When Sleep Was Hard and Dangerous

(p. A15) Before the Industrial Revolution, no shortage of perils, real or imaginary, made for uneasy nights, from satanic demons to the unholy trinity of bedbugs, fleas and lice. A 17th-century verse sought deliverance at night “from sudden death, fire and theeves, stormes, tempests, and all affrigtments.” Worst in this age—before penicillin, before analgesics—was illness.

Less often, at least among propertied households, did beds themselves disrupt sleep, except when plush mattresses hampered one’s movements. Lower down the social scale, peasants who “hit the hay” at night enjoyed a measure of comfort unknown to paupers forced “to lie at the sign of the star.” Despite John Locke’s contention that tranquil slumber “matters not, whether it be on a soft bed” or on a board, the hard earth must have been agonizing for emaciated frames with minimal body fat for padding.

For the full review, see:

A. Roger Ekirch. “BOOKSHELF; How We Hit the Hay; A consideration of the bed—site of countless births, deaths and famous last words—as a prop with which to elaborate upon the “theater of life.” The New York Times (Friday, Oct. 25, 2019): A15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Oct. 24, 2019, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘What We Did in Bed’ Review: How We Hit the Hay; A consideration of the bed—site of countless births, deaths and famous last words—as a prop with which to elaborate upon the “theater of life.”)

The book under review, is:

Fagan, Brian, and Nadia Durrani. What We Did in Bed: A Horizontal History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.

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