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Bed behaviour: A brief cultural history

From Bronze Age man to John and Yoko, the bed has claimed a singular place in the popular imagination. Maybe we aren't talking enough about bed?

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Photo by Truus, Bob & Jan too! (truusbobjantoo; Flickr CC)

Bed. Even the word itself is a single syllable that plops out abruptly, only to disappear into the ether again with little ceremony. Our bed-lives have traditionally been discreet – the word connotes so much, but we rarely divulge with any candour what happens behind the bedroom door. Yes, we might in our exhibitionistic age trumpet our sexual conquests to all and sundry, but rarely do we reveal with the same glee that we have holes in our pyjamas, that we dribble the night through or that we wet the bed until we were 11.

Between our sheets is where we are at our most naked, vulnerable and exposed. Italians call bed “the opera of the poor”, and they are almost right – except the rich do not escape it. The humble bed, whether adorned in cotton or silk sheets, is the stage for our most personal dramas. We can be born in one, wrestle the whims of our subconscious in one, mate in one, weep, rot and die in one. Our mattresses are sodden in life. They have witnessed it all. And still they support us.

The earliest beds as we know them today were discovered in Scotland and date from over 5,000 years ago. It is tempting to ponder how different bed was for Bronze Age man. On his stack of stones, on a rudimentary mattress, with a hide or blanket to cover him, did he take the same nocturnal journeys we do? Did he, unfettered by Freudianism, dream of snakes that were simply snakes? Bed has come to mean many things in the intervening years. But in the dark, there are universal truths that sleep with us all – and reasons we turn so readily to our duvets’ generous embrace.


Im Bett, ist alles Wett, goes the German saying. Bed can be some redemptive place where all is ironed out, made up for, resolved. Problems can melt away and safety can be found. In our repose, we find sanctuary from the problems we cannot always take standing on two feet. In 1888 for example, Vincent Van Gogh painted a work to “rest the brain, or rather the imagination” – his “Bedroom in Arles” – proof if ever there was that bed is a serene and safe place for even the most tortured of souls.

It is also a retreat from misunderstanding – a shelter from a callous world. Take Ignatius J. Reilly for example, the slothful anti-hero from John Kennedy Toole’s comic gem A Confederacy of Dunces. Reilly,disgusted with the decadence of modern life, writes medievalist treatises from his bed, carpeting the floor around him with notepad upon notepad of crackpot proselytising. That he also indulges dubious masturbatory fantasies about his faithful childhood collie reminds us of the useful impunity bed provides: “’Woof! Woof! Arf!’[…] Ignatius’ eyes dilated, crossed and closed and he lay wanly back among his four pillows, hoping that he had some Kleenex in his room.”

Perhaps because bed is a place we turn to for succour, 41 percent of us sleep in the foetal position. It is the nearest most of us are going to get to the womb again (apart from the lucky few with flotation tanks plumbed in at home) – that amniotic heaven sack, where everything was just dandy.

In his memoir The Afterlife, Donald Antrim makes the link to mum more explicit. Following his own mother’s death, he engages in a three-month search for a bed – or answers in the shape of a bed at least: “I imagined, or fantasized, that, once cozy and secure in the space filled by the bed, lying alone or with [partner] R. atop pillows stacked high like the pillows on beds photographed for home-decorating magazines, I might discover who I would be and how I would carry on without my mother, a woman who had died in a dreary house, in an uncomfortable bed.”


It is a thin line between simply burying gleefully into the warm depths of bed, and cocooning there. For bed also boasts powerful transformative powers. It is hinted at by the Benjamin Franklin dictum that, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” but spelled out more spectacularly by Franz Kafka in one of 20th century literature’s most famous opening lines. “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams,” writes Kafka in Metamorphosis, “he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.”

Bed is where our doubts can be wiped away – or our desires unleashed in the febrile realm of the unconscious. We can trip the light fantastic in bed and live impossible lives, which sometimes leech into our waking moments, altering our day just a little. How many times have you dreamt of an ex-partner only to look them up the next day? Or been tormented by the vision of a loved one’s death only to start the day under a cloud of sadness?

Conversely, there are times when the world becomes a better place after a rewarding and refreshing escape to bed. The perspective we glean from the horizontal plane can be so wildly different from that which we observe as upright citizens.


