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  • William Tyler

PILLOW TALK: A short history of bed linen (and bed bugs!)

Where now are bolsters? Where eiderdowns? Where bed bugs? As for the latter, I really don't care as long as they are not near me.


Actually bed linen is a bit soft for the true Englishman and woman. After all, Saxon King Edgar banned 'soft beds' and 'warm baths'. Sounds as though he should have been a 1950s Boarding School Headmaster.


The truth is a little different. The English are no different from any other peoples in liking their creature comforts, whether that be goose down filled mattress (no goose quills, please) or a goose feathered pillow.


The quilt, which was first introduced as a male upper garment (gamberon), worn under armour, by Crusaders returning to England in the 12th century, has been with us ever since as a piece of bed linen. When we were young the very best were stuffed with the down of the eider duck, hence eiderdowns. Now elevated to the rank of the most important piece of bed linen as the all-conquering duvet. Duvets themselves were only introduced to Britain by Habitat in the 1970s. They came from Scandinavia. But quilts were popular in Tudor times as a 1601 inventory of Bess of Hardwick shows, 'a quilt of yellow India stuff embroidered with birds and beasts'.


Language often contains a hidden history. We still speak sometimes, when going up to bed, of 'hitting the hay'. A memory of sleeping on hay, or straw, in medieval England. The Rev William Harrison, Rector of Radwinter in Essex, writing in Queen Elizabeth's reign says, '...straw pallet, covered only with a sheet, under coverlets,...and a good round log under their heads instead of a bolster, or pillow.' My favourite reference to the stuffing of mattresses comes from a humorous Gascon knight who said, 'I would have you know that the mattresses on which I rest my limbs are stuffed with nothing but the moustaches of those my sword has vanquished'.


Beds, even in Tudor England, were objects of value, as Shakespeare's will testifies, with its reference to 'my second best bed'. It was Tudor England that popularised the 4-poster, so beloved of pretentious hotels today, for the well to do. These beds were surrounded by thick curtains for no more exciting use than for the keeping of the cold winter nights at bay.


Hotel beds are quite another story, and we all have ghastly tales to tell. But as a Bristolian, whose mother's family were patients of the Grace family, it was a particular horror. I was brought up to believe that GF Grace, brother of the more famous WG, died as a result of sleeping in a damp bed at The Red Lion Hotel in Basingstoke. Sadly, or otherwise, this is not true. He was already suffering from pneumonia when he booked in. Nevertheless that story has haunted every hotel booking I have ever made!


Pillows today are quite the product of science, but can anything even today beat a goose feathered one? However, always avoid one filled with pigeon feathers for it was said that it will keep you awake all night. Now, for bolsters; simply a long single pillow placed under the more traditional pillow to give added support to the neck. The word itself is Saxon in origin, with a meaning of bulging, but around 1500 it also became a verb - To bolster, or to support.


Finally, bed bugs; 'Cimex lectularius is a resistant enemy', writes Lawrence Wright, 'he can live for twelve months between meals, and is willing to travel right across the bedroom from his hide, to obtain them. The average life of pulex irritans is only a few weeks, ' but he lives merrily if not long'. There are many and varied remedies. Thomas Tusser, the Elizabethan writer on agriculture, says,

'While wormwood hath seed, get a bundle or twain,

To save against March, to make fleas to refrain,

Where chamber is swept and that wormwood is strown,

No flea for his life dare abide to be known.'

A piece of European advice from a sixteenth century manual on hunting advises the wearing of wolf skin pyjamas which repels fleas and anything else that might get you - I am not surprised.


It wasn't, however, only fleas you had to be wary of, when staying overnight in a seventeenth century inn. Celia Fiennes, the traveller, writes of her room at an inn in Ely, ' ....tho' my chamber was near 20 steps up I had frogs and slow worms and snails in my room'; she then adds, with the sangfroid of a true English gentlewoman, 'but suppose it was brought up with the faggots'.


I began with questions, so I will end with questions. Is making an apple-pie bed now a forgotten art? Does anyone still sleep on the horsehair mattresses of our youth? And,

'Would you rather sin

With Elinor Glyn

On a tiger skin,

Or would you prefer

To err with her

On some other kind of fur?'

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