The Medieval Box Bed Returns: Closing Yourself in for a Good Night’s Sleep
The box bed, sometimes known by its French name of lit clos, is a bed built into a piece of furniture. It looks curious to us today and it’s somewhat of a novelty to climb into bed and shut the doors behind you, but 600 years ago this kind of bed was very popular, and it is making a comeback today.
“Very Conveniently Designed”
As its name implies, the box bed is a bed which is completely contained within a wooden box. There were a lot of variations in design – some had curtains for privacy, while others were completely closed off with sliding wooden doors. They could be built in a number of ways to utilize the space available – some were freestanding and could be moved, but others were built into recesses of a room.
‘A Mother Delousing her Child's Hair, known as ‘A Mother's Duty’’ (1658-1660) by Pieter de Hooch. ( Public Domain ) This image shows a box bed with curtains built into a recess of the room.
The most well-known description of a box bed is in Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights . By the time of the novel, the box bed was a thing of the past, but even then Bronte noted how “very conveniently designed” box beds were, admiring them for the practicality of giving each member of the family their own privacy with no need for individual rooms, and for the fact they made the narrator feel very secure when he was in the bed with closed panels.
Box beds could give everyone a feeling of their own space in a shared space. (WhoKnowsEast/ Michelduchaine)
While they were already obsolete by the time of Bronte’s novel, the box bed had a long history of use. Its roots come from Medieval Brittany. By the 16th Century, examples of box beds could be found across Europe, including France, Scotland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Austria. As they became more popular, more commonplace designs advanced and in the 18th Century box beds could be quite sophisticated and cleverly designed to blend into the room and look like inconspicuous cabinets.
These box beds blend into the room and look like inconspicuous cabinets. (Heinz-Josef Lücking/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
While they seem a bit odd or even claustrophobic to us today, box beds were a very practical solution to a lot of problems faced by people living in Medieval Europe.
Firstly, they provided a private space. Many families slept in the same room at that point, and poorer families often lived in dwellings with only one room even as recently as the Victorian era , particularly in rural communities. The beds meant that people were able to retreat to a private part of the room, and they also helped to divide the room up.
Furthermore, as the beds were built in boxes which were usually raised off the ground, they provided storage space. They usually had a large bench in front of them which could be used as seating, and which also had space for storage.
The drawers under the bed or bench were sometimes pulled out to use as a bed for younger family members or guests – the original hide-a-bed. It is also noteworthy that a lot of surviving examples, and the regions where the box bed prevailed the longest, are in regions such as Scandinavia, which are mercilessly cold during the winter.
The enclosed nature of the box bed means they are very warm and keeping warm could be a matter of life or death in Medieval times – this probably explains why box beds were in use in frigid Scandinavia for longer than elsewhere.
An enclosed bed. (Quistnix/ CC BY SA 2.5 )
One final upside to the box bed is that the examples with doors and panels also helped to keep people safe. Whilst it may not have happened often, in rural areas there was always a risk that a dangerous animal like a wolf might get in to the house – box beds kept the individuals in the dwelling safe, at least while they slept.
A Medieval box bed was generally a bed enclosed in a cupboard or closet. Source: Øyvind Holmstad/ CC BY SA 4.0
The Medieval Box Bed Returns
After a period of several hundred years, the box bed is starting to make appearances in homes across the world again. While there is thankfully very little chance of being attacked by a wolf while you sleep nowadays, the cramped living conditions and prevalence of studio apartments mean that they are once again a handy solution to the problem of privacy in a single room living situation.
Now that box beds are growing in popularity again, there are some regions which have come full circle. Large cities such as New York where people are turning to box beds in their studio apartments are resorting to a trend which was used by many of the earliest inhabitants in New York in the 17th Century, and they are every bit as practical now as they were 400 years ago.
Modern enclosed beds. ( lionelkearns) While the style and designs have changed, the idea of using a box bed to create privacy in shared space is the same.
Top Image: A box bed from the 18th century. Source: Wolfgang Sauber/ CC BY SA 3.0
Flatley, H. 2019. People Are Starting to Sleep in Medieval ‘Box Beds’ Again. Available at: https://www.thevintagenews.com/2019/02/25/box-bed/
Mitchell, N. 2018. Medieval France actually had the perfect bedroom solution for a studio apartment. Available at: https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/box-bed-weird-history-251821
Old and Interesting. 2007. Press Beds. Available at: http://www.oldandinteresting.com/box-beds.aspx
There are neat aspects about the box beds, but one very big downside is that you get no fresh air or circulation. You'll be breathing your own carbon monoxide all night.
Curious by its absence from this article is the double entry box bed that Thomas Jefferson built into Monticello.