“A hospital bed is a parked taxi with the meter running,” Groucho Marx once quipped. Bed is for convalescents, though whatever reprieve from illness it can momentarily grant us, bed will ultimately be there to claim us, too. Its restorative powers are not unlimited – death will find many of us flat out on our backs, lurking in the linen, praying for mercy.

But there is always hope of recovery in bed. Consider Mark ‘Rent-boy’ Renton, Trainspotting’s chief smack fiend: “Relinquishing junk,” he explains is best done from bed: “For this you will need oneroom which you will not leave. Soothing music. Tomato soup, ten tins of. Mushroom soup, eight tins of, for consumption cold. Ice cream, vanilla, one large tub of. Magnesia, milk of, one bottle. Paracetamol, mouthwash, vitamins. Mineral water, Lucozade, pornography. One mattress. One bucket for urine, one for faeces and one for vomitus. One television and one bottle of Valium, which I’ve already procured from my mother…”

The outlook from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain is only a little less horizontal. Though the Berghof sanatorium’s strange troupe of tuberculosis sufferers flop luxuriously in plush recliners on their balconies, rather than lie in their beds, they too are battling an affliction they sometimes revel in. Their illness is a rite of passage, their swaddled existence a precursor to death. Impressionable protagonist Hans Castorp spends his seven-year stretch there digesting philosophical lessons and chewing over the meaning of his supposed infirmity. If ever there were a manifesto on the curative powers of doing sod all, Mann’s masterpiece is it. It is only on striking out as an upright healthy man, that Castorp meets his demise.

Horror aficionados meanwhile will know that bed can be a dicey place to rest one’s head. The famous bucking bed in The Exorcist takes a battering from poor Regan MacNeil and her pea-soup puke, but ultimately proves to be the site of her salvation.

However, schlock-fest Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, makes no bones about it: bed is where nubile and naked young ladies get turned to yellow froth.  Just as important as it is to choose a good mattress, dear readers, it is also important to make sure your bed is not possessed by a dastardly tree demon with bleeding eyeballs and an insatiable appetite for flesh.


The lethality of bed notwithstanding, the blankets that have traditionally masked it from peeping eyes are increasingly being pulled back to reveal its mysteries.

Tracey Emin’s empty bed rocked the Tate when it was included in the 1999 Turner Prize show. Littered with the detritus from a messy period in her life, Emin’s bed is a snapshot of a woman caught up in a nervous breakdown. Her absence from the bed itself creates a compelling tension: is it a sign that hanging out your dirty bed linen can be cathartic, that bed can be risen from and the past forgotten? Or a reminder that a bed only temporarily goes cold; that past mistakes can be regained just as readily as our beds?

Emin had two scantily clad models pillow fight on her bed, a scene that sounds more in keeping with trashy bed-posé In Bed with Madonna (in the US, Truth or Dare). The documentary about the material girl’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour has its strong points, but insightful squawks such as, “Get out of my bed and don’t come back until your dick is bigger,” are not among them. If you haven’t seen it, seek out the “Wayne’s World” parody instead. And poor long suffering Lourdes, if you haven’t seen it: keep it that way. This is why bed stuff is traditionally kept in the bedroom, okay?

You can blame John Lennon and Yoko Ono for changing all that, and inspiring the Madonnas, Muecks and Emins of this world. Their two 1969 bed-ins for peace irreversibly broke the bed barrier, the final frontier between the intimate and the public. They might not quite have started a revolution from their beds as Oasis later sang, but in luring the world into their rumpled king-size they demonstrated just how captivating the notion of bed is to all of us.

Establishment media had hoped for titillating physical displays from the pair, but instead had to settle for humour, sincerity and wit. “It’s functional for us,” said Lennon about the choice of protesting from bed, redefining what can be achieved from its comfortable confines (and this before the advent of wireless internet technology).

Bed remains the refuge we leave only reluctantly, especially in these bleak winter months, but its story, an intimate record of our entire existence, is increasingly escaping the bedroom door. Laziness has become license: to recline, to transform, to dream, to perform. So, in dark, cold, January Berlin, why not take a leaf out of John and Yoko’s book? Give bed a chance.