Sleeping medieval – Soldiers, knights and travellers

Hi kids! It’s now time for another little thing on medieval beds. This time I will take a look at how people slept when on the road. As a starting point, I will look at so called ”Heerbedde” – an ”Army bed”, as it gives us some impression of what people on campaign used for sleeping.


First and foremost – what is a Heerbedde? Well, the easy answer is that it is a bed used when on campaign. However, to really understand what a medieval person meant by bed, we must first define the term bed.

Medieval man made a difference between four types of bed, each of which had many names. The nomenclature makes it somewhat difficult to know exactly how to define which is which and what is what, but let’s try anyway.

A medieval bed is either an ”under-bed”, ”over-bed”, a ”whole bed” or a ”standing bed”. The last one is most likely equal to what we would call a bed frame and I will not treat this type further in this post. It is the under-bed and the over-bed which will be in focus here.

An under-bed (pulvinar, matric, matras, culcedra, matrays, matraze and other terms) is, as you might have guessed, a mattress, something to sleep on.

It then stands to reason that an over-bed (decke, blankett, quylt, celur, coopertorio, superlectile, lodicem, stratum, tapetum, tectura, vepam, toralis and other terms)  is something to sleep under. 

The whole bed is a term that denotes a bed with everything that belongs to it, for example pillows, cover and mattress.

This makes it rather difficult to know what the word ”bed” alludes to in, for example, a will or a city law; those medieval types didn’t seem to care much about us later researchers – ”bed” can mean anyone of the four mentioned above. Having said that, I believe I have learned enough about the terms to be able to figure out the meaning of a word, at least in some detail, by means of elimination.

Enough boring stuff. Let’s get to it.

The Heerbedde

Heerebedde, Herephole, Herpole, Herepole, Horpful, Herphul, Herpol or Heerphol – there seems to be as many spellings as there are sources, but they all seem to denote more or less the same thing. The Heerbedde was part of the so called Heergewedde – the military equipment (regulated by law) that the Minesterialis (a civil servant of more or less noble birth) left as inheritance for their sons. This means they most probably brought this equipment with them when they went on campaign.

The Sachsenspiegel speaks of a Heerbedde as follows:

/…/ dat beste bedde negest den besten, eyn par lakene negest den besten, eyne kolten negest der besten, eynen hovedpole negest den besten edder twe kussene, eft dar nyn pole zy, eyn leerkussen.

– Sachsenspiegel, 1303

If I understand it correctly this means something along the lines of: ”The second best bed, a pair of the second best sheets, the second best bed cover, the second best hovedpole (something I will return to) or two pillows. If there is no pole, [you should have] a cheek pillow.” This could be translated into:

  • A mattress
  • A pair of sheets
  • A bed cover
  • A hovedpole (a kind of oblong pillow, used to block up the user to a half-seated position. This is called bolster pillow in English), alternatively
  • Two pillows, then including a
  • Cheek pillow

A hovedpole

1320, the city laws of Braunschweig defines the Heerbedde as:

/…/ ene kolten, de men plecht myt sych to vorende (hevet men der nycht so scal men geven ene kolten, de hee deghelyckes up syneme bedde hevet. /…/ en kuffen, twe slaplaken /…/

– Braunschweig, 1320

  • A bed cover, which you usually bring
  • (If you don’t have one you should give a bed cover that you use to have on your bed [at home])
  • A pillow
  • Two sleeping sheets

This is not too different from the city laws of Oldenburg, 1345:

En bedde negest den besten ene kolten negest der besten en par lakene ane de besten enen hovetpole ane den besten ofte twe kussene ys dar nyn hovetpole zyn lerkussen unde zyn houetdok

  • A mattress
  • A bed cover
  • A pair of sheets
  • A bolster pillow or
  • Two pillows if there isn’t any bolster pillow
  • [and in that case) a cheek-pillow
  • A pillow case

Next stop is a law from the area around Utrecht, 1365:

Item noch een heerbedde met een deecken, sijn oircussen, /…/ een pair slaepellaicken

– Utrecht, 1365

  • Another army bed
  • A cover
  • A pillow
  • A pair of sleeping sheets

1387 a cog was wrecked in the Baltic sea. The merchant who owned the cog reports a whole lot of things that he lost on the ship. Among other things, he mentions

  • 1 noppe zac
  • 2 cussinen
  • 1 ny ledren matte
  • 2 par line laken

– Hanserecessen

My interpretation:

  • A sack/mattress filled with raw wool
  • 2 pillows
  • 1 new leather (might also be fur) rug
  • 2 pair of linnen sheets

What to make of all this – or ”This is the point of all this text”

The above sources present only a part of what I have managed to find out, but I believe it is enough to illustrate what I am after.

A bed for travelling/an army bed consists at least of

  • A mattress (could be stuffed with feather/down, raw wool or straw, depending on your status)
  • A cover (everything from a quilted bed cover (something similar to a duvet), to a fur cover to a blanket)
  • A pillow (stuffed with down or perhaps something else; I’m not quite finished with my sources yet)
  • A pair of sleeping sheets (linnen or in some cases silk)

although it could also include more pillows, a pillowcase (linnen or silk) and a bolster pillow (could be stuffed with down, but according to a sumptuary law from early 14th century Lübeck, it could not be heavier than 8,5 kilos, which tells us a bit about the size of the bolster pillow. According to Swedish sources it could also be stuffed with chopped straw or tow; look under the term ”hyende” in this post), as well as blankets.


My theory is that this is pretty much the same type of bed gear you would have at home. When looking at wills (written by civilians) from Sweden, Germany and England the picture is similar:

  • A bed
  • Three feather pillows
  • Two pair of sheets
  • A head pillow
  • A cover

(Lüneburg, Germany, 1406 – the will of a burgher)

  • A mattress
  • A coverlet
  • 2 blankets
  • A pair of linnen sheets
  • A linnen pillowcase

(York, England, 1425 – the will of a peasant)

  • A bed
  • A cover/blanket
  • Bed linnen
  • A mattress
  • A pillow

(York, England, 1454 – the will of a burgher)

  • A bed
  • A bolster pillow
  • A pair of linnen sheets
  • Two pillows

(Lödöse, Sweden, 1362 – the will of a burgher)

  • Two mattresses
  • Linnen sheets
  • Pillows
  • Two bolster pillows
  • Blankets

(Skänninge, Sweden, 1358 – the will of a nun)

How can I use this?

I am reenacting a soldier of common birth. I would probably not have the possibility to bring my Heerbedde on campaign; contrary to the Minesterialis, knights or wealthy merchants, I wouldn’t have the means to transport it all.

If we take a look at the comparison directly above however, it’s obvious that even a peasant had a reasonably comfy bed at home (which differs little from the bed used by someone sailing on a merchant ship). When looking at the wills of nobles, there is not much that differs in terms of actual parts of the bed – nobles too have a mattress, a cover, pillows, bolster pillow and sheets – even when sleeping in their homes.

What differs is the materials used. A nobleman would have used silk and fine linnen, beautifully embroidered covers and pillows stuffed with down, whereas a person of lower means perhaps would have used a coarser linnen for sheets, some simpler, unadorned blankets and a mattress and a pillow stuffed with straw or raw wool.

What I am getting at, is that these objects were considered ”normal” for a bed, and everything else was counted as an anomaly. This means that everyone strived to sleep as they were used to, and if they were stationary at the same place for any length of time, I find it probable that they tried to put together the best bed they could get their hands on – even if the result was rather a makeshift bed than a bed fit for a prince.

In other words, my theory is that it isn’t wrong for someone reenacting soldier or people of lesser means to have something similar to a Heerbedde.


16 reaktioner på ”Sleeping medieval – Soldiers, knights and travellers

  1. Fascinating!

    I find it very interesting that the bedding suggests something similar to the old-fashioned way of making a bed in Britain – i.e. you have a mattress, covered by a flat sheet tucked under the mattress all around. Above that a second flat sheet is placed and the whole is covered with a blanket. The edge of the second sheet is turned down, to cover and protect the top edge of the blanket, and the side and bottom edges of the second sheet are tucked, like the first sheet, under the mattress. One sleeps between the two sheets. According to my parents, who used to sleep this way in an unheated house, this is very uncomfortable in the winter as the amount of blankets needed to keep warm is physically uncomfortably heavy.

    As of the mid-1990s (approx., depending on location and wealth) this has been almost entirely superseded in Britain by the modern method – using a fitted sheet to cover the mattress and laying under only a duvet (which is protected by a duvet cover), with perhaps a blanket or fancy quilt/throw laid over the duvet in cold weather or for decoration, e.g. in spare bedrooms.

    And now I wonder how people in other European/Western countries make beds… Interesting!

  2. Hi Miriam! I’m so happy you liked the post. They way you describe your parents used to sleep was also true for my parents, and when it comes modern day bedding it’s also the same, more or less. Personally I don’t use a fitted sheet for the mattress, but a loose sheet. My duvet is protected by a duvet cover, plus a throw when I feel like being tidy 🙂

    By the way – it’s great that you are telling me all the correct terms for bedding. I hope you understood that my ”bed covering” = duvet and so on.

    • How interesting. I wonder what changed to make duvets alone fashionable? Perhaps the rise in centrally heated houses, which meant that bedding needed to be less warm? My other best guess would be that feathers (or artificial alternatives) became cheaper.

      As a child I used to sleep in a bed half-way between the old-fashioned and the modern styles – between two flat sheets, tucked in, with a blanket tucked in too but then with a duvet in a duvet cover thrown over the top and only tucked under the mattress at the bottom end of the bed.

      For your terminology, personally I’d put ‘duvet’ or ‘similar to a duvet’ in brackets after where you’ve written ‘quilted bed cover’, just to emphasise that. Otherwise, the article is very clear (although I wonder what a ‘cheek pillow’ was… hmm… more research required! 🙂

      • Cheek pillow = regular pillow, as far as I can understand – a pillow where you put your cheek. Other variants of the Heergewedde laws speak of ”oircussen” – ear pillow – a pillow where you put your ear 🙂

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  4. Hello!

    Thank you for your article! I have been doing a bit of research on historical bedding lately as documentation for an upcoming quilt I am planning to make, as part of an SCA project.

    In regards to your other comments, In Australia we call duvet’s a ”doona”. We also generally make beds as somewhere between the two variations, with a base sheet (usually, but not always, fitted), a flat sheet, a (covered) doona, any additional blankets and quilts you need in the winter). Yes, they can get quite heavy in the winter with lots of blankets, but we need our doona’s to be quite light to be suitable for summer use too.

    I am also interested in a phenomenon I have noticed, of blue/green plaid pillows appearing in images and manuscripts, with no apparent reason for the colour or pattern. I haven’t seen any other colour, just blue/green. Occationally it appears as a blanket, but mostly just in pillow form. The sources I have seen have mostly been French and German, but occationally English and Italian.

    Someone else I have met on Pintrest has noticed this trend, and has collected the examples they have found.

    Have you seen any explanation for this? It is so baffling!

    • Hi there Suzy! Thanks for your comment; it seems you guys make your beds more or less like us Swedes.
      I haven’t noticed the pillow phenomenon you speak of, but I will be sure to look into it; another article on bedding is coming up when I have the time.

    • But I am having a thought. Blue is pretty much the only colour that will really stick to linnen, which is probably what the depicted pillowcases are made of. Perhaps blue dyed with yellow (=green) also works?

      • I agree that the colour is probably due to available dyes, but that wouldn’t explain the plaid pattern. There are all these images with all kinds of fancy bed covers and colours (but most commonly blue and red in solids), but the plaid pattern on the pillow always sticks out as being completely different from everything else. There are enough examples that this is a distinct and clear phenomenon.

      • I guess they just liked plaid patterns 🙂
        Classic Swedish kitchentowels (i.e. from the late 19th century and onwards, and probably a lot earlier – although I haven’t checked [pun intended :D]) are very commonly plaid patterned – red or blue.

  5. Now this is amazing!
    As a reenactor, I’m trying to figure out what kind of things would have been in the common equipment of a soldier in Italy. Despite the fact that I, unfortunately, cannot use your work for my purposes, I’ll come back for sure to read more!

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  7. I love this article. I’m 60 yrs old & have never used central heat except in a dire emergency. It is very expensive & I don’t sleep well if the temperature is above 45 to 50*F.
    We heat with wood & temps occasionally descend to -40*F for short periods in Winter.
    We like cotton flannel sheets, but are lazy & use the bottom fitted sheet, only. Then a couple of lightweight comforters &, if really cold, one or two down filled duvets. These are suitable Summer & Winter, for it has been known to snow in each month of the year.
    Therefore, lighter bedding, which may be layered or not, works the best, for us.
    I hope to weave some wool blankets next Autumn.
    Keep up the good work.
    I’m curious what purpose the bolsters serve.

  8. My mother s in her 80s. When she was in her teens she used to go camping with friends on bicycles. They took large cotton sacks and when they camped they would scrounge straw to fill them from farms. The straw was returned to the barn after the night’s sleep and only the cotton sack went with them.
    The icelandic sagas mention leather sleeping sacks, it’s not clear whether they were slept in or on, but it’s possible that they could have been used in a similar way to the sacks my mother and her friends carried.

    Another possibility for travellers is a rush mat. In Westminster abbey there are effigies lying on rush mats. For example William Thynne or Frances Brandon. (I have seen similar effigies on rush mats elsewhere, but these should be the easiest to find in a web search.) The mats are made by plaiting rushes into strips which are then sewn together into mats. If bull rushes (also known as reed mace) are used they are quite insulating. A thicker version of these mats was one option as a mattress, and some still survive: there is one at Gressenhall workhouse in Norfolk and the museum of english rural life has one. A reed mat can be rolled up for transport, it’s relatively light.


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