Sleeping medieval – Monks, nuns and monastic knights

I had a look at the monastic rule for the monks, nuns and monastic knights from different times and locations to fins out more about how they slept. It is a somewhat specific setting, which not altogether applies to mundane conditions, but it should give us some hints on what was used – and what wasn’t used. In those cases an excerpt of a rule is directly presented in English, it means that I either couldn’t find the rule in original language or that I couldn’t translate the original properly.

How did they sleep?

For bedding the monks will need a mat, a woolen blanket and a light covering as well as a pillow.

  • From the rule of St Benedict, (circa 480-548)

We command by common consent that each man shall have clothes and bed linen according to the discretion of the Master. It is our intention that apart from a mattress, one bolster and one blanket should be sufficient for each; and he who lacks one of these may have a rug, and he may use a linen blanket at all times, that is to say with a soft pile [of straw?]. /…/

Now we will say how you should sleep: henceforth you should always sleep in a shirt and breeches and in woollen hose, and belted with a small belt; and you should have on your bed three pieces of linen, that is to say a bag in which to put straw and two sheets, and in place of one sheet you may have a light blanket if the Draper wishes to give it to you; the rug is a favour if you find anyone to give it to you.

  • From the rule of the Knights templars (1129)

Höret nun wie Ihr schlafen sollet. Ihr sollet immer in leinenen Hemden, Beinkleidern und leinenen Strümpfen und mit einen kleinen Gürtel umgürtet schlafen; und in Eurem Bett drey Stücke haben; nemlich einen Strohsack und swey Bettlaken. Anstatt des einen Bettlakens aber könnt Ihr eine dünne Decke brauchen, wen der Drapier sie Euch geben will.

…roughly translated into

Now hear, how you should sleep. You shall always sleep in linen shirt, hose and linen socks and engirded with a small belt; and in your bed [you shall] have three pieces; namely a straw mattress and two bed sheets. Instead of a bed sheet you could use a thin cover, if the draper will give it to you.

  • From the Cistercian rule (1234)

The couch [consists of] planks and straw mattress, straw pillow, blankets according to need.

They have beds like monks have, apart from the woolen blanket, instead of which they use skins.

  • From the Cistercian Liber Usuum, (early 12th century; the Liber Usuum was, as far as I understand it, a book which defined harsher rules for the monks and nuns. It was used by a lesser number of monasteries)


The brethren of this order are allowed to wear and use linen for undershirts, for drawers and hose, for sheets and for bed covers, and for other things, when suitable. /…/ As for bedding, let each brother be content with a sleeping bag, a rug, a sheet, a coverlet of linen or buckram and a pillow, unless the one in charge of such articles wishes to give more or less. /…/

  • From the rule of the Teutonic order (1264)

Sengana wari aff brädhum oc j them hafwin halm oc ofuir halmin hafwin matto ellir biörnskin thogh ey loff ellir ett halmkläde ellir sengaklädhe aff wadhmal oc ey bulstre. Oc oppa sik hawin eet aklädhe ellir sengakläde aff wadmal ryo oc skinfäl tha som tharfuas vndir hofdheno hafwin ett höghinde oc örnagaat ofuir draghin medh lärifft oc liggin j hwita kiortlenom Aer the toc swa at nokar gitir eke lighat j hwita kiortlenom ellir annars som nw är saght tha maa them lofuas af formannenom liggia a bulstir oc wadhmals lakan ellir oppa linlakan

…which roughly translates into

The beds should be [made of] boards and in them there should be straw and over the straw a rug or a bearskin, though not without permission, or a halmkläde or bed cloth consisting of vadmal and not a mattress. And on top of them an Åkläde, a rya and a pelt, whichever is needed. Under the head is a hyende and an örngott [both] covered with lärft. [They should] sleep in a white kirtle. If however someone doesn’t want to/is able to sleep in the white kirtle or other that is here mentioned, they could get permission from the supervisor to sleep on a bolster and vadmal sheets, or upon linen sheets.

  • From the rule of St Bridget (1370-1451)

Then what does the above mean?
Halmkläde = described in later sources as a simpler bottom sheet ”white and/or grey, made from vadmal, which they never washed”. During summertime it could also be used as a bed cover. The word is directly translated into “strawcloth” and the halmkläde was used directly on top of the straw in the bed frame.
Vadmal =
Rya =
Åkläde = a kind of heavier woven woolen blanket/cover
Hyende = a kind of coarser pillow stuffed with chopped straw or tow (the biproduct from making linen cloth – severly coarse)
Örngott = a kind of nicer pillow, probably stuffed with feathers, used on top of the hyende
Lärft = a kind of linen cloth: white plain weave
Bolster = The word “bolster” can mean blanket or cover, but more commonly it means pillow or mattress, usually filled with feathers, although it could probably be filled with straw.


In a bed made from wooden boards filled with straw (rule of St Bridget), they put some of the following objects.

Bottom sheets – something covering the straw

This could be 

  • Rule of St Benedict: A blanket of a non descript material, a mat of a non descript material
  • Rule of the Knights Templars: A rug of a non descript material, a bottom sheet of a non descript material (possibly linen)
  • Cistercian Liber Usuum:beds like monks have”
  • Cistercian rule: A sheet of a non descript material, possily linen
  • The Teutonic order: A rug of a non descript material, a bottom sheet made from linen
  • Rule of St Bridget: A rug of a non descript material, a bearskin, if you were lucky and had special permission, a simpler bottom sheet consisting of a white or grey halmkläde, a bottom sheet made from vadmal, a bottom sheet made from linen

Comment: The exact difference between halmkläde and bottom sheet made from vadmal is not clear to me. Perhaps the rule of St Bridget go from better to worse, where a mat (or bearskin) is the most favoured, the halmkläde next and the vadmal is the worst.

Instead of a bottom sheet covering the straw, or straw altogether, they could use a straw mattress which could in turn be covered by a bottom sheet, a blanket (Cistercian rule) or a rug (rule of the Teutonic order).

The cover

  • Rule of St Benedict: A light cover
  • Rule of the Knights Templars: A linen blanket, a light blanket, a blanket, a sheet
  • Cistercian Liber Usuum: A woolen blanket, a skin
  • Cistercian rule: A sheet, a thin cover
  • The Teutonic order: A coverlet made from buckram (cotton or linen fabric)
  • Rule of St Bridget: A heavier woven cover made from wool (Åkläde), a rya, a pelt

Comment: this seem to have differed depending on time of the year or the need of the individual and the mood of the Abbott or Draper. It is clear that most of these rules are written by people active in Southern Europe or the Middle East; most of them stipulates ”light covers” or even sheets, whereas the rule of St Bridget talks about ryas or pelts.

The pillow

  • Rule of St Benedict: A pillow
  • Rule of the Knights Templars: A ”bolster”(a bit like the bolster mentioned in conjunction with the account on the rule of St Bridget above) a pillow, nothing
  • Cistercian Liber Usuum: A straw pillow
  • Cistercian rule: Nothing
  • The Teutonic order: A pillow
  • Rule of St Bridget: A feather filled pillow made from lärft closest to the head (örngott), a stiffer hyende made from lärft underneath the örngott (rule of St Bridget)

Comment: it is clear that the nuns and monks of St Bridget used two pillows, which seems to be the case in many instances in the mundane society.

The bolster

Straw mattresses were clearly in use, even if the monks and nuns of St Bridget couldn’t use them, save for under special circumstances. If we are to look at later sources (17th-18th century), these mattresses were made from everything from silk, to cotton, to linen and to wool, and as stated, could be filled with feathers as well as straw.

  • Rule of St Benedict: A mat
  • Rule of the Knights Templars: Mattress, straw mattress, a bag to put straw in
  • Cistercian Liber Usuum: Straw mattress
  • Cistercian rule: Straw mattress
  • The Teutonic order: Sleeping bag
  • Rule of St Bridget: Bolster

Comment: the bolster or mattress could be covered with ”bolster-sheets”, made from vadmal or linen, which indicates that the bolster itself might have been a bit coarse. Otherwise, nothing tells us about the material of these matresses.



  • Rule of St Benedict: They sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords; but they should remove their knives, lest they accidentally cut themselves in their sleep
  • Rule of the Knights Templars: Shirt, breeches and woolen hose
  • Cistercian Liber Usuum: They sleep fully clothed and wearing their girdles
  • Cistercian rule: In linen shirt, hose and linen socks and engirded with a small belt
  • The Teutonic order: unclear. Possibly linen undershirts, linen drawers and hose
  • Rule of St Bridget: They should sleep in “the white kirtle”, the undergarment of their habit (monastic dress), made from vadmal 


It seems most people in monastic orders had access to some kind of mattress, which were probably made from coarse woolen fabric or coarse linen fabric.

If they used bolster-sheets of any kind (woolen or linen; as a matter of fact there are two old Swedish expressions – linsäng and vadmalssäng – linen bed and vadmal bed, which denotes a bed made with linen sheets and a bed made with vadmal sheets respectively) to sleep upon, on top of the mattress, it would in any case have been tightly woven, to prevent straw from the bolster from scratching through it. The mattress might also have been made from a very coarse material. This is probable, as the rules almost always mentions something to be put on top of the mattress – be it a rug or a sheet.

Later Swedish sources (1677) tell of sheets made from blaggarn – tow – and that ”servants” usually preferred to sleep on vadmal sheets, which could mean that woolen- and tow sheets were considered inferior to sheets made from lärft and therefore cheaper, which in turn would tell us that vadmal sheets were used by those of less means.

As monastic life was supposed to be pious I would suggest that monks, nuns and monastic knights slept as rough as the common man. If that is indeed the case, the description of their bedding might be true also for peasants, lower burghers or soldiers as well.


Sleep tight!



6 reaktioner på ”Sleeping medieval – Monks, nuns and monastic knights

  1. Pingback: Sleeping medieval – Soldiers, knights and travellers |

  2. Great article and follows nearly all my own research, save for the most important phrase in the Rule of Benedict, ”In everything, let the will of the Abbot/Abbess be the guide” That authority alone is sufficient to either lessen restrictions for some or increase them for others…

  3. Pingback: Six long years… |


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