Whether baby or ballet dancer, manager or mum, racer or retiree: All of us must sleep. We human beings are unified by the hypnotic dictatorship of sleep. Like - by the way - all primates resting or being active according to alternating light and darkness. If we lack restful sleep we are falling sick, getting insane – we may even die sooner. Whoever has had the experience of watching a soundly sleeping lion on a tree or a peacefully slumbering baby at a noisy party will envy these gifted co-primates even if he only struggles with a wrong pillow in a hotel. Not for nothing does a systematic sleep deprivation represent one of the worst methods of torture and deep sound sleep by contrary heaven on earth. So far so biologic-democratic.
However, the question who sleeps in which way differs worldwide from country to country, from culture to culture. And from social class to social class. The composition of a bed always answers the questions: Who am I? Which culture do I belong to? Which sleep rituals has my tribe, my cultural environment grown accustomed to? The mere “cover abyss” between people from central Europe who love fluffy duvets and people from southern Europe who rather wind themselves into sheets firmly plugged under their mattresses offers room for ethnological dissertations.
Historically speaking, the beds we sleep in today in the western world constitute a great luxury and symbolise our extended prosperity – no matter whether they are composed of several mattresses resting on top of one another like the popular boxspring beds or whether consisting of a slatted frame with a mattress on top. Because during centuries most people used to sleep in a heap of hay on the ground, on furs or straw mats. Up to the 19th century, it was first and foremost the rural population considering themselves lucky if they owned a real bed. However, in most cases they had to share this luxurious piece of furniture with a growing family: in the countryside, mother, father, an increasing number of siblings and even grandparents used to share the bedstead, often surrounded by their animals. This was completely due to practical reasons since beds not only were expensive but the family members had to keep each other warm during frosty winters. Prior to the introduction of central heating this penguinlike method was the guarantor of survival; with the small ones in the center and the big ones on the outside.
During the times of big gaps between the poor and the rich, gorgeous beds even more represented a symbol of wealth, power and claim for power. We know that Egyptian pharaohs and rich Romans owned ornately painted state divan beds equipped with down or reed mattresses, thereby signalling their social position.
The canopy bed of Louis XIV of France
The most beautiful allegory of a state bedstead ever is the canopy bed of the French king Louis XIV. which may be seen at Versailles castle. The Sun King - who had brought the state entirely in line with himself, his person and dignity as absolutistic monarch until his death in 1715 - liked to demonstrate his attitude by his choice of furniture. Right in the centre of the highly complicated and elegant Versailles court life full of intrigues stood - his bed. It was right there where the day as well as the court life and the significance of the revolving society began and ended.
Did a bed indeed represent the power-poilitical and social centre of a country? Yes, during the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century that was exactly the case in France. And not because this was a personal folly of the Bourbon or because the king took pleasure in laying in his bed but because the bedroom of the Versailles castle used to be a deliberate public room and thereby – just like the bed, the magnificent tables, the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens - served the purpose of a stage for presentation. The monarch’s bed was not – as to us is totally self-evident nowadays – the most private retreat in life but rather the contrary: an official room.
The king’s closeness to the people
The fact that court servants of both high and low positions were allowed to watch the French king getting dressed in the morning has been reported from the time of reign of the French King Henry II. (1519 - 1559); his wife Catherine of Medici also recommended this very custom to her son Francis in order to maintain the king’s closeness to the people and the dialogue at court. Equally it was a common custom during several centuries that the births of royal children used to be public affairs and that the bedroom of queens or crown princesses truly abounded with people until the successor was finally born. The intimacy of the royal bodies was exclusively meant to serve the continuation of the monarchy and the country – and therefore the beds and bedrooms were by no means individual retreats upon pending life and death.
During the Sun King’s reign it was regarded as a distinguished honor among aristocracy of the closest circle to be allowed to assist him in getting up from the bed - the painstakingly defined ritual called „Lever du Roi“. At the same time there was the complex ritual of the „Coucher“, the „laying down”, in order to accompany the king to his bed. Wherever the king might have spent the night, he was due to find himself by 8 o’clock in the morning in an alcove of his state bed which was separated from the rest of the „Chambre du Roi“ by a balustrade. At that time the „small lever“ and the „big lever“ commenced, their meticulous procedures reminding the beholder of a courtly dance, the „Quadrille“. The king’s valet Alexandre - who was the only person allowed to sleep in a small bed in the same room – drew the curtains made of gold brocade, then two personal physicians entered, followed by Louis’ former nanny who kissed him on the forehead. Then another ritual started and lasted for hours during which numerous other powerful courtiers arrived while the king reclined regally in his bed, dressed in his nightshirt and wearing a simple wig. Two persons of high nobility were permitted to take off his nightshirt and others to help him put on his clothes for the day.
It was known that the king sometimes liked to go hunting early in the morning in the surrounding forests before rising officially; he then returned to the bed to get up once again officially and operatically. The wonderfully chatty chronicler of that time, the Duke of Saint Simon, wrote about Louis‘ nephew Philipp of Spain that he considered the getting-up ritual in the presence of a crowd of swirling courtiers as extremely nerve-racking which sometimes caused him to simply stay in bed with his wife all day long, not even bothering to subject himself to the ritual.
A room for social events
The habit to receive important national and foreign dignitaries while in bed, to drink and to eat was gradually assumed by inferior social classes. For whatever was considered to be fancy at the French court was to be copied in London, Wolfenbuettel, Berlin or Vienna. Not only became the cultivated life in bed a must for the European high nobility of the 18th century but also for the wealthy bourgeoisie. A great number of paintings dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries picture distinguished ladies in refined morning dresses, receiving their lady friends in the bedroom, reading to each other, writing letters and drinking hot chocolate. In times of cumbersome petticoats, corsets and elaborate chignons this way of life in the bedroom may have represented a relaxed and intimate kind of social event, a moment of well calculated, easygoing relaxation for the otherwise extremely tied up and made up ladies. Empress Sissi once called the time-consuming dressing and hairdressing snidely „being forced into the harness”. In the bedroom, the ladies of the upper society still were exempt from harnessing.
Today, sleep and bedroom represent an island of our enviously safeguarded intimacy. Anywhere else we often feel so transparent, rayed and omnipresent in the net. Working and private lives merge. The bed is our cocoon, our second skin, our shell. Therefore we consider the idea that Angela Merkel would receive Barack Obama, Matteo Renzi or Ursula von der Leyen in her bed as bizarre as can be – despite the fact that an absolutistic monarch wouldn’t see anything wrong at all with that. Equally we have difficulty to imagine sharing a big bed with servants or co-workers - formerly menials and maidservants. The decision of who we admit to our bed from time to time signifies deep love and confidence, a very particular distinction. This is the only aspect which may be slightly similar when comparing the Sun King to us.
Marcel Proust – man of letters
Some people safeguard the self-imposed loneliness of their bed almost obsessively. The most extreme defender of his bed was another great Frenchman, the writer Marcel Proust (1871 - 1922), author of the famous cycle of novels „In search of lost time “, which describes the Parisian society of the turn of the century up to World War I in all its particulars. The highly sensitive, gifted and permanently ailing aesthete lived in his bed, ate, drank and wrote there. He wore three shirts on top of each other at the same time next to a continuously blazing fireplace while the windows remained shut. A warm bed-hermitage, an artist’s cell. The writer, suffering from asthma, would listen to theatre performances for hours using a „theatrophone“, used to wear gloves for fear of contagion whenever acquaintances came to see him in his bedroom and created a new world of fiction featuring more than 500 characters in this bed. Only rarely did he make an excursion to the hotel Ritz in the evening, quickly returning to his memo-covered bedroom with towering scripts even on the bed. Proust even had the walls of his bedroom covered with basketwork to eliminate disturbing noises, cocooning more and more in his bed. Unfortunately, this eccentric bedroom has not been preserved; the Sun King’s restored canopy bed, however, is open to the public in the official „King’s bedroom“ in the Versailles castle – and that alone is worth paying a visit to Paris.
Travel tip/Guided tours to the Sun King’s bed:
Chateau de Versailles, near Paris