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Embroidered Dreams

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Embroidered Dreams
Isela di Bari
Bed linens in the Middle Ages

Hoarded, inventoried, marked, bequeathed, and cherished… aptly describe the treatment of bed linens during the Middle Ages. Such linens were as likely to be found in a bridal trousseau as a death inventory.

In her will, the widow of Edward the Black Prince bequeathed a “new bed of red velvet embroidered with ostrich feathers of silver and heads of leopards of gold with boughs and leaves issuing out of their mouths.”1 In his will, Edward bequeathed a “bed of camora (camel’s hair woven with silks) powdered with blue eagles.”2 Without such wills and similar death or household inventories, we would have little knowledge of the embroidered linens that so enriched the medieval bedroom and the medieval bed.

Starting around the 1200’s the bed served the medieval household as a distinct piece of furniture noted in wills and inventories. Earlier, between 500 and 1000 AD, a bed was basically a frame with a set of planks, quite large in size (5-1/2 ft. to 11 ft. wide), not intended to be moved, and able to sleep up to ten people. Around the 12th century we begin to see a change in morals that was reflected in the development of a special place for the bed… first an alcove and then the bedroom. During the 13th century we see the development of the hung bed, created by suspending hangings from hooks or rods connected to the ceiling or walls, much like the drawn curtains surrounding a hospital cubicle. The curtains would hang outside the bedstead but not be attached to the bed. A symbol of prestige between the 13th and 15th centuries, the hung bed also included a canopy of fabric called a tester which was suspended from the rafters usually by chains. From the tester hung the bed curtains and extra fabric was dropped behind the bedstead simulating a fabric headboard (celour). Sometimes the two terms, tester and celour, were switched in inventories, as was the case when one palace inventory recorded that “a white Turkey silk celour [hung] over the bed and tester at the head, all embroidered with popinjays”.3 Finally, we arrive at the 15th century with the addition of the four-poster bed, shorter (6-1/2 ft. long by 6 ft. wide), some massively carved, some atop a platform, with the bed frame “threaded with cords or webbing to support the mattress”.4

For those of us in the SCA who enjoy camping in comfort at events, there was a type of bed often used during the Tudor and Stuart periods known as the “sparver” or “tent bed”. It was literally a traveling bed with “fabric hung over the bedstead like a tent”, lots of ornamentation, and easily movable from manor to manor.5 And for those of us in the SCA who just like to camp for the fun of it, there was the field bed with the bedstead (base and mattress) separate from the fabric that was hung tent style over the bed. These were considered useful to fit into places (such as your pavilion) where four-poster beds could not.

Simpler beds were basically pallets “stuffed with straw or dried leaves on which was placed a wool mattress”6 and then maybe a second mattress or couette from the old French word “cuilta” leading to the English word quilt. Finer beds would consist of up to six mattresses with the best made of swansdown and the others of “feathers, flock, wool and straw”.7 Atop the mattresses were usually added a pair of sheets with an exclusive few of silk, the finest ones of linen, “most of hemp, and the poorest woven from tow, scrap hemp or flax combings.”8 For the impoverished and the monks sheets were rare and considered a luxury if they had one. Actually, the word sheet was often associated with the word shroud, since the poor were often wrapped in a piece of large cloth or sheet upon their death.9 Unlike the covelets, pillows, valances and bed hangings that were frequently embroidered, sheets were generally not so decorated during the Middle Ages. However, it was not unusual for massive amounts of sheets and other bed linen, whether embroidered or not, to be owned by the wealthy. In the 15th c. the Countess of Angouleme had 128 linen sheets and in the 16th c. Bess of Hardwick owned 94 sheets of linen according to an inventory of her possessions at Hardwick Hall.10

Blankets were also used, with the finest ones lined with fur. Then over the entire bed base was spread the coverlet (bedspread). Prior to 1600, inventories recorded coverlets that were woven, painted, quilted, beaded or embroidered. The final touch was a “bolster” or long flat cushion which was placed across the width of the bed in front of the headboard area for one’s head to lay on or to be used as a backrest. Sometimes one also placed a pillow upon the bolster.

In the 12th century pillow beres or pillowcases appeared, some made solely for display. They were usually of white linen and often worked in silk or metal thread but “never in wool and never in the tapestry style of tent stitch”.11 During the 1500’s, such pillow cloths were decorated by the Elizabethans in blackwork and with “detailed line stitches” such as “back, buttonhole, chain, coral, stem, satin, herringbone and the like.”12 The like could also include the plaited braid stitch often used for the stems of plants as well as speckling used for filling in the leaves. It was not unusual to find pillowcases also made of silk taffeta such as those that were supposedly enjoyed by Anne, Duchess of Brittany during the late 1400’s and early 1500’s, and wife of Charles VIII and later Louis XII. It was also not unusual to find little pillows “scattered over the bedspread, scented with the fashionable fragrances of musk, amber and saffron”.13

Embroidered bed linens ran the gamut from mythological, heraldic, and religious scenes to depictions of emblems, fables, floral patterns and beasts. Even inscriptions were used.

Embroidery techniques used to decorate bed linens included blackwork, applique, slips, canvaswork in tent stitch, and metal thread work. Not only were bed linens embroidered, but they were also beaded. “A ceeler [celour] and tester of blewe velvet embroderd with golde and small perles…” was listed in an inventory of Henry VIII’s wardrobe.14 In the late 1500’s there were also embellishments of lace, spangles and fringes. By the end of the 16th century, satin cloth was embroidered as well as silk, wool, linen, and velvet, and stitching threads included linen, silk, metal and wool. However, it must be noted that the sumptuary laws that regulated the types of cloth that could be used for garb also were applied to bed linens. In 1476, Venetian rulers forbade their citizenry to decorate their beds with such fabrics as “cloth of gold, cloth of silver, brocade, velvet, satin or watered silk”.15 These laws often specifically singled out coverlets.

From 1580 on it became fashionable for pillowcases to be decorated with lace, cutwork, drawnwork and reticella, and lacis embroidery (darning stitches on square meshes). These last five techniques were also used to decorate other bed linens. In existence is a bedspread of reticella, suspected to be of Venetian origin and created sometime between 1595 and 1615; it is edged in needlepoint lace or “punto in aria”. The coverlet features images of animals and figures evocative of the Catherine de Medici period.16 Needlepoint lace was also the technique used to decorate ceremonial pillowcases and sheets, including the layettes of newborn royalty. Even Catherine de Medici, an avid embroiderer and admirer of lacework left in her inventory “roughly a thousand unmounted squares of decorative bouquets and rosettes… destined for tableloths and bedspreads”. 17

By the end of the 1500’s beds of the manor were as well dressed as their wealthy owners and the embroidery definitely more intricate. For example, in her recent study of the embroideries and textiles of Hardwick Hall, V&A curator and historian Santina Levey reports that one of the beds “had vallances of black velvet set with stagges and talbottes imbrodered with silvines.”18 She also notes that this bed also had shams (then called pants) to “goe about the sides of the bed at the bottome of clothe of golde and crimson velevet.” Another bed had three curtains “wrought with black silk needleworke upon fine holland cloth”.19 She estimates that the hangings were made of linen which could be stitched with silk, linen or metal threads as had been popular since the time of Henry VIII. Although it was often assumed that linen used daily had a rather short life span and, henceforth was frequently omitted from inventories, some well executed pieces of embroidered bed linen have survived. Levey records the existence of a late 16th c. “end section of a coverlet, worked with cherry red, bright blue, sage green and some black floss silk in stem, whipped stem, chain, knotted, speckling and other stitches”.20 Roses, leaves, berries, and grapes also decorate the border of this same piece, “worked very tightly and with perfect regularity”…suggesting professional workmanship.

Levey’s book also features a photograph of a section of a linen pillow case professionally “worked with red and green silk in double running, cross and two-sided Italian cross stitches.”

In addition to the pillows, sheets, blankets and coverlets, medieval beds also consisted of three to five lined bedcurtains, often in panels of different but solid colors, generally with embroidery confined to the borders, and frequently of lighter weight than the tester and valances. There were usually from one to three valances to 6 ft. 6 in. long and almost 2 ft. wide, and they were usually more elaborately decorated than the rest of the bed curtains. Some of the best examples of embroidered bed hangings and valances can be attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots, and Countess Elizabeth of Shrewsbury (Bess of Hardwick). Wonderful examples of their applique, embroidery and canvaswork can be seen in Levey’s book, Elizabethan Treasures-The Textiles of Hardwick Hall. Keep in mind that tapestry was rarely used for bedhangings but was often used for bedpreads.

Although most existing bed linens date after 1200 A.D., this is not to say that such decor did not exist before then. Actually, it is noted by Francois de Bonneville in her Book of Fine Linen that, during the Merovingian dynasty (500-751 A.D.), stewards and chamberlains to the king were instructed to “count, superintend, maintain and distribute the bedding”, of which we have no inventoried accounting of. De Bonneville partly attributes the lack of knowledge about bed linen prior to 1200 to the idea that such bed coverings were treated privately, whereas she notes that table linens were “associated with public celebrations”.

The bedroom was furnished to allow for reading, writing and contemplation, and ultimately for receiving important social and political visitors. From the bed great political, social and economic issues were discussed, debated and decided. Amazing as the issues that emerged from these “beds of state” were the rich embroideries that decorated these handcrafted works of luxury and comfort.

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