Sleep Sanctuary: Rituals, Art, Linens and Magic

It's January, and we're still obsessed with sleep.  Is there any other way to get through this month? And we are not alone; bored of kale, the wellness industry has turned its attention to new foods full of colour and promise, and, as we know, sleep.  So chances are, you've already heard quite a bit about sleep, even if you haven't been listening to Life Butter Radio! You should, though.

In our last episode, we talked about sleep before the internet, television, central heating and light bulbs with Dr. Sasha Handley.  Her book takes a look at sleep in Early Modern England, and charts our attitudes, our approaches and our understanding of sleep in this period.  It also includes images of beautiful historical bedlinen, sleepwear and art; any fan of a good historical drama would swoon.  Think richly embroidered linens, bed curtains, stained glass and even magical markings made with candles.  All of this got us thinking about the bedroom as a sanctuary - a place of calm and beauty.  Which is not exactly how our bedrooms tend to be set up these days...we might not have a tv, and we're trying to keep our smart-everything out of the bedzone, but even so, we're not exactly achieving spa-like conditions at LB HQ.

In search of some inspiration, we thought I'd be fun to ask Dr. Handley a bit about the rituals, magic and beauty of the bedroom in Early Modern England, and come up with some modern day equivalents - sleep aids for the romantic who is thinking more candles and soft fabrics than sleep trackers and retro alarm clocks.  Scroll ⬇️ for a little look.

School Us Dr. Handley

Q: Is it fair to say that everyone in early modern England, from the very rich to the very poor, made an effort to somehow sanctify places that they dedicated to nightly sleep?

'Young Bateman's ghost, or, a godly warning to all maidens', London, 1760, the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

'Young Bateman's ghost, or, a godly warning to all maidens', London, 1760, the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Sleeping in a 'safe' and secure place was important to everyone: rich and poor, man, woman and child. But people's sense of what constitutes 'safety' does of course differ greatly. Many early modern people sought a degree of physical enclosure during sleep, and bedtime was usually accompanied by a variety of prayers that begged for God's protection during the vulnerable hours of sleep. Some even wore charms or amulets to bed in the hope that they would provide a degree of protection from danger during these unconscious hours.

Modern take on the protective Hand of Fatima

Modern take on the protective Hand of Fatima

Pretty & protective; dream catchers of lore trap bad dreams

Pretty & protective; dream catchers of lore trap bad dreams

Q: How did men and women use bedlinen, sleeping clothes and other textiles to help ensure that they got a good night's sleep?

A large quantity of early modern bedding textiles were home-made; hemp could be grown, spun and bleached at home and turned into linen to be embroidered and then placed on the bed. People often had a personal relationship to the bedding that surrounded them during the night, which, it seems offered a sense of comfort and reassurance. Linen was also prized for its cleanliness - cleansing the skin that it enclosed and providing a protective barrier against dreaded bed-bugs and even diabolical spirits.

Bedcover, England, c. 1786, Object No. T.20-1938, © courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bedcover, England, c. 1786, Object No. T.20-1938, © courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Black flax linen may comfort

Black flax linen may comfort

Spirt animal?  This monochrome wolf seems protective

Spirt animal?  This monochrome wolf seems protective

Enchanted forest duvet set for kids

Q: How important was the feel of the linen used?  Was comfort as important as decoration for these materials?

Yes, I'm sure that 'comfort' was extremely important to people's experiences of sleep and textiles didn't need to be beautiful or decorative to provide that - most of us remember a sheet or a blanket to which we were particularly attached, because of the way it felt against our skin. Linen, depending on its quality, offered a smooth and cool sensation to those that touched it, something that strengthened linen's reputation as the premium bedding textile of choice in these years.

The Brooklinen Classic Hardcore set; hiplinen for hipster living

The Brooklinen Classic Hardcore set; hiplinen for hipster living

Cashmere blanket - sensory pleasure for little ones and babies alike.  Probably won't stay white for long though!

Cashmere blanket - sensory pleasure for little ones and babies alike.  Probably won't stay white for long though!

Q: Who made bedlinen in early modern England?  Was this part of a bride's trousseau, or purchased/commissioned?

Bedlinen could be made domestically - often in anticipation of, or following a marriage, but it could also be commissioned and purchased from local tradespeople or specialist linen-drapers, which were springing up at a rapid rate throughout the early modern period - especially in large urban centres like London.  

Q: Was the bedcap a thing for both men and women?  I have to confess to sleeping with a hat on during temperature wars with my flatmates while studying!

Bedcaps (which had a wide variety of names) were used by men, women and children. Their materials were adapted to suit the wearer, and to suit the season of the year - heavier velvets were often used in the winter-time, whilst lighter, more breathable textiles were preferred for the summer months.

Stained glass window of Tobias and Sarah on their Wedding Night. c. 1520, © couresy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Stained glass window of Tobias and Sarah on their Wedding Night. c. 1520, © couresy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Not quite a sleeping cap, but velvet and rather pretty

Not quite a sleeping cap, but velvet and rather pretty

Q: Let's talk about art: what sorts of imagery was popular in early modern England for the bedside?

It's pretty tricky to reconstruct the 'norm' here - for those that could afford it, expensive portraits featuring biblical scenes or the images of loved ones might be commissioned, but 'art' might also apply to the decorative motifs that were commonly found on bedding textiles - intricate flower designs, animals, exotic Chinese figures with parasols, and the (Indian-inspired) tree of life motif are just some of the image that surrounded sleepers in these years.

A little later, but William Morris' famous Arts & Crafts bed at Kelmscott Manner is lavishly embroidered with the motif of a poem he loved.  

A little later, but William Morris' famous Arts & Crafts bed at Kelmscott Manner is lavishly embroidered with the motif of a poem he loved.  

The A Beautiful Mess statement handwriting wall...love literally lettered into the bedroom

The A Beautiful Mess statement handwriting wall...love literally lettered into the bedroom

Monochrome lovers could try sleeping under every phase of the moon

Monochrome lovers could try sleeping under every phase of the moon

Q: Were these images meant to calm sleepers, or did they include the odd bloody crucifix?

I suspect there were a wide variety of 'motivations' behind the use of different images - some would be intended to put the sleeper in mind of spiritual matters, and to remind them of the day of judgement; others, such as landscape scenes, might have a calming effect on those that viewed them. Some textiles undoubtedly had a more utilitarian purpose, and perhaps featured less rich decorations, but fewer of these materials have survived the passage of time, so best not to rule anything out!

Q: What sorts of rituals did men and women perform by their bedsides to prepare themselves for sleep?  How were holy water and candles used?

Light it up in style

Light it up in style

Candles had a very practical purpose - to give light at bedtime, perhaps for a spot of reading, but some people may also have regarded them in a more spiritual manner. They were sometimes the cause of accidental fires, if somebody forgot to blow them out before they fell asleep. Holy water is associated with the sanctification of the user/wearer, and it likely served this purpose at the bedside - offering a degree of spiritual protection (and reassurance) to those that used it. As for other rituals, the most common was prayer, confession and meditation, which often had the added bonus of calming the body and mind for sleep to take hold.

Snakes may frighten, but are also symbols of divine protection in some circumstances.

Snakes may frighten, but are also symbols of divine protection in some circumstances.

Watched over by the moon

Watched over by the moon

Or smoke out bad dreams with incense

Or smoke out bad dreams with incense

Hands up who likes a beautiful candle

Hands up who likes a beautiful candle

Q: Were any particular prayers said at either bedtime or waking?

Morning and evening prayers were the most common forms of prayer for all Christians, and they book-ended and sanctified the hours of sleep. Some people used set forms of prayer out of, for example, The Book of Common Prayer, whilst others made up their own.

Q: What is the prettiest piece of bedside paraphernalia that you came across in your research for the book?

I think the prettiest piece of bedside paraphernalia that I came across during my research for the book is the bedding made by Ann Breton, which belongs to the National Trust's Lyme Park. It was, however, never used for sleeping under since Ann sadly died before she finished the beautiful and exotic embroidery.

Bedcover, c. 1725-c.1750, Object No. 500311.1 Lyme Park © The National Trust/Robert Thrift

Bedcover, c. 1725-c.1750, Object No. 500311.1 Lyme Park © The National Trust/Robert Thrift

Pillow cover,, c. 1725-c.1750, Object No. 500311.3 Lyme Park, reproduced with the kind permission of The National Trust

Pillow cover,, c. 1725-c.1750, Object No. 500311.3 Lyme Park, reproduced with the kind permission of The National Trust

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