possible way, to the house and bedroom of the said Vincenzo. This should be done the said Niccolo, to whom Vincenzo promises to give for the bed and day-bed twenty-five large gold florins in gold.
You can read more about beds, furniture and other artwork in Women and the visual arts in Italy, c.1400-1650: A sourcebook, edited and translated by Paolo Tiangli and Mary Rogers. Click here to learn more about the book from Manchester University Press.
For a very quick look at the history of beds, check out this video from from Bensons for Beds: