Pillows or beres were considered unmanly, reserved for the old, young girls and pregnant women, yet there was also a belief that it was necessary to sleep propped up to prevent devils entering the open mouth and stealing away your soul. Real men rested their heads on logs!

Was this the reigning theory by the time Shakespeare was living, and if so, why do all the replicas of his sleeping quarters include them? Let’s find out.

Did Shakespeare Have a Pillow? 

The word pillow comes from Middle English pilwe, from Old English pyle (akin to Old High German pfuliwi) and from Latin pulvinus. The first known use of the word pillow was before the 12th century Source

In the European Middle Ages, pillows were not only not popular, but it was extremely rare for someone to use one. The phrase we have now of “going soft” came from the idea that to use a pillow was viewed as a sign of weakness, particularly by men. During the lives of Shakespeare’s parents, John and Mary Shakespeare, King Henry VIII banned the use of soft pillows for anyone except pregnant women (and himself). This trend did not stick, though, and by the time his daughter Elizabeth was on the throne, it seems pillows were much more widespread. Exactly what constituted a pillow then was much different than today, though, since there weren’t synthetic pillow fibers to fill the cushion. Instead, the filling had to be changed often as it was not uncommon to get mold or vermin or both in your pillow stuffing. Source

Before the advent of mattresses and a “regular” looking bed in the medieval period, peasants literally “hit the hay” because they slept on piles of straw. The concept of sleeping in separate bedrooms was also a new concept, and for most households, even aristocratic ones, everyone slept in the Great Hall near the warmest place of the house–the fireplace. As an example of how valuable it was to own an actual bed frame, in 1540, Margery Wren left her son Geoffrey a red and green bed canopy; apparently he already had the bed.  But the giving of a bed to another person was, in itself, an indication of wealth when the bed would have been the largest and most expensive possession in the house. The tradition of beds being valuable parts of society continued into the Elizabethan era, as we can see from the reflections of one Elizabethan traveller, William Harrison.

“… straw pallets, covered onelie with a sheet, under coverlets … and a good round log under their heads in steed of a bolster, or pillow. If it were so that our fathers or the good man of the house, had within seven years after his mariage purchased a mattress or flockebed, and thereto a sacke of chaffe to resh his head upon, he though himself to be as well lodged as the lord of the town, that peradventure laye seldome in a bed of downe or whole feathers; so well were they contended, and with such base kind of furniture…”

Source

Soft pillows weren’t popular for anyone except the old, infirmed, or pregnant women in Europe until the Industrial Revolution, when textile companies began mass-producing them. Source

Before the advent of pillows, people used headsheets but those had largely fallen out of use by the time William Shakepseare was making up his sleeping quarters.

This idea of a headsheet is where we get our modern concept of a pillow case.

Pillow cases were called “pillow bere” (pillow bearer) until about the 16th century, but they didn’t always have matching sets of pillows and shsets like we think of today.

One writer uses this description to explain how beds were made:

The best beds had a canvas mattress or two filled with wool or straw and then the featherbed. The under-mattress(es) might be laid on canvas spread over the bed slats, or possibly on woven rushes. The featherbed was an expensive luxury and was not plump enough to be used without an underlying woollen or straw mattress, perhaps with a canvas sheet separating rough from smooth. Even a flock or woollen mattress was out of reach for the poorest people, and wool-filled mattresses were valuable enough to be mentioned in “middle-class” wills.

Next a bolster was laid at the head end before a pair of sheets were put on. The best sheets were made of Rennes linen. Cheaper sheets were made of hemp or coarse linen. Blankets came next, and then a coverlet reflecting the wealth of the bed’s owner. The most luxurious could be lined with fur, or be reversible with two different expensive kinds of silk used in the making. If a head sheet was used it was laid over the pillow, probably shortly before bedtime so the decorative pillow-cover would be on display during the day.

The best beds had a canvas mattress or two filled with wool or straw, and then a feather bed. The under-mattress(es) might be laid on canvas spread over the bed slats, or possibly on women rushes. The featherbed was an expensive luxury and was not plump enough to be used without an underlying woollen or straw mattress, perhaps with a canvas sheet separating rough from smooth…wool filled mattresses were valuable enough to be mentioned in “middle class” wills…Next a bolster was laid at the head end before a pair of sheets were put on.

Source

The best sheets were made of Rennes linen. Cheaper sheets were made of hemp or coarse linen. Blankets came next, and then a coverlet reflecting the wealth of the bed’s owner. The most luxurious could be lined with fur, or be reversible with two different expensive kinds of silk used in the making. If a head sheet was used it was laid over the pillow, probably shortly before bedtime so the decorative pillow-cover would be on display during the day.

By the time Elizabeth I came to the throne, people still arranged beds in much the same way. Except for the introduction of the four-poster in wealthy households and a few inns, and the disappearance of the head sheet, the elements were familiar. But more and more people acquired comfortable bedding and, overall, people’s sleeping habits changed. As the middle classes prospered, they too wanted featherbeds and soft sheets. Around 1580 the clergyman William Harrison grumbled about the new generation, so self-indulgent with their feathers and pillows. In his day “If in seven years after marriage a man could buy a mattress and a sack of chaff to rest his head on, he thought himself as well lodged as a lord. Pillows were thought meet only for sick women. As for servants, they were lucky if they had a sheet over them, for there was nothing under them to keep the straw from pricking their hardened hides.” Source

That’s it for this week! I’ll see you next Saturday with even more Shakespeare